When was it that alarm bells began to ring? Was it when Omar Richards arrived from Bayern Munich for £8.5m to become Nottingham Forest’s sixth summer signing? Was it Lewis O’Brien’s £6m switch from Huddersfield? Or perhaps Remo Freuler, signed this past week from Atalanta for £7.6m, was one signing too many – and that was before a £20m fee was agreed for Emmanuel Dennis.
If that move is concluded then Forest will have brought in 15 players this summer at a cost of just under £110m, and they have been strongly linked with Morgan Gibbs‑White. That figure, irrespective of the quality of the players or the logic of each individual signing, is enough to inspire a qualm of anxiety.
Premier League history is dotted with the minatory lessons of the overspenders. Nobody wants to do a Middlesbrough 1996-97, a Derby 2006-07, a QPR 2011-12 or a Fulham 2018-19. The dangers of mass changes should be clear, but the riches of the Premier League can do strange things to directors.
Six of Forest’s new signings started the 2-0 defeat at Newcastle last Saturday and two more came off the bench. There were eight changes from the team that started the playoff final. If Forest looked disjointed, it’s hardly surprising. While Forest’s board have actively chosen the degree of turbulence, some level of flux is inevitable.
Forest’s rise was sudden. They were bottom when Steve Cooper was appointed in September and played themselves into the playoff spots only in April.
By the end of the season, they had five loanees as regular starters, none of whom joined the club on a permanent basis, while the goalkeeper Brice Samba refused a contract extension and left for Lens. That’s immediately half a team that needs replacing, which is part of the problem of a strategy based on reducing liability by relying on loan deals. This is not to say such a policy is wrong as such – it may be financially necessary – but it does create instability.
Even leaving that aside, economic reality means that significant change is probably necessary if a promoted team are to compete. That there is a vast gulf between the Premier League and the Championship (and a growing one between the Championship and League One) is obvious. But there is something corrosive about that stratification; it’s another little bit of football’s soul lost in the pursuit of profit that has characterised the three decades of the Premier League era.
The cases of Ipswich in 1961-62 and Nottingham Forest in 1977-78, winning the title in their first season after promotion with essentially the same squad, are extreme, but might it not be nice if promotion did not mean having to replace the majority of the squad that achieved it? Anybody who has played a team sport at any level (or watched Ocean’s 11 or The Dirty Dozen) knows the power of that sense of a group of often very different individuals coming together in common cause, different attributes meshing to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Maybe it’s naive to believe that should be the case at the highest level as well – the idea of friendships within football has been scorned by enough former pros to make clear that it’s an industry as grubby and bitter as any other – but for fans the idea the players wearing their colours have somehow committed to their values and their identity feels vital. What is a club, if it is not that feeling of communality? Otherwise there’s a Trigger’s broom situation: if you change every component, what makes it still Nottingham Forest?
Yet that requires a significant suspension of disbelief. Players will move on for better offers. Clubs will jettison players they no longer need just as quickly – a tendency of which the current shenanigans at Barcelona are just an extreme example. Football is a brutal, mercenary world, the sense that it somehow matters based not quite on a fiction, but on something that is, at best, fleeting and ephemeral. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the case of a promoted side.
Even as the vital points are secured, or as the playoff final is won, executives are finalising plans of who to buy, how to bring in the necessary experience, the top-flight quality. And so, inevitably, of who to let go, who is unmitigatedly Championship in standard, whose wages have to be cleared from the books.
That is not to blame the execs; that is what they ought to be doing. In modern football there can be no passengers, no room for sentiment. Thanks very much for your service, stalwart box-to-boxer of the second-flight slog who dragged us over the line, but we’ve managed to get mid-table Ligue 1 side X down to 15mil for their up-and-coming holding midfielder Y.
Do players ever feel the futility of that, knowing there’s a good chance that promotion will mean their departure? What emotional bonds can fans really form with players who are likely to be moved on for having achieved success? Progress can sometimes feel very destabilising; there is something oddly self-sacrificial in those players who cast their futures into doubt by winning promotion.
And what chance then a manager, not only having to cope with a step up in level, but also with moulding a squad of players who have never met before into a team? Even Danny Ocean was only putting together a team of 11 – and his casino robbers were not competing against better-resourced gangs who had been working together for years. Aston Villa bought 15 players in the summer of 2019 and survived, but only by a point and largely because they already had Jack Grealish.
The teams who do best having gone up – Brentford, Leeds, Wolves, Swansea – tend to be those with a clearly defined philosophy and a well-practised style. Success came too suddenly for Forest to be able to achieve that and the result is the mass purchase of this summer.
Cooper is a highly promising manager but turning this season into an episode of Ready Steady Cook has made his task almost impossibly hard.