Has unfair play become ‘fair enough’ at Forest?
With the recent revelations about match fixing taking place in English football, minds have been cast back to the 1984 UEFA Cup semi-final, in which Anderlecht were able to beat Forest with the help of a referee bribed with the equivalent of £18,000 by the Belgian club’s chairman. It was a classic case of ‘nice guys finish last’ as Brian Clough famously insisted that his players always respect the referee, even when decisions went against them. By the final whistle, fans, players and the manager himself could sense that they had been cheated, but Clough stuck to his principles and made a point of shaking Spanish referee Carlos Guruceta by the hand.
Forest’s reputation for fair play under Clough was perhaps over-stated – let’s not forget our star defender during the side’s heyday was Kenny Burns, the cover of whose autobiography pictures him landing a crafty head-butt on Arsenal’s Richie Powling while the referee isn’t looking. On the other hand, Clough once substituted Burns for having his shirt untucked while the national anthem was playing ahead of a pre-season friendly on foreign soil – and yes, by that I mean he was subbed off before the game had even kicked off!
In the rough and tumble world of ’70s football, Clough’s version of fair play was a sort of honour among thieves. Head-butts and hard challenges were okay, but arguing with the ref, having your shirt untucked or arriving for the coach without your club blazer would earn you a fine. Clough’s sense of morality was always a bit peculiar, with brown paper bag payments allegedly commonplace during transfers and pitch invaders getting a clout round the earhole, but in his own way, he did bring a sense of decorum to Nottingham Forest.
Sadly, there isn’t much decorum about Forest these days. As things stand, we are second to bottom of the ‘Fair Play’ league, with only Blackpool getting more disciplinary points than us thanks to their staggering eight red cards (and let’s not forget the fact that their manager was banned from entering stadiums for ‘violently shoving’ a fourth official – what a nice bunch!). No Championship team has picked up more yellow cards than our 43 – with our injury list, you would think the last thing we needed was suspensions, yet our players continue to get booked for cynical fouls and arguing with officials week-in, week-out.
Then there’s the manager, who a few weeks ago was rowing with a photographer on the sideline and has been engaged in a petty vendetta against the ‘dark forces’ of the media since he came back last February. This has led even the Peterborough Telegraph’s sports correspondent to bemoan our lack of class both ‘on and off the pitch’. It’s all very undignified and should Fawaz Al-Hasawi’s patience be running out after recent poor results, this kind of thing is admissible evidence for the case for Billy’s sacking.
Meanwhile, the rumour mill surrounding ‘advisor to the board’ Jim Price continues to churn. Football League representatives are believed to have had meetings at the club in recent weeks. Whether or not regulations have been broken or any punitive action will be taken we don’t know, but the fact that the club have issued not one single statement on Price’s remit, an issue fans have been concerned about since the summer, is the kind of thing that fosters an atmosphere of secrecy and does nothing but harm to relations between club and fans.
Likewise the recent chicanery over club administrator Jane Carnelly’s employment and the club’s dubious claim that Darius Henderson had ‘picked up a knock in training’ at the same time he was preparing to face trial for assault. Perhaps Darius was injured as well as having legal matters to attended to, but that the club didn’t even acknowledge the trial doesn’t tie in with recent attempts to convince us external media are not needed and we can find out everything from the official website and Forest Player.
With indiscipline on the pitch and evasive behaviour off it, Forest can hardly blame myself and others for being a little cynical about the current situation. Most worrying for me right now is that, as we enter into another transfer window, reports would have us believe Forest are planning on splashing the cash again to land a star striker, Jordan Rhodes and Shane Long being the ambitious targets. That’s great from a footballing point of view, but with Financial Fair Play rules applying to this season’s outgoings, it is time we started asking if things are being handled responsibly or whether we could, like QPR, be facing potential multi-million pound fines for our profligate spending this season.
Back in August, Jim Price tweeted that he believes FFP regulations are ‘illegal and unworkable’. This is far from an official statement, but if it does reflect the club’s attitude to these new restrictions, I find that troubling. It could well be that Forest can potentially flaunt the rules and keep spending Fawaz’s money above and beyond what FFP allows us, but does that mean we should?
The rules are the rules and Forest ought to follow them. Arrogance and belligerence seem rife within the club, from our players arguing with referees, Billy arguing with the media and Price seemingly willing to defy the Football League. For some fans this is heartbreaking – the decorum of the Clough years is long gone. Other fans, sadly, will say ‘If it gets us promoted, who cares?’ To some, fair play isn’t as important as it used to be.
I wonder, though, how Anderlecht supporters feel about the 1984 UEFA Cup semi-final. Do they say ‘Well, it got us to the final, so who cares?’ or do they look back with shame at the way their club officials broke the rules. I sincerely hope Forest’s current regime are not planning on bringing similar shame on our club – I wouldn’t want Nottingham Forest to be known as the club who fought Financial Fair Play because, whether we won or not, when history judges these things, fleeting football success is not something worth sacrificing a club’s dignity for.