That was the year that was
December is traditionally a time for reflection – a chance to assess triumphs and failings as the year winds down to its end. A new one waits in the wings, filled with the apparent possibility that we can address those failings and conjure new triumphs; but now is a time for totting up scores.
It doesn’t work like that in football though, does it? The season doesn’t begin in January and end in December; nothing’s ever won before Christmas, so the old adage goes. Which, for Forest supporters, is a bit of a shame when you think about it.
It’s fair to say that this time last year, the club was approaching a hiatus. Anyone believing there was little difference in class between the Championship and League One might have been due a rethink, viewing the struggle Colin Calderwood’s team were having to keep their heads above the relegation zone. An immediate return to the third tier looked depressingly likely. Personally, I’m of the opinion that many mid-season management changes smack of straw-clutching and expedience on the part of chairmen. Some years back, clubs might have kept faith with and invested time in managers like Calderwood, who had, after all, only recently delivered promotion. The introduction of the January transfer window has led to such situations being regarded quite differently.
It’s entirely possible that Forest under Calderwood might have found their feet in time to avoid relegation. We’ll never know. What cannot be argued is that the club’s fortunes have improved dramatically in the twelve months since he was sacked. Forest’s managerial appointments – dating back to the instalment of Dave Bassett – could perhaps be most kindly described as eccentric. Whether the decision to resist the sentimental clamouring for the Son of Brian, in favour of a man with a record of moving clubs up and out of this division, will prove wise, remains to be seen. Surely though, anyone looking at our current standing relative to what Nigel Clough has ‘achieved’ at Derby would be forced to conclude “so far, so good”. (As for what I know, well, I shamefully recall telling anyone who would listen that Gary Megson was a good choice – “just look at what he did with West Brom”.)
Looking at the stats, Billy Davies might be wishing his own personal season was drawing to a close. Under his and Ned’s guidance, Forest’s league record up to and including the victory at Swansea reads –
Played 41 Won 17 Drawn 14 Lost 10 Points 65
Bearing in mind that 74 points from 46 games got Preston into the playoffs last season, it’s an impressive turn around.
So what next? What constitutes a successful first full season for a manager inheriting a team in the Championship’s nether regions? Davies will have his own private ideas about that, as will Forest’s board and fans. At the start of the season, I was one of those believing that mid-table obscurity would represent a pleasing level of progress, whereas promotion come May would be too far into nosebleed territory, even for the improved squad Davies has assembled. Now that we look like being in the top six at Christmas, the innate giddiness of those who recall better days is kicking in. The head is losing out to the heart.
In those days when the financial gulf between divisions was less gaping, a few seasons of consolidation made sense. Now there is always the problem that star players’ heads get easily turned by top flight clubs when faced with the prospect of another season in the Championship. How easily might Robert Earnshaw be prised away in the close season if he racks up twenty goals and we don’t get promoted? Remember where the likes of Jermaine Jenas, Michael Dawson and Andy Reid started out. And bearing in mind how inevitable it is that newly-promoted teams get tonked every week in the Premier League, what does another season of consolidation in the Championship really gain you anyway?
What matters most is some perspective and sobriety. The division remains (Newcastle aside, perhaps) as tight as usual, and a couple of defeats can send you swiftly down several places. Mid-table obscurity at the season’s end would not necessarily represent an opportunity squandered. Davies has undoubtedly enhanced the squad and given the players self-belief that was lacking. Forest are now a difficult team to beat, and one that other managers won’t relish facing. He surely deserves another full season at the helm whatever happens – relegation aside – after Christmas.