Wednesday, 5 September 2012

What a difference a year makes

They say 24 hours is a long time in politics. I think they do anyway. Well, 365 days is a very, very long time in football, and in particular the 365 days (well, 366 actually as it's a Leap Year) between August 31st 2011 and August 31st 2012 have felt like a millennia when it comes to Nottingham Forest. But, the last few of these days, and August 31st 2012 itself, have reminded me why I enjoy football so much.

My last blog post explained the recent goings on around Nottingham Forest, culminating in the official announcement that the club had been taken over by the Kuwaiti-based al Hasawi family on July 10th. An incredible end to a difficult period. The few weeks that followed have been no less incredible, but for different reasons, as the effort to rebuild the team and club began.

The new owners certainly didn't mess around. Despite local press suggesting that the manager Steve Cotterill would be given time and money to improve the team's fortunes, it was announced less than 48 hours after the takeover that he'd been sacked. The al Hasawis gave their first press conference shortly after, and teased us all by proclaiming they were speaking to 'iconic' managers about the now-vacant position. That word would be rammed down Forest fans' throats for a while. It isn't any more.

Many names were linked: Harry Redknapp and Glenn Hoddle were two - certainly big names within the sport - but the strongest link was to Mick McCarthy, with both press and fans' forums suggesting he was the owners' first choice. So, when he announced that the job wasn't for him, suspicions were aroused. These suspicions were deepened when a swathe of Kuwaiti and Syrian players arrived at the club on trial. I mean no disrespect to these players, but the countries are not renowned for their endless flow of footballing talent.

A succession of managers were favourites at the bookmakers. McCarthy, Darren Ferguson, Hoddle. Nobody seemed to have a clue what was going on. Then, late in the week a new name emerged: Sean O'Driscoll.

O'Driscoll had been brought in as assistant to Steve Cotterill in the January of 2012, and many credited him with the upturn in form which ultimately saw Forest avoid relegation. A well-respected name whose teams have a reputation for playing attractive football, he would certainly be a sensible choice. But 'iconic?' He'd recently taken a job at Crawley Town, but when Forest approached him, his new club - with a touch of class - didn't stand in his way.

So, we had a manager, but if anything the choice of him increased the suspicions about the new owners. How much money did they really have? What were their motives? The low points were the sale of defender Chris Gunter to newly-promoted Reading, and an article in the Mail Online which suggested the owners wanted to fill the team with cheap, Middle East-based players. Though there was no evidence to back this up it certainly got alarm bells ringing. The next day however, it all began to change.

On Monday 23rd July, it was announced that Forest had signed Algerian midfielder Adlene Guedioura from Wolves. He'd been on loan with us at the end of the previous season and his all-action game had made him an instant favourite with the fans. In one fell swoop, the owners had got the fans back on board. And it wasn't just the signing, it was how it was announced.

Because, rather than an article on the official website, it was announced on Twitter directly by the majority owner Fawaz al Hasawi. Not just that, but he tantalised us with the promise that 'During the next coming week you will be hearing about new players joining Nottingham Forest.'

And we did. Much-needed defensive reinforcements arrived in the form of Danny Collins, Greg Halford and Dan Harding. All solid, experienced players of the type we needed to rebuild the team. Midfielder Simon Gillett joined on a free transfer and talented young defender Daniel Ayala signed up on a season-long loan from Norwich City. Added to this, our own talented young defender Jamaal Lascelles signed a new, long-term contract. With the likes of Arsenal and Spurs having been linked with him in the past, this was as important as the new players.

Most encouraging was the manner in which these deals were being done. Quickly, with little fuss. No sooner had our interest in a player been reported than, boom - he was here. The type of these players also raised hopes. No big names bought in on the owner's whim - just solid, experienced pros.

It just kept getting better too. Our biggest outlay of the summer arrived in the form of Simon Cox, a Republic of Ireland international striker from West Bromwich Albion for around £2m. He soon showed his worth by setting up the winning goal in our first League match of the season. Before that, Sam Hutchinson - a right back from Chelsea - also joined the ranks on loan. So, eight new players in - but the best was yet to come.

Gifted Arsenal midfielder Henri Lansbury was suddenly linked in the press. He'd spent the last two seasons on loan at clubs who had subsequently both been promoted. This link prompted a Derby fan to post on Facebook: 'Forest won't sign Lansbury. He's good enough for the PL. If they get him for £1m I'll get Twat tattooed on my forehead.' But later that day, Lansbury did indeed sign a long-term contract with Forest. Whether or not the Derby fan made good on his word is still a mystery.

Finally we reached Transfer Deadline Day - the last day on which clubs can buy or sell players for four months. For Forest fans, in recent years this day has consisted of rumoured sightings of players at the City Ground - usually left backs - but no actual signings, so our expectations weren't high. Few would have been disappointed with this, such had been our business in the transfer market over the past few weeks. Local press suggested a quiet day with more likelihood of outgoings than incomings.

The morning and early afternoon passed quietly, with David McGoldrick leaving for Coventry City on loan being the only movement. Then rumours started to surface about possible deals for two more players happening. The names mentioned were James Coppinger and Billy Sharp. The former an experienced midfielder who our manager had worked with before. The latter a striker with a fantastic record of scoring goals pretty much everywhere he'd played. He too had worked with Sean O'Driscoll before, and it was no secret that O'Driscoll was a long-time admirer.

These rumours escalated when a local reporter tweeted that Forest were indeed trying to tie up a deal for Sharp - then promptly deleted the tweet! But the seed of interest had been sown. Coppinger's club announced that he was indeed talking to Forest and the now-famous 'Fawaz tweet' soon followed, confirming his signing on a six month loan. But still no word on Sharp. It was acknowledged he was in talks but no official news was forthcoming. This was the big one, the one that could, possibly, turn us from hopefuls into contenders.

And then, just after 9PM, Fawaz al Hasawi finally tweeted: 'I'm honoured to announce that striker Billy Sharp is to spend the rest of the season on loan with us from Southampton. Come on You Reds.'

In just over a month since the takeover was finalised we'd signed eleven new players - a whole new team - for less than a fellow Championship club had paid for one. And not just players for the sake of it; they were a mix of proven quality and young potential. We'd had the best transfer window and deadline day that most of us could ever recall, and it's safe to say that any doubts about the new owners had been well and truly blown out of the water by the manner in which they'd conducted themselves and their business.

We may not win the League this season. We may not get promoted. But the overwhelming feeling for fans of Nottingham Forest is that the club is back. The dark days are over and we can look forward to a future of real promise and success.

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