Martin O’Neill is another short-term answer for Nottingham Forest – a club haunted by its glorious past

Updated: 12/04/2024

You have to admire the optimism. Every time a new manager is unveiled at the City Ground, Nottingham Forest’s owners talk up their enthusiasm and desire for the project. They speak in glowing terms about having the right man in place to take the club back to the Premier League. And then, before too long, reality bites.

Martin O’Neill is next. The former Ireland manager and former Forest player, who won the European Cup with the club and learnt his managerial trade under Brian Clough, arrived on Monday afternoon with the same remit as everyone else before him. Get this club to the position they consider to be their rightful place. As if that even means anything anymore.

A glorious history can haunt a football club, hanging around its neck like a millstone, albatross or any other metaphoric weight you might care to conjure up. Unlikely success is a double-edged sword. Why would you not sing about such treasures from the top of every stand? But how unhelpful is that to Nottingham Forest’s chances of moving forwards? Just down the road at Leicester they may soon learn a similar lesson, but it is laid most bare at the City Ground. 2019 marks 20 years since Forest were even in the Premier League.

Musical chairs

Nottingham Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis is already onto his third manager in 19 months (Getty Images)

Forest have now changed manager in every calendar year since 2010, a changing, writhing monument to football’s rampant short-termism. They have had three owners in the same timeframe, several heads of recruitment and a colossal number of players. Since June 2016, only 31 months ago, Forest have signed 31 players on permanent deals and 17 more on loan. It is no wonder they have one of most troubling wages-to-turnover ratios in the country. At least the club’s youth system somehow continues to thrive, thanks largely to academy coach Gary Brazil and his staff.

Read more: Marcelo Bielsa taught Frank Lampard and all of English football a lesson with ‘Spygate'

Steve McClaren, Steve Cotterill, Sean O’Driscoll, Alex McLeish, Billy Davies, Stuart Pearce, Dougie Freedman, Philippe Montanier, Mark Warburton, Aitor Karanka. Ten men in less than eight years, each sold to supporters as the person to make dreams come true. At best the club has lurched around the Championship’s mid-table, and often they have done worse. Forest are the former European champions to be relegated to the third tier, so the quiz question goes. Only goal difference stopped them from falling back there in May 2017.

The one thing Nottingham Forest have not tried is keeping faith in a long-term project. None of those managers were perfect, but a few at least merited more loyalty than they were given. Forest are proof that success in the Championship cannot be guaranteed purely through one owner and his money. It is far too complex an industry to assume that you can enjoy accelerated success through bank balance alone. Two billionaires, no promotion.

O'Neill needs time and autonomy

O'Neill won the European Cup with Forest and learned his managerial trade under Brian Clough (Getty Images)

Norwich City and Daniel Farke are a good example, a manager down on his luck last season who has engineered a rise up through the Championship table without lavish spending. So too are West Brom; would Forest have given the internal candidate the chance to cleanse the club or thrown money at the problem? And Sheffield United, who had faith in Chris Wilder and bought simply and smartly over the summer before launching their own promotion bid.

Read more: How Sheffield United have quietly become the story of the Championship season so far

This is not an argument against O’Neill’s appointment per se, although there are obvious illogicalities. Karanka’s sacking was due in part to the slightly perfunctory style of play that typify his teams. Those Ireland supporters who watched O’Neill’s final two years in charge may have raised eyebrows at his latest assignment. The suspicion among some Forest fans is that this is a decision based on O’Neill’s ancient history rather than recent performance. It’s worth noting that O’Neill last managed a Football League team in May 1996.

But if Forest’s managerial musical chairs proves one thing, it is this: just as important as the name of the manager are the conditions in which they operate. O’Neill could be everything that the club claim in their welcoming statement, but that can only be proven if he is given time and autonomy.

Now onto his third manager in 19 months since buying the club, owner Evangelos Marinakis must learn – or be told to learn – the importance of long-termism. The best of intentions must be followed by best practice, or words become empty. It’s much harder to lay stable foundations when you’re building on sand.

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