Nottingham Forest: New Year, New Start?

After the sacking of Mark Warburton, our correspondent Steven Toplis reflects upon the previous manager's departure, analyses the appointment of Aitor Karanka, and considers the possibilities under the Marinakis-Randall regime:

Another year, another manager at Nottingham Forest. Aitor Karanka has become the latest to take the position following Mark Warburton’s dismissal and the 29th manager - including caretakers – in the 25 years since Brian Clough retired.

It’s fair to say Warburton’s sacking split opinion, with many feeling his nine month tenure was cut short too soon, others believing that his stubbornness and belief in his way of playing the game led to his own downfall.

What this leaves us with is another new start, another man coming in with his own ideas, a fanbase wondering what the next incumbent will bring to the club and already a sense of upheaval - however minor - so early on into Evangelos Marinakis’ ownership of Forest.

During the summer, in an open letter to supporters, new chief executive Nicholas Randall stated his intention to rebuild a club that was in “intensive care” following five tumultuous years under a certain Kuwaiti owner. Randall too preached about the importance of stability and waxed lyrical about the qualities of Warburton, declaring him to be the right man to build a successful side and as a result take the club forward.

Why, just six months later, Randall and the board felt the need to part ways with the ex-Brentford and Rangers boss remains a mystery and for some, has developed a sense of trepidation over the future that lies ahead under the new owners.

Stung by witnessing manager upon manager discarded by Fawaz, Warburton’s exit came as a surprise. I, like many other fans, had bought into the idea of stable progression, of building a young side that would get better with time, playing a brand of stylish football Forest fans crave.

There were fans who had grown impatient with Warburton, believing that one summer transfer window and a couple of months was enough to transform a side which was almost relegated last season to one that was ready to cope with all aspects of Championship football.

Forest’s defensive issues have plagued them all season and, for all the great attacking play, it was an area Warburton struggled to improve on and mainly criticised for – fairly or unfairly depending on your position given that he was working with a backline he largely inherited from previous managers. With a number of experienced players on high wages seeing their deals come to an end in the summer, that seemed the logical time that Warburton would be able to bring in his own defenders and properly address that area of the pitch.

Karanka arrives at the City Ground with a promotion to the Premier League on his CV, gained during his time at Middlesbrough. The Spaniard spent two-and-a-half years on Teeside and transformed Boro from a side struggling in the lower reaches of the Championship to a Premier League outfit.

His appointment has been met with a positive response from Forest fans and beyond, given that he was arguably the strongest candidate linked with the role.

There are certainly plenty of positives. Karanka took charge of Boro in November 2013, leading them to 12th spot at the end of the 2013-14 season. The following year saw them reach the playoff final, where they lost to Norwich City before being promoted in 2016 as runners-up.

There have been questions raised over the 44-year-old’s style of play, with a suggestion that it is overly defensive. While Forest’s defence is in need of tightening up, it is hoped that will not come at the expense of the attacking flair that has been instilled this season and negating the creative talents in the squad.

Karanka’s record at Middlesbrough was impressive, with a win ratio of 46% and turning them into an organised, hard to beat outfit, proven by the lowest total in the Championship of 31 goals conceded in 46 games as they won promotion in 2015-16, along with a league-best 22 clean sheets and just two defeats on home soil all season. If he can sort out Forest’s defence and re-create that success there will be few complaints.

At Boro he had a number of creative forces in the side, most notably Stewart Downing, Albert Adomah and Christian Stuani. While Karanka himself has stated that he wants to see his Forest team play good football played at Forest, so perhaps the suggestion of dull, negative tactics to come might not be true.

What is key, though, is that the new man is given time to do his job. Warburton’s tenure highlighted again the impatience and a lack of consideration for the bigger picture by modern football fans, who want to see winning football develop quickly. This is not just unique to Forest of course, but it is this short termism and lack of patience which threatens our club’s chances of progression. 

It took Karanka over a year to turn Middlesbrough into a top-six side, but what are the guarantees he will receive the time to repeat that here?

After years of continual change and worsening league positions, common sense would suggest we should settle for stability and this is something the club has to strive for, both in the boardroom and the stands.

It would be unfair to lump the new owners into the Fawaz category just yet based on one change of manager, as they have proven themselves to be more adept at running the club than the previous incumbent. Hopefully, they see Karanka as the man to lead Forest into a new, successful era and will give him the opportunity to see the job through. The stat mentioned the top of this piece should be warning enough that a constant changing of managers has achieved little.

Crucially though, the fans too must play their part. There may be a drop off in form; a few games where results aren’t great and this is where patience is needed. Booing players off the pitch, writing off youngsters and criticising managers on social media does more harm than good and makes it difficult to create a successful environment.

It’s one of the reasons why the club has gone nowhere for the past 20 years.

The superb FA Cup win over Arsenal, achieved with six academy prospects in the side, shows that there is a nucleus of young talent emerging from the Nigel Doughty Academy - thanks in no small part to the fine work Gary Brazil has done – and that a promising future lies ahead.

For the first time in a long time we have our Forest back. Now we must give it the opportunity to thrive.