With a recruitment policy that seemed to be along the lines of “throw enough money at it and something will stick”, the announcement in December 2014 that Nottingham Forest were being put under a transfer embargo kind of made sense. Of course that’s not to say it wasn’t a little surprising to the average fan. The inability to pay money for a player – the acquisition of free agents and loan signings were permissible – over three transfer windows (January 2015, Summer 2015 and January 2016), as well as restrict the wages to a maximum of £600k per year would severely limit who could be recruited. To many, it seemed only a particular quality of player would be available and as such, the chance of improving the existing squad was slim. But before looking at the impact of a transfer embargo we first need to establish how Nottingham Forest got there.
Having submitted their Financial Statement to 31st May 2014 for the Championship season 2013-14, outlining losses of £22.9m – in a year when under Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, permitted losses were £8m – that an embargo would be meted out by the Football League in an attempt to stop the club from haemorrhaging more money could be seen as being in the best interests of the long-term future of the club. Of course, at a time when the current owner had an estimated net worth of £1.4billion, it would seem to most supporters of the club somewhat harsh to impose such restrictions. Why stop an owner from spending his own money in the pursuit of bettering the club he wishes to back? He is, after all, a supporter himself.
Now, you may think that running a club with such known losses over a period of seasons (when FFP restrictions clearly stipulate a maximum permitted loss) would cause you to be somewhat reticent when negotiating new deals for existing players or pandering to the wage demands of those your manager wished to sign – you’d be wrong. And why is that? Well, that would be the Premier League cash cow and its seemingly more laissez-faire attitude towards player recruitment, financial losses and financial fair play in general. It’s all worth the gamble, or so the hierarchy at Nottingham Forest thought. As such – and despite posting colossal losses for the previous three seasons – the new incumbent for the 2014-15 season, one Stuart Pearce, was allowed the freedom of the owner’s wallet.
It could be argued the owner had some knowledge of any impending FFP restrictions when he agreed to sell two of Forest’s brightest Academy products to Newcastle in a double deal worth £7m. Of course, that sale was not sanctioned by his new manager, but with the deal to include the continuation of their association with the club for a further season on loan, a disastrous fallout between manager and owner was quickly averted. The swollen coffers did not remain so for long however.
Cue the double signing of Michail Antonio from Sheffield Wednesday for £1.5m and Britt Assombalonga from Peterborough for £5.5m. This was in addition to the signings of Lars Veldwijk (£405k) and Michael Mancienne (£650k) earlier in the summer. A further seven players were recruited on free transfers while Stuart Pearce sought to build a team capable of making an assault on promotion to the promised land. It wasn’t all bad – a total of seven players did not have their contracts renewed and so were released from the club prior to Stuart Pearce taking over. All were seen as being on the periphery of the squad and surplus to requirements. Forest also sold Simon Cox to Reading for £600k – slightly less than the £2m paid for him two years earlier. Hardly a slow down in the culture of player acquisitions in the face of escalating losses at the club.
On paper, Nottingham Forest had a capable squad and after a blistering start to the 2014-15 season the wheels fell off. Pearce was gone by 1st February 2015 with the club languishing seven points above the relegation zone. The January 2015 transfer window had come and gone and with an embargo in place the inability to bolster a struggling squad to (perhaps) improve their fortunes on the pitch was lost. Dougie Freedman became Nottingham Forest’s 7th manager in a two years seven month period since Fawaz Al-Hasawi became owner. It seemed the culture of continued spending and quick-fire sackings when things weren’t working on the pitch needed to change. Dougie Freedman had been manager at two cash-strapped clubs – Crystal Palace and Bolton Wanderers – with varying degrees of success. Had the Forest hierarchy finally recruited a manger who had a handle on the state of the current game and the need to reign in wage costs and player spending to address FFP requirements?
Of course the first order of the day was to get the team to that all-important 50 point mark and stave off the nemesis of relegation. February was a hectic month with 6 league fixtures to be played, but by the end of it Forest had achieved their target. Having briefly flirted with the notion of achieving a finish in the play-off places, Dougie Freedman’s team finished the season in 14th. Having agreed to extend his contract beyond the end of the season, it was now time to build for the forthcoming season while working within the constraints of a transfer embargo.
One of the mantras Dougie Freedman has chanted during his time at Nottingham Forest is the need to recruit players with the right attitude, who want to be at the club. As such, those players who were not part of the team under his regime – whether out on loan or who were simply too divisive – would be moved on. Others who had signed lucrative contracts under previous mangers would not have those contracts renewed and were simply allowed to leave. In all, seven players were cut from the squad with a further two sold on. Significantly, one of those was Michail Antonio, arguably Forest’s prize asset. While no manager wants to sell their best player, the £7m sale of Antonio to West Ham had a dual effect.
In cutting the existing wage bill and bringing in money from the sale of Antonio and McLaughlin (sold to Southend for an undisclosed fee) Freedman believed he had pretty much done enough see Forest out of the transfer embargo after January 2016. No small feat to be achieved by a football manager. But just as significantly was the removal of a player whom Nottingham Forest had become too reliant on when on the pitch. The “give it to Antonio” style of play saw Nottingham Forest become simply one-dimensional – mark him out of the game and you pretty much nullified any threat Nottingham Forest had. In selling him to stave off any further threat of additional embargoes, Dougie Freedman signalled to his squad the belief he had in their ability to contribute to the team as a whole and move the club forward.
The addition of free agents Matt Mills and Jamie Ward showed that players of their ability were happy to take a restricted wage for the opportunity to play football. Mills – Bolton’s then club captain – has become one of Forest’s best performing centre halves, while Jamie Ward does what Jamie Ward has always done – harry and harass the opposition while using his pace and quick thinking to cause problems. The current embargo has forced the staff at Nottingham Forest to think outside the box when it comes to recruitment. Inso doing, Forest have looked to the foreign market for further additions within the permitted constraints. The signing of Dani Pinillos on a free from recently relegated Cordoba was probably Freedman’s finest addition this season. A La Liga quality left back who shows great skill on the ball and good attacking awareness. That he has recently picked up a season ending injury sums up Forest’s current injury woes, but not to be downhearted, Freedman simply returned to La Liga to unearth another left back of similar quality. This time Bojan Jokic – a 75 cap Slovenian international – was signed on loan from Villarreal.
Freedman continued to use the loan market to his advantage, signing Nelson Oliveira (Benfica) and Ryan Mendes (Lille) on season long deals. Oliveira is a Portuguese striker with a point to prove, hoping to make enough waves to be selected in their Euro 2016 squad. Meanwhile, Mendes has pace to burn and while he tries to do the pretty stuff too often when the simple stuff would suffice, he will run all day and has proved to be a valuable asset at times. Chris O’Grady (Brighton) and Gary Gardner (Aston Villa) round out the current loanees with both – Gardner in particular – showing enough quality to justify their inclusion in the current squad. In addition, Forest have a current crop of Academy players who have been able to step up the the plate, so to speak, with Tyler Walker (forward), Oliver Burke (winger) and Jorge Grant (midfield) all showing great promise and potential.
There is hope of signing a number of the current loanees on permanent deals, if and when the current transfer embargo is lifted before the Summer 2016 transfer window. There is also hope that having operated under such an embargo, the mistakes of the past are borne in mind. While this embargo seeks to restrict wayward spending and as far as the fans are concerned, stop the team from purchasing players to improve their chances of success, I think it came at wholly the right time for Nottingham Forest. The embargo looks to benefit clubs in the long term and Forest’s hand had been forced. There is a level of stability within the coaching staff that breeds confidence within the playing staff. They have weathered the storm of poor form earlier this season and emerged stronger. I have no doubt that in previous seasons such a run of form would have seen the owner pull the trigger. But taking the brave option has proven to be the right option. Nottingham Forest are now 12 league games unbeaten – the longest unbeaten run in all four English divisions – and have down so while under a transfer embargo. You don’t have to buy players to create a good team, do you?
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