New dawn, new world, but same old challenges

by , July 12, 2012

Takeovers always generate a lot of interest amongst fans. When Phil Soar, Nigel Wray and Irving Scholar took over the club in 1997, excitement was rife and the somewhat archaic shareholder structure was disbanded. In came a modern-style consortium ready to make signings and start a new, successful post-Clough era.

There is a similar feeling today, one of excitement, but certainly trepidation as we step into 21st Century football.

Business people seem eternally frustrated with football. Unlike other businesses, success comes and goes with a few kicks of a ball or as players or managers move to pastures new. I wonder what Nigel Doughty’s thoughts were as £60 million was taken away in painful play-off defeats to Blackpool and Swansea.

Narrow defeats can have massive consequences. While Blackpool and Swansea were lauded for their achievements, Forest – equally well run – spiralled into chaos just months later, sacking Billy Davies and then parting company with Steve McClaren weeks later.

Without hindsight, the club had an impressive academy, a top-six budget and an internationally recognised manager. The building blocks for the Premier League were in place, or so it seemed. Perhaps the game had moved on further with other clubs with foreign owners willing to gamble in a way that Doughty – perhaps thankfully – was not. The fact that this genuine fan was not able to achieve his dream and was forced to resign is a sad memory for all true fans who appreciated his support and generosity.

After Nigel’s sad passing, Forest now enter a new era. Football seems to have gone beyond consortia and wealthy local owners. Ridiculous wages and falling crowds have made second-tier football a toxic business. Increasingly only foreign billionaires seem able and willing to foot the bills to keep loss-making clubs going. With that there is a cost. Some owners have proved virtually non-existent, like Notts County’s Munto Finance, while Cardiff have seen their kit farcically switched to red by businessmen trying to apply marketing models to community institutions they don’t understand. Foreign ownership seems hit and miss at best.

Acquiring the club was, of course, the easy task for the Al-Hasawi family. What they will need to grasp is the difficulty in turning investment into success in perhaps football’s most unpredictable and competitive league. Swansea and Norwich seem models of success, but both made massive errors appointing managers in Paulo Sousa and Bryan Gunn just before hitting the jackpot. Picking a manager is notoriously difficult at the this level. Even the biggest appointments like Sven-Göran Eriksson at Leicester can fail in spectacular fashion.

Also, it is difficult to sign players of quality at this level at decent value. Top players want to play in the Premier League and want Premier League money. If the Al-Hasawi family want to buy big, they make be shocked to find the likes of Jermaine Beckford and Paul Konchesky will set them back 30-40k a week. If value is a concern, it is only possible to sign decent professionals like Wes Morgan or Luke Chambers, who have never won promotion at this level. In fact, in my experience of watching the league, promotion tends to be won by team spirit (like Ian Holloway’s Blackpool) or squads being propped up by Premier parachute payments (West Brom, Newcastle and West Ham).

Personally I would have liked to see a calm, smooth transition for the first year at least. The departure of the hard-working, genuine, if sometimes uninspiring, Steve Cotterill leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Keeping us up was an achievement in extreme circumstances. But in this new era, sentiment simply doesn’t exist. His achievements mean little to ambitious owners with grand plans and bigger names in mind. For me, Cotterill could have signed the likes of Guedioura and Elokobi to build on last year and infuse extra quality to keep us moving forward – with perhaps a bigger name to take over nearer the end of his long-term contract, which now needs paying off.

Added to the confusion is now Financial Fair Play. The new rules prohibit unabated spending at least in the medium term. Do the new owners gamble and risk sanctions if the plan fails? My hope is that with little or no debt and a threadbare squad, we are unlikely to cross that bridge before Leicester do – although the bill for sacking Cotterill isn’t the best start in my opinion.

However, as with all takeovers and managerial appointments of years gone past, all will be decided on the football pitch, and perhaps a few kicks of the ball at the end of the season. One thing is for sure: the Championship is completely different to the refrigeration business – and a whole lot more exciting. And the Al-Hasawi family will learn this very quickly.

Follow Paul Severn on Twitter: @paulsevern7