Not again, Forest. In a seismic eighteen minutes, Nottingham Forest’s future was sent crashing into the unknown with a process all too familiar in recent years at the City Ground. At 13:21, Friday afternoon, the club’s social media announced the ‘departure’ of Martin O’Neill, followed by the announcement of Sabri Lamouchi as new head coach at 13:39. Manager out, manager in : it wasn’t our finest hour. With Pochettino excelling at Tottenham, and Liverpool finally reaping the rewards of their faith in Klopp, continuity and long-termism have become buzzwords of the modern game, ideals yearned for by modern clubs. Trentside, though, has evolved into a slaughterhouse. 8 managers in 6 years we have hacked our way through- and that’s excluding caretakers. It’s naive to believe Karanka wasn’t pressured out of the club by Marinakis, and similarly senseless to think that O’Neill did, in fact, voluntarily leave. If that was the case, then how did the club find a replacement a mere 18 minutes later ? Let’s not disrespect or be ungrateful to Marinakis here – he shares an ambition and drive with the fans with the money he has invested and stadium renovations- but two promising managers have now been given the chop in 6 months. Alarm bells are ringing.
Yet whether O’Neill did, in fact, have a future at Forest, has been the point of great discussion and debate among Forest fans. The Irishman led the Reds to a respectable 9th, but blew potential play-off hopes in a wretched April, where Forest picked up zero points out of a possible 12. It was the style of football, though, which particularly dismayed the Red’s faithful. O’Neill was largely adherent to a 4-1-4-1, with not one defensive midfielder- but three- in the middle of the park. Tight and compact defensively, we lacked the requisite creativity and rhythm further up the pitch with star-man Joao Carvalho relegated to the bench and old fashioned no.9 Daryl Murphy favoured up top. O’Neill refused to adapt- even when results turned pear-shaped- until the last three games of the season. By this point, however, O’Neill was public enemy no.1 among Forest fans- the relationship irrevocable. It was his dogma, his old-school approach, his ignorance: while all the players would clap the fans off after the match, he would simply walk straight down the tunnel. There grew a tension between the fanbase and the dugout.
However, what actually happened in the last three games of the season is key to the discussion. Not only did results begin to improve ( three wins on the bounce, first away win since November ), but O’Neill began to stray away from his principles, and experiment with the squad. Formation switched to a 3-5-2-1, Carvalho was drafted back in for three immaculate performances, and Murphy was shunted out. On the whole, our ball-retention improved and so did attacking fluidity, with the extra options in between the lines. O’Neill credited this to having nothing to play for, and explained that the reason for the poor quality of football beforehand was just him trying to grind out results. After all, he always spoke of wanting to implement a positive footballing philosophy at Forest, so perhaps those final three games were just the baby steps.
Rumours surrounding his dismissal suggested a ‘player revolt’, a backlash against O’Neill’s alleged old-school training methods. The legitimacy of those reports can be questioned, though it wouldn’t be surprising if it was true, especially considering the mysterious departure of Roy Keane a few days earlier, a man famed for his hardline approach. Admittedly, should the rumours be accurate, it changes the complexion entirely. The narrative is no longer one of a lack of time for O’Neill, but of the Irishman’s failure to adapt to modern man-management. Players nowadays won’t be ruled by fear like Brian Clough used to, they won’t accept a dressing down after a poor touch or spit flying in their faces after a below-par performance. And if there was this much-speculated ‘revolt’, it owes to a flaw in O’Neill’s man-management. Once you loose the dressing room, you’re already halfway out the door. It’s all rumours though, and the bottom line is that O’Neill’s project had more to offer. We’ll see what Lamouchi has in his locker, but we are undoubtedly weakened for next season with the departure of the Irishman. Managers can’t just walk through the doors, click their fingers and get results. It’s a huge gamble on an unknown quantity with very little time before the dawn of the new season. And Marinakis won’t wait.