Work to do for Nottingham Forest
Nick Miller takes a look at Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United in his new Sky Bet Football League column.
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It's a little under a year since Billy Davies returned to Nottingham Forest on a wave of popular support. After dismissing Sean O'Driscoll and the fiasco of Alex McLeish's short time at the City Ground, Forest owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi needed a populist move to get fans back on his side. Bringing back Davies, who many believed should not have been sacked in his first spell at the club, was a shrewd move in that respect.
It worked, for a while, both on the pitch and for Al-Hasawi's ego, as Davies was greeted with an almost cultish fervour by many fans, and the team only just missed out on a playoff place. The 'unfinished business' Davies repeatedly spoke of looked like it was on its way to completion.
This season hasn't been quite as rosy. After a superb start which featured wins in the first three games and only one defeat in the first 12, Forest's form has fallen away. They have won just two of the last seven, and haven't claimed three points at home since the end of September. Their performances have been disjointed, and while Davies has pointed to a number of injuries (captain Chris Cohen and Kelvin Wilson are long-term absentees), Forest's squad is theoretically well-equipped to deal with such problems.
Davies' key complaint during his first spell at the City Ground was that he wasn't given the requisite backing by the club's board. Former chairman Nigel Doughty was a well-intentioned but inherently cautious owner, and Davies' repeated demands for 'three to five stellar signings' were largely stonewalled, with Doughty concerned about the financial viability of the club. Eventually, their relationship deteriorated to such an extent that Davies was sacked, despite reaching the playoffs twice.
This time, he can have no such complaints. Eight players, including Jack Hobbs, Kelvin Wilson, Jamie Mackie and Algerian winger Djamal Adboun were recruited at some cost in the summer, while David Vaughan joined on loan from Sunderland in October, and Forest beat off several clubs to sign the hugely-promising Nathanial Chalobah on a temporary deal from Chelsea, reportedly paying somewhere in the region of £20,000-a-week of his wages.
In addition Jim Price, Davies' cousin and agent (more on him later), confirmed that the club were on the verge of signing Charlie Austin in the summer, before he received a better offer from QPR, probably the only squad with more money spent on them in the division.
In short, Davies has been backed, and with some gusto. Still, he wants more, and the patterns of his public statements of late have taken a familiar shape. With a wry grin and a shrug he hinted at striking deficiencies after the 0-0 draw with Ipswich at the weekend with one eye on the transfer window, despite actually having a striker (Simon Cox, four goals in six games) in decent form. In an interview with the BBC last week, he also made clear that 'the chairman knows all about' the apparent holes in the Forest squad, and promised they would be active in January. There are signs and hints that Forest and Davies are wandering down a similar path.
The problem for Davies is that his popularity is starting to wane. His relationship with the press is well-documented (among other things, the Guardian is banned from the City Ground and access to players is restricted to all media, including the largely-supportive Nottingham Post), but that is something that not many seemingly care too much about, as long as the team is winning. Indeed, the majority of fans would probably put up with anything as long as the team is doing well.
However, the drop-off in form has come with another round of antics, the nadir of which was a disagreement with Nottingham Post photographer Dan Westwell during the recent 2-2 draw at Millwall. Davies was apparently unhappy with Westwell taking pictures of him, and not only confronted him at the end of the game, but sent substitutes to warm-up in front of the snapper, thus impeding his view. Quite apart from that being heinously petty, it's unclear why a football manager was even paying attention to a photographer, rather than doing his job and concentrating on the game.
For many Forest fans, results are not enough to justify this sort of behaviour, never mind his relationship with the press and a discomfort (to say the least) with Price's role at the club. Price has worked as the club's de facto chief executive since Davies' return, and was officially listed as the 'general manager' until both the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph revealed he might not pass the Football League's 'fit and proper person's test'. His title was changed to 'advisor to the board.'
However, the majority will hold their noses and put up with it, as long as the team is winning. Davies' problem is that even with this relatively slight drop in form, fans will not be so tolerant and his popularity will decline rapidly, and with it the security of his position.
In truth, Nigel Clough couldn't do an awful lot worse than David Weir at Sheffield United. The Blades lost eight of their first 11 games this season under the Scotsman, leaving them stuck to the bottom of the Sky Bet League 1 table like a bit of chewing gum is, erm, stuck to the bottom of a table.
However, since Clough was appointed in October, United have been a little sturdier, losing only twice in seven games and have gone the last four games unbeaten.
Solidity seems to have been the key word in Clough's time at Bramall Lane so far. Clough has emphasised defensive strength after almost every game, and has certainly made them more difficult to beat - they have conceded just twice in their last four, in stark contrast to the 19 allowed under Weir.
"We're making them work hard (for goals)," said Clough after the recent draw with Leyton Orient. Indeed, they nearly won that game, but for a screamer from Conor Coady, and given their respective starts to the season, for United to be slightly disappointed with a point against Orient, it says plenty about the work Clough has done thus far.
Clough did a decent job of stabilising Derby, and was sacked because he couldn't quite take the next step. Stabilising Sheffield United will do for now, and the next step there can wait a while.
January is just around the corner, and Championship clubs are theoretically able to buy players again. Of course, most Championship clubs barely have two pennies to rub together, so there are likely to be some sharp elbows in the loan market as teams try to strengthen their side for promotion or relegation battles.
One of the most in-demand potential loanees might well be Patrick Bamford, the young Chelsea striker currently on loan at MK Dons. Bamford has scored 12 goals in 18 games on loan at the Dons this season, adding to the four he got for them last term, so it's easy to see why he might be in demand, and why Chelsea might want to see him tested at a slightly higher level.
His current loan runs out on January 5, and the queue appears to be growing, with reports of several clubs interested in the young forward. Logically, one would think that Aitor Karanka might give his old pal Jose Mourinho a ring in order to help Middlesbrough inch away from the ugly end of the table.
Wherever he lands, Bamford looks to have a bright future.