Even by the standards of this rollercoaster season, the last few weeks have been truly remarkable for Nottingham Forest. From ‘King’ Billy Davies’ messianic message ‘I have returned’ promising to ‘bring back the Cloughie days’ Forest dominated a 1-1 draw with Bolton and have since won our last 6 games to surge into the play-off places. With the same players who had been mired in mid-table mediocrity under the dour management of Alex McLeish. Further proof of the importance of the manager in a league as fiercely contested of the Championship. Right now, it feels tremendous to be a Forest fan; every day I scour Forest Player for new highlights or interviews starring this fantastic team. After the Mark Arthur-inspired shambles of the last 18 months, my pride in the Reds is (in an astonishing lack of co-incidence, just like Billy) well and truly returned.
Yet, although I’m not allowing it to tarnish the ecstatic nature of the last few weeks, there is one issue that continues to frustrate me; namely, the nature of the media coverage we have received since the start of this season. It is a symptom of being a football fan that we believe that the media, like referees, are always against us. We certainly cannot accuse the media of ignoring us; I’ve seen more reports on the BBC website and other newspapers than virtually any other club outside the Premier League. The Kuwaiti Revolution at the City Ground has not gone unnoticed, which should be the case given the history and standing in the game of a club like Forest. But the tone and content of these reports have taken me aback.
The first 8 months of our Kuwaiti Revolution have been tremendously successful. Inheriting a club languishing after 13 years of Arthur as CEO, which barely escaped relegation last season under the incompetent stewardship of Steve Cotterill. Unable to retain those players whose contracts had expired, we found ourselves without a defence. Entering this mess, the Al Hasawi family sanctioned around £6 million to be spent on new players, an upgrade of the re-named Nigel Doughty Youth Academy, and 2 new electronic screens for the City Ground. At the time of writing, we find ourselves 5th in the table, with the Premier League firmly in our sites. By any measure, this has been remarkable progress. Without desiring excessive coverage, I would have expected the national media to acknowledge our assent and welcome back the good times at a historic club, while the local media salivates about the prospect of Premier League football finally returning to Nottingham.
This hasn’t happened. Instead, relations between the club and the local radio station are so strained that Billy refuses to conduct the usual post-match pitchside interview; the first time this has happened in my near-15 years following the club. Shortly before Billy’s return, most media (both national and local) were lambasting the premise that the Al Hasawi ownership even had been a success. ‘The new Venky’s’ ,‘a laughing stock’, ‘bringing football into disrepute’ are phrases I remember. The Daily Mail even ran a piece claiming that the Al Hasawi family were responsible for ex-players choosing not to go into management. Since Billy’s return, it has become plain to see (as it was at the time, in all honesty) that this was spurious nonsense. On last night’s Football League show, the fact that we have become the first Championship side to win 6 consecutive games was not even mentioned. Steve Claridge ungraciously mentioned that our success was down to ‘having a big squad.’ Actually, Steve, our squad is smaller than Leicester’s, who are in freefall. Also, in our current winning streak, 9 players have started every match (and the other 2 have missed out on this due to suspension or injury), so a policy of rotation has been non-existent. Based on current trends, I expect the current media apathy to continue until we next hit a bad run of form, at which point attention in the club will again escalate.
So what is the origin of this hostility? In the local case, it is fairly clear. There is an ongoing battle from Billy’s last time at the club; Billy’s advisor, Jim Price, claims that Arthur decided to brief negatively against his most successful manager in a decade. Price states that Billy’s interviews from Radio Nottingham were twisted into criticisms of the board, thus fanning the flames in his dispute with Arthur and the now-notorious Transfer Acquisitions Panel. Anti-Billy opinion pieces have been frequent in the Nottingham Evening Post since Billy’s departure. Billy, consequently, has been far less co-operative with local media outlets second time around, bar a loyal journalist from East Midlands Today, Natalie Jackson.
On the national level, however, motivations are different. Virtually every correspondent for a national media outlet that covers Forest spent their entire January tweeting unsubstantiated nonsense about the Al Hasawis, to be replaced with total silence now we’re winning games again. In common with many Forest fans, I took exception to this. I decided to ask them why they were writing this or told them to stop smearing the club with inaccuracies. Most did not bother to respond; of the two who did, neither bothered to defend their reporting. Pat Murphy, BBC Midlands correspondent told me that he ‘would not ignore my vitriol’. Vitriol? I didn’t swear at the guy, abuse him or issue threats. But it’s obviously easier to play the ‘big man’ on social media rather than defend his own unjustified assertions. So, if the men (and it is all men) themselves won’t tell me, I’ll have to try and decipher for myself where I think the source of their anti-Forest prejudices lie.
Firstly, there is more than an element of latent xenophobia at play. It seems the press absolutely love a ‘foreign owners are ruining football’ story, ignoring that in this case, it is completely contrary to the facts. This is confirmed by the number of stories that have lumped Forest together with Venky’s and other cases of foreign ownership gone wrong, despite the clear differences between the clubs. It’s fascinating how there was no media interest in how Forest was being run while Arthur was CEO, during which time the club spent 3 years in League One, 0 in the Premier League, and both managers that threatened to return us there were summarily dismissed. Co-incidentally, Arthur is a white Englishman.
Secondly, journalists were finding that, under the Al Hasawis, their friends (and probable sources of leaks) at the club were being sacked. The Al Hasawis kept the old staff on for 6 months before opting to replace many of the personnel. This met with an apoplectic reaction in the media. How dare these foreigners dare to sack the people that had presided over the worst 15 years of the club’s history? Don’t they understand the value of ‘stability’? Personally, I found the Frank Clark sacking harsh. But with most of the others, the fuss caused was incomprehensible. I have never known such consternation caused by the sacking of a Press Officer (Fraser Nicholson). The departure of 2 managers was vociferously criticized, irrespective of the fact that Alex McLeish chose to down tools because we (only!) signed 5 players in the January transfer window. The Sean O’Driscoll coverage entirely ignored that the man had never finished in the top half in 3 seasons at Championship level, and that tactically he was negative and unambitious in the extreme. (Anyone remember Gillett 1st choice over Guedioura?) With the talent he had at his disposal, it is simply unacceptable to change your formation almost every week to adapt to the opposition, or to hope things would come right in 3 years. He was portrayed as having a long-term vision; yet the facts show he gave debuts to 0 youth team graduates (despite one of the most promising crops in years) and the only player he signed from the lower league was a 32-year-old on loan. The extent of the fury leveled at the Al Hasawis, and the praise lavished on O’Driscoll, who has subsequently (at the time of writing) maintained Bristol City’s position at the bottom of the table, can only be explained with reference to his friends in the media. Arthur, too, appears to have been successful in cultivating journalists. How else could it be that 13 years of failure under him is shielded from any criticism, and giving him his (in my opinion, long-overdue) P45 attacked? While the owners that have done more for the club in 8 months than he did in 13 years are insulted?
If I believed that the Al Hasawis were harming the club, I would be the first to say so vocally, as I have with Arthur and his cronies for too many years. My loyalty is to Nottingham Forest Football Club, not their temporary custodians. However, the recent media criticism is so obviously untrue. I only wish I knew more about the links certain journalists have with ex-employees of the club. But, having considered sports journalism as a career myself, the last few months have convinced me that it is a world inhabited by those I’d rather avoid. It comes across as a murky world where connections and sensationalism, not the truth, are what matter. I was naïve not to realise this earlier, and it must be said that football clubs are as much to blame for this culture as the journalists. Nevertheless, it isn’t for me. I can do better. And there will surely be more baseless stories ahead, as our winning run can’t be maintained forever. Sod it. If we can fulfill the dream I’ve had since I had my first season ticket aged 9, to watch my team play in the Premier League and Wembley, I don’t give the slightest damn if that upsets some failed footballer and self-appointed moral arbiter of football. It’s time to rally round, support the best manager (and some of the best players) we’ve had at our club this millennium, and do our best to help them secure what is now tantalizingly close to our grasp. At a rocking City Ground, A-block in full voice, we can achieve anything. Come on you Reds!