A Tale of Two Steves: exit the ‘Brollyman’ – enter the ‘Hoofer’ …

21 10 2011

Aptly enough it was a miserably wet Sunday afternoon back in June when news first broke of the pending arrival of ‘the wally with the brolly’, at the City Ground.

Billy Davies, the wee Scotsman with a big personality, and a tendency to speak his mind too readily for his Forest employers, had turned the fortunes of the former European Champions around. A mid-season appointment in January 2009 he had saved them from slipping back into League 1 obscurity. Following this rescue act he led pretty much the same team to two successive Championship play-off semi-finals.

But that was not deemed success enough. Billy had outworn his welcome by persistently and publicly stating the need to strengthen the squad. Once the ex-England brollyman appeared on the Forest radar, it was curtains for the little big man and he was shown the door with unseemly haste and scant praise for what had been achieved.   

Steve McClaren, who had been unemployed for four months following his dismissal from German club Wolfsburg, had seemed all set to join Aston Villa in the Premiership but the offer was unexpectedly withdrawn following a huge Internet campaign against his appointment, by the Villa Park faithful.

Forest caught him on the rebound and he was lured into the Championship by their apparent ambitious intent to make that final step back into the Premier League.

Bewildered Forest fans disappointed at the sudden, if not totally unexpected, departure of the popular Davies were fed the line that the club had moved quickly to secure the services of McClaren as it was, ‘rare for a manager and coach of his undoubted calibre to be available’.     

So it was that smug ‘Schteve’ of the  lob sided smirk and affected Dutch lilt, acquired during his successful spell at FC Twente, arrived on Trent-side borne on a ripple rather than a wave of sceptical optimism. 

Despite a high-profile hiccup as England manager, where he was clearly out of his depth, Forest fans were assured that here was a man with ‘a proven record of coaching and managing at club level.’   

As an emerging coach, working alongside Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, he had played a key role in helping them secure three Premier League titles, the FA Cup and the Champions League trophy.

In his first managerial role, on Teesside, he kept unfashionable Middlesbrough afloat in the Premiership, picking up a League Cup along the way, the club’s first major honour, and guiding them somewhat fortuitously to a Uefa Cup Final, where their luck finally ran out and they were soundly beaten, 4-0, by ‘Sevilla’.

When the call came, many ‘Borough’ fans were indifferent about his departure to take on the England job.

His 16 month tenure, the shortest ever by an England manager, descended into pure farce when the national side failed to qualify for Euro 2008, after losing to Croatia on a rain-sodden Wembley night.  McClaren cut a lonely figure, looking forlornly on from his technical area, sheltered beneath an umbrella. The ‘wally with the brolly’ tag was born and would stick.    

A successful period of rehab in Holland saw ‘Schteve’ lead Twente to their first ever  title and a Dutch Manager of the Year award. This was followed by a far less successful stint with German Bundesliga side Wolfsburg, where he soon received the dreaded vote of confidence and was promptly dismissed after just 5 wins in 21 games; which turned out to be eight games more than he would manage with the ‘Tricky Trees’.     

Just 111 days after ‘Stevey Poppins’ blew into the City Ground on the end of his magical brolly the spell was broken and he walked away from the job claiming , “I resigned. They don’t share the ambition I came for.”   

The stats during his period in charge make for grim reading: P13 – W3 – D3 – L7, especially given that two of those wins were against lower league opposition in the League Cup.

Just 8 out of a possible 30 league points had been acquired from 10 games and Forest had failed to win any of their first 5 home league games, on a ground which for the last two seasons had been something of a fortress.    

A ‘bleating’ awful local ‘derby’ defeat against 10 ‘Sheep’, a 4-0 ‘hammering’ by Big Sam’s ‘East-enders’ and a 5-1 ‘threshing’ in ‘flat cap’ Burnley were particularly hard to swallow.  

With Forest fans fast running out of patience with the board and manager the press corps could sense blood a letting; and Schteve’s facial gymnastics were ‘going for gold’ as he announced the blindingly obvious, “Something drastic has to be done. We can’t carry on like this.”

And so it was, on a gorgeously sunny City Ground Sunday, four months to the day that Billy D. had made way, that the ‘brollyman’, his ‘rain’ over, shuffled towards that same exit amidst a shower of boos.

Stevey Mac ‘never felt more like singing the blues’ as the Reds, once again capitulated in spectacular style, conceding 3 calamitous goals to a distinctly ordinary Birmingham City side, in the final 15 minutes of a game in which they were looking comfortable and  leading 1-0. 

So how had it all gone so wrong so soon?

Nigel Doughty, owner of the club for the last ten years, was quick to take total responsibility for the entire debacle, accepting that it was, “ a poor decision to appoint him (McClaren),” before stepping down from his position of chairman with immediate effect.

Nottingham Forest will be eternally grateful to Nigel, co-founder of a highly successful private equity firm and a lifelong supporter, who saved the club from liquidation in 1999 and has since invested well over £80 million of his own money – on which he will see no return.

It is a great pity that his financial commitment and ambition for the club has too often been undermined by poor managerial appointments at crucial times. Unfortunately McClaren, arguably something of a vanity appointment, now stands in line with David Platt, Joe Kinnear and Gary Megson as testimony to the fact that recruitment was not Nigel’s forte.    

Why did McClaren prove such a poor appointment?

It is difficult to say but I would offer the following:

  1. He had been led to expect a level of financial backing for new players that was never forthcoming and felt let down. He was not prepared to operate on a shoe-string budget.
  2. His strength was as a coach, not a manager. Man management was a huge issue. The team did not play for him.  
  3. He had no experience of working in the Championship which proved far more competitive than he had anticipated.  
  4. There was disappointment that players had not risen to the new mental challenges he set them on the training ground. Perhaps he was asking too much, too soon.      
  5. Players were picked out of position and expected to adapt to constantly changing formations and a slow ‘continental’ style of play that was alien to them.
  6. New acquisitions had arrived late in the pre-season and there was little time for them to gain match fitness and settle in. Players brought in for their Premiership experience did not deliver.
  7. He didn’t have the stomach for the fight and his demeanour suggested he wanted out.

Steve McClaren will, no doubt, sooner or later reveal his version of events in a sure to be written autobiography – which could well be titled ‘Singing in the Rain’. But to his credit the resignation came early enough for Forest to rebuild their season under a new manager and there was no claim for financial compensation – which the club could not afford.  

Asking Frank Clark to replace him as chairman may well prove to be Nigel Doughty’s parting master stroke.

Frank is a Nottingham Forest legend. A typical ‘Cloughy’ signing, out of contract and picked up on a free transfer from Newcastle Utd, the popular left back went on to win 1st Division Championship and European Cup medals in an unlikely fairy tale ending to his career.   

Frank was to return to the club in 1993-4, followed in the footsteps of ‘the great man’, gaining promotion back to the top league in his first season in charge and following that up with a 3rd place Premiership finish in ’94-’95 and a successful run to the quarter finals of the Uefa Cup in ’95-’96.   

It’s been pretty much downhill ever since!

We can only hope that Frank is as successful a club chairman as he was player and manager. It’s a big ask and won’t happen overnight but his empathy for the club  and its supporters, together with his undoubted football know-how will be a great asset to the new manager.

His first job was to appoint SMc’s replacement. There was considerable media speculation over the appointment and for a short while hopes were raised that Frank might tempt ‘the dream team’ of Martin O’Neil and John Robertson, two European Cup winning team-mates, to their spiritual home – but realistically it was never likely to happen with the club in its current financial position.

It was another Steve, Steve Cotterill, who apparently stood head and shoulders (literally) above the other 50 plus applicants and was offered the job.

I admit to being uninspired by the appointment.

Cotterill has a decent enough record in the lower leagues and was considered a bright young coaching talent, but he’s 47 now and has far too often seemed to offer much and deliver little.

His cv contains a number of promising starts which plateaued out, followed by early departures having achieved only moderate success. 

He has also acquired, perhaps unjustly, a reputation as bit of a ‘hoofer’, favouring an attritional long-ball style of play.

Living in ‘the Shire’ and working for many years in Cheltenham I am only too aware of the great success he enjoyed in his early managerial career with ‘the Robins’, leading  them all the way from non-league football to the ‘nose bleeding’ heights of Football league 1.    

From there he moved to Stoke but did himself a huge dis-service walking out on them, after just 13 games, to team up with Howard Wilkinson at Sunderland. Twenty games later ‘Sergeant Wilko’ and ‘Corporal Cotterill’ were drummed out of Wearside.

After a break he managed to pick up the pieces of his broken reputation and made a come-back at Burnley. In his two seasons with the Claret and Blues they finished a respectable 13th and 17th. But on his departure (by mutual consent with the club) Owen Coyle took over the reins and delivered them to the Premiership with a free-flowing brand of football that was in stark contrast to their performances under Cotterill.

After a spell in the American wilderness with Minnesota he fulfilled a successful short-term contract, across the Trent with ‘the Magpies’, helping them cross the promotion line as League 2 champions.

This raised SC’s profile enough for Portsmouth, not long out of the Premiership, but a club in financial crisis, to come calling. Last season he managed to keep their skeleton squad afloat in the Championship, operating on a shoe-string budget amidst daily uncertainty over the future of the club.

However by the time Forest approached Pompey, about his availability, they were sitting a lowly 19th in the Championship and it had been suggested that SC’s days might be numbered. 

The south coast club certainly didn’t take long to agree a compensation deal with Forest and there followed an almost audible sigh of relief amongst the blue and white ‘Twitterati’. Many, while appreciative of what Cotterill had done for their club during difficult times, were praying a new boss would adopt a more positive style of play.

It was therefore with considerable trepidation that I watched Steve C’s first match in charge, under the City Ground floodlights, against  high-flying, unbeaten Middlesbrough.

It has to be said he couldn’t have got off to a better start, and there was absolutely no need for that neck brace I’d been eyeing up on E-Bay.

The Tricky Trees, in a back to basics 4-4-2 formation, kept their shape and played on the front foot with a tempo and precision of which we know they are capable, but was missing under McClaren. The defence kept a rare clean sheet and the two goal victory might have been more.

Lewis McGugan, an inconsistent talent, hung out to dry on the left side of midfield by SMc, was played in his favoured central role by SC and responded by running the show, opening up the defence with a precision pass in the build up to the first goal and clipping in a second himself after a jinking run.

Joel Lynch restored to his favoured position in central defence had, for me, his best ever game in a red shirt while Chris Gunter was intelligently deployed in a right midfield role to provide much needed width going forward, missing all season, and extra cover for a full back vulnerable to pace.

Radi Majewski, so often a bench man, started wide on the left cleverly freeing up space for McGugan to weave his magic in the centre. Marcus Tudgay worked tirelessly up front and earned his goal. Ishmael Miller, with something to prove after his Twitter outburst, also put himself about to good effect.     

SC has to take a huge credit for such an improved all round performance.

After just 48 hours in charge he had stamped his authority on the club, emphasising the need for teamwork, and players taking responsibility for their actions both on and off the pitch (including strict guidelines on the use of on-line social networking).    

It was refreshing to see a track-suited manager again, prowling around his technical area fully involved, ‘kicking every ball’, providing constant encouragement to the team, and celebrating with passion as the goals went in.

This team performance deservedly won a lot of fans over, and SC has certainly made an impressive start to his Nottingham Forest managerial career.

It’s far too soon to get carried away. After last week’s lack lustre defeat at Coventry I was contemplating a season long relegation struggle, now I’m cautiously optimistic about a mid-table finish and should the Reds put in a towering away performance tomorrow, against bogey side Blackpool, who knows I might even be dreaming of the ‘play-offs’ again!      











One response

27 10 2011
Golden Smiles in Blackpool… « Pipedreams from the Shire

[…] Steve Cotterill. As is so often the case a new face had brought an immediate change of fortune (see ‘A Tale of Two Steves’ post) but would it last and could they lay the Blackpool bogey to rest? […]

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