State of Play: Nottingham Forest – finally seeing the woods through the trees?
Posted on January 17, 2018
AFTER narrowly avoiding relegation to the third tier of English football in 2016-17, Nottingham Forest went into the current season under new ownership and with hopes of fulfilling some of the club’s potential. Forest are enjoying their best attendances since 1995-96 and going as far back as the glory days of Brian Clough and the two European Cup triumphs, gates at the City Ground have rarely been as high as they are currently. Since the Premier League era began in 1992, Forest have largely been excluded from English football’s elite bracket – of the 25 seasons since 1992, they have spent 17 in the Championship (second tier) and three in the third tier (League One). Only five seasons have been spent in the Premier and three of those campaigns have ended in relegation.
To some extent, Forest have become marginalised, like many Midlands clubs that once belonged to the top bracket – teams like Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Derby County and Wolverhampton Wanderers. All of these clubs represent a significant part of English football’s heritage, but they have struggled to regain their position at a time when the game has high levels of public interest, corporate sponsorship and TV broadcasting support. Many of these clubs are now coming in sight of overseas investors, which may make them more competitive in their own domestic environment. Forest are one such club, having been taken over by Greek businessmen in May 2017.
Under new management
Nottingham Forest came under new ownership in the summer of 2017 after a five-year period under the leadership of Kuwaiti businessman Fawaz al-Hasawi. It was widely believed that the Hasawi era was largely a disaster during which time the club suffered from three transfer embargos and half a dozen winding-up orders. Furthermore, between 2012 and 2017, the club appointed eight full-time managers, the most recent casualty being Mark Warburton who was sacked after nine months in charge and became the first to be disposed of under the new regime.
That new administration is spearheaded by Greek shipping owner Evangelos Marinakis, who holds 80% of the club in his hands. The remaining 20% is held by fellow Greek Sokratis Kominakos, who has had a lengthy career with MNCs like Kraft, Vodafone and Procter & Gamble.
Although Marinakis and his team have been restructuring the club, the new owner does not come without some baggage. The owner of Olympiacos of Greece, Marinakis is among a group of people who have been under investigation over a match-fixing scandal. He has been cleared of criminal charges, but the accusations are still running and the outcome is still uncertain. He has, of course, denied the charges.
There has been a complete overhaul of the club’s management: sports lawyer Nicholas Randall QC was appointed as chairman; a new CEO, Ioannis Vrentkos, formerly managing director at Olympiacos, came in; Samantha Gordon was hired as Chief Financial Officer; David was appointed as Chief Commercial Officer; and Michael Anagnostou, former Chief Executive of the Greek Super League, was brought in as head of football operations. A popular hiring was Forest’s former midfielder, Johnny Metgod, who was appointed as a director of the club.
This level of frantic activity suggested to many people that Forest were getting back on track after a troubled period in their history.
On the pitch
At the end of 2016-17, Forest finished 21st in the Championship, beating Ipswich Town on the final day of the season to secure their place in the division. It was a season characterised by below-par performances and unrest surrounding the owner. Protests started early in the campaign and for a while it looked as though American millionaire John Jay Moores was going to takeover the club. Once that fell through, the discontent grew again and in January 2017, there was a big display of indifference, including the involvement of former Forest players.
The last 10 years
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The league placings during the Hasawi period deteriorated year-on-year from eighth in 2012-13 to 21st in 2016-17. The trajectory is such that if the trend continued then relegation to League One would be a genuine threat, but the new management team’s goal is to take Forest back to the Premier, a division they last graced in 1998-99.
At the time of writing, Forest were in mid-table in the Championship, but under caretaker Gary Brazil, they pulled off a surprise 4-2 win against Premier League Arsenal in the FA Cup. Forest’s impressive performance may have inflated the view of a team that has not set the world alight this season, but clearly it is capable of producing outstanding football when the occasion demands.
The task ahead for new manager (appointed Jan 10 2018) Aitor Karanka is to produce a team capable of returning to the Premier League.
This season, Forest have been more active than they have for some time in the market. A year ago, they had a UEFA transfer embargo lifted and in the summer, they sold Britt Assombalonga to Middlesbrough for a club record £ 14m. A year or so earlier, they sold promising youngster Oliver Burke to RB Leipzig for £13m. Over the past decade, big money sales have been limited, although they sold Michael Antonio for £ 7m to West Ham in September 2015.
One of the first things the new regime decided upon at the start of the season was to reduce prices at the City Ground, a positive PR move that helped to generate more interest among disenchanted supporters. Season ticket sales hit 17,000 as a result and in a survey of Championship ticket prices it was revealed that ticket prices at Forest are actually cheaper than they were five years ago.
In 2017-18, Forest are averaging 25,000, a figure that has been bettered only 11 times in the club’s history. It is also the highest since 1995-96 when it was 25,916 – the best over the past 30 years. This underlines the staying power of the club’s support and also reflects the efforts being made by the current administration.
Over the last 10 years, Forest have maintained an average that has fluctuated from just below 20,000 to just under 24,000. In 2016-17, it fell to 20,333 which was slightly up on 2015-16 but one of the lowest figures over the 10-year period under review.
If you discount Notts County as the club’s peer and look to Derby County and Leicester City as regional rivals, it is clear that Forest have lost significant ground on local competitors – Derby and Leicester were both drawing similar crowds to Forest in 2012-13, but in 2016-17, Derby were pulling in more than 29,000 and Leicester almost 32,000.
Comparing the gates
At the start of the 21st century, Forest were losing £100,000 per week, largely attributable to the collapse of ITV Digital, which affected a lot of clubs. In 2016, the club posted a loss of £2.2m, the best result in a decade, and a marked improvement on 2015 when the club recorded a £21.6m loss. However, this big reduction, while credible, was due to the write-off of £17.7m in loans.
A look at the club’s accounts for 2015-16 (the most recent available) shows that while turnover increased from £18.1m to £ 18.4m, operating expenses, at £37.6m, amount to around double the total of income. The operating loss, which was reduced by sales of £4.7m, came in at £23.8m.
Nevertheless, Forest continued to work within the constraints of the Financial Fair Play (FFP) embargo in reducing overheads. Since 2014, losses have been trimmed by 91%.
Over the past decade, here are the summary figures:
According to Deloitte’s Annual Review of Football Finance (July 2017), Forest had net debt of £74m in 2016 and their wage/revenue ratio, at 173% was the highest in the Championship. The average for the division was a very unsustainable 101%.
There’s a new broom sweeping clean at Nottingham Forest and the behind-the-scenes changes suggest the club will be run very differently than it has been in the past decade. On that basis, and given the new regime is only in its first season, there’s reasons to be optimistic about Forest’s medium-term future. Promotion to the Premier will increase revenue streams considerably and also raise the profile of a club that has been pushed aside in the current era of the game in England, and indeed, Europe. Forest is the most provincial club to have won Europe’s top prize, part of a string of achievements that are unlikely to be repeated. However, smaller clubs than Forest have sustained Premier status. The hard part may be getting there, for this is a club from a passionate football city and with the right, stable backing, it can reclaim a place in the top flight. If that happens, Forest will suddenly look a very different club.