Lost in translation

by , January 30, 2013

I expect most readers are aware of the supposed Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ It certainly seems apt for Forest fans at the moment and our current interesting-ness may explain some of the unrest currently surrounding the club. Nigel Doughty’s ownership was an eventful and controversial era in Forest’s history, but compared to recent weeks it was a period of comparative stability. Though we got through more than our fair share of managers and players, the owner and his boardroom staff remained largely unchanged. Over the years we got to know them and, even if we didn’t agree with their policies, we knew where they stood.

I think it’s the unknown element of the Al-Hasawi family that makes us so nervous right now. With so much happening in such a short space of time, there seem to be mixed messages coming from the owners about their intentions. First we were working to a long-term plan, now it’s promotion or bust. There was the saga of the ‘iconic’ manager who turned out to be as down-to-earth as they come, but then we found out he was only keeping the seat warm for Alex McLeish. A smooth transitional period in the board room turned out to be just a stay of execution for some.

Of course it’s naïve to think us mere supporters should be privy to the innermost thoughts and intentions of the club owners, but they do have a duty of care to communicate with us. In a way Fawaz Al-Hasawi has been a great communicator, even if through the dubious medium of Twitter. But I can’t help but feel some of what he’s trying to get across is being lost in translation. I don’t mean just in language either. Obviously that is a natural barrier, but there are huge cultural differences acting as further barriers between us and him.

It’s not necessarily a matter of national culture either. I’m no expert on Kuwaiti culture so can’t lecture on that subject, but I do know something of the world of big business having had the pleasure of meeting one or two self-made millionaires. What I have learnt from these meetings is that to make that much money and garner that much business success requires an enormous amount of self-belief. The business men and women I’ve met usually share the same story – they had an idea that no one else believed in, but they never lost faith or drive in realising their ambitions, regardless of setbacks, criticism and naysaying.

Of course not everyone with a great idea strikes it rich, but we do know that Fawaz Al-Hasawi and his family have been very successful in business. We also know that Fawaz has been successful in football too, but in a very different league. Translating his success in Middle Eastern refrigeration and the Kuwaiti Premier League to English football, however, will be a huge challenge and one that could leave him tongue-tied.

I suspect the Al-Hasawis have been doing plenty of adjusting since they arrived here – and by that I don’t just mean buying bigger coats when they experienced one of our winters for the first time. If we’re experiencing culture shock having owners who don’t speak English as a first language, imagine how they are feeling. Before they took over Forest, did they fully understand the rigours of the transfer market? Were they prepared to face changeable feelings of fans with the means to communicate those feelings directly via the internet? Did they appreciate the schizophrenic character of football in this county, with one foot in the modern age and another still stuck in the 70s?

But as much as the Kuwaitis are adjusting to life, business and football in this country, we are adjusting to them. It’s a big culture shock for us to have an owner-chairman who courts the limelight instead of shying away from it. And maybe we just have to get used to the way he treats staff too. It may seem ruthless and drastic to us, but if that’s the way Mr Al-Hasawi is used to doing business, we can’t expect him to change – we just have to try and understand his actions. In his businessman’s mind he will be absolutely sure that the recent changes he has made are for the good of the club. What he needs to work on is convincing us of that.

For my part, I’ll try and translate recent events as best I can. People work best when they have good people around them. That’s true in any walk of life, but especially football. Whether it’s Steve Cotterill hiring Sean O’Driscoll for some much needed support, Billy Davies and his lawyer, or even Brian Clough and his small circle of trusted allies, a manager needs a good backroom and most importantly a backroom of their own choosing. The same applies to club owners, which is why I’m not overly discouraged by the dramatic cabinet reshuffle earlier this month. Mr Al-Hasawi deserves the chance to run the club on his own terms with his own people around him.

I doubt many genuine tears were shed over Mark Arthur’s tenure being cut short – let’s face it, we were all surprised that he kept his job immediately following the takeover. Nigel Doughty persisted with him for reasons best known to him, and Fawaz will no doubt employ his own chief scapegoat in due course.

Sacking the head of recruitment slap bang in the middle of a transfer window might not seem like the most sensible thing to do, but players are still arriving, Darius Henderson the latest recruitment and Chris Burke being hotly pursued. Perhaps Keith Burt’s departure was part of a restructuring that gives Alex McLeish more control? In recent years there has been a very elaborate transfer policy at Forest and a multi-layered structure of staff behind it. Remember that Mick McCarthy turned us down in the summer because he didn’t see himself fitting in with that kind of structure – perhaps McLeish had similar concerns, or perhaps Mr Al-Hasawi realised simply that things needed streamlining if his ambitious transfer targets were to be realised.

Of the three departures on January 17, Forest’s own ‘Night of the Long Knives’, that of Frank Clark seemed to be cause the most consternation. But was it really that significant? Clark had only ever been at the club as a figurehead. He’s a club legend and great man, but I doubt he’ll be missed on a day-to-day basis. Putting him on gardening leave (interpreted by some as being ‘banned from the club’) was a bad PR move, but no worse than firing Kenny Burns from his matchday host job.

Someone posted on the LTLF Forums recently that anyone who had followed Forest for the last 40 years would know how well Frank Clark had served the club and couldn’t possibly treat him that way. But the fact is the Al-Hasawis haven’t followed Forest for 40 years. They’ve probably only been interested in us for less than a year. If lifelong fan Nigel Doughty could oversee the shabby treatment of Burns, Fawaz Al-Hasawi can be forgiven for letting Clark go.

Football can be very sentimental at times, but big business cannot afford to be. The Al-Hasawis are primarily business people and they will run our club like they run their existing businesses. That cultural difference probably means more ruthless sackings over the coming years and more things we find hard to understand from the outside, but I do believe over time we will come to a better understanding of their actions – even if we still disagree with them!

There is another Chinese curse, said to be even harsher than the one I quoted at the start of this article, which runs ‘May you come to the attention of powerful people.’ Maybe Forest’s curse isn’t that we’re living in interesting times, but that the powerful and rich Al-Hasawi family have turned their attention to us. That means things are changing – for better or worse, it’s a new era with a new regime and a whole new culture.