Saturday’s encounter between Nottingham Forest and Derby will feature two managers both new to the fixture. For many derbies that might be unusual, but in this case it is a familiar situation: this will be the fifth successive game between the two clubs with new managers in each dugout. In the 16 months since the pair last met at the City Ground, the two clubs have changed managers eight times between them. It is as if the two rivals are competing to see which can be the most chaotic club in the east Midlands.
The latest man to make himself comfortable – but perhaps not too comfortable – in the Forest dugout is Mark Warburton. Until recently Rangers manager, Warburton left Ibrox in slightly curious circumstances last month, after the club claimed he and his assistant David Weir resigned, something they strenuously denied. Given that Warburton is Forest’s third manager of a season that now sees them two points off the relegation zone, is the eighth permanent manager since 2012 and the club are owned by the erratic and unpopular Fawaz al-Hasawi, he is not exactly trading an unstable position for a rock solid one. “You have to take risks,” said Warburton after becoming the latest man to walk through the City Ground’s revolving door. “You can’t always play safe, far from it.”
It is not every day that a manager arrives admitting that the job he has taken on is a gamble, albeit from his perspective a calculated one. Frank McParland, the man who brought Raheem Sterling to Liverpool and has worked with Warburton at Rangers and Brentford – “One of the best in the business,” said Warburton – arrived at Forest a couple of weeks ago as director of football and has been able to fill the new manager in on the state of things. A canary down the mine, if you will.
The trouble is that this particular mine has swallowed up so many who have come before, to the point that one wonders whether the identity of the manager really makes much of a difference. There has been little approaching a consistent plan under Hasawi – there have been many plans but none of them have lasted particularly long, and Warburton’s mere presence is another indicator of that. Less than a month ago the youth-team coach Gary Brazil was confirmed as first-team manager until the end of the season, with the idea that Warburton would arrive in the summer. Since then results have been variable and not for the first time Hasawi changed his mind. “It happened very quickly,” said Warburton, who admitted he did not expect to be here so soon.
After a takeover by the American businessman John Moores fell through in January, Hasawi has spoken on a number of occasions about implementing a proper structure at the club, sorely needed after four and a half years in which chief executives and directors of football have come and gone, with Forest in an undulating state of chaos as league positions gradually decline.
Despite his promises, and with Evangelos Marinakis, the Olympiakos owner and an old friend of Hasawi, apparently back for a second attempt at involvement in the club after last summer’s efforts were derailed by the pesky detail of pending criminal charges, Forest fans would be forgiven for thinking: “We’ll believe it when we see it.” Still, Warburton has been adequately convinced. “You have to ask the right questions,” he said, when asked what assurances he has been given. “We’ve received the right answers.”
Warburton is in the slightly sticky position of having an immediate goal of beating Derby and their new manager, Gary Rowett (who if the Moores takeover had gone through could have been on the home bench), then keeping Forest in the Championship, while at the same time laying foundations for more long-term stability. “This is fairly unusual, to come in with nine games to go,” said Warburton. “You have to get the balance right. I think you have to introduce one or two key principles that are non-negotiable, to say: ‘This is what we stand for, this is what we’re going to do.’”
Warburton could be a good appointment for Forest and listening to him talk about how he wants his team to play is certainly encouraging. “I want players who enjoy playing football, I want players to enjoy having the ball, I want players to enjoy having possession – but not for possession’s sake, I want possession with a purpose, to penetrate.”
But then again a few of his many predecessors have spoken well, initially optimistic and enthusiastic about working at such a storied club, before reality kicks in. Warburton will have a chance of succeeding only if he is allowed to, is afforded some patience and for the club to just be stable for a while. But first, Derby.