“He looked to have fear in his eyes” – life under Mark Warburton at Forest

From the beginning, I wanted Forest’s appointment of Mark Warburton to work.

It was a managerial decision that made sense to me – he played football the way most Reds fans wanted it played, he gives youth a chance, and his previous English club (Brentford) had a fantastic transfer policy that made the club millions from players who generally struggled to hit the same heights elsewhere after they’d left.

Warburton was appointed nine matches from the end of the 2016/17 season, with the task of keeping the club in the Championship.

It came after a January in which Philippe Montanier had been sacked, Nigel Clough turned down the job of replacing him, Gary Brazil had been appointed as caretaker-manager until the end of the season, and Forest signed Ross McCormack, Zach Clough, Aaron Tshibola, Joao Teixeira and Gboly Ariyibi while missing out on re-signing former defender Luke Chambers. 

Not a great January, that. 

Brazil’s spell ended well before the end of the campaign, with a shocking performance at Burton Albion, where Forest wouldn’t have scored if they’d been playing until now.

That spell of caretaker-management seemed to sum up the Al-Hasawi era – Forest won two successive games, so Brazil was given the job until the end of the season. 

I know of at least one senior official who was opposed to the “permanency” of the appointment, and would have preferred to continue on a game-by-game basis.

Not for the first time, the advice was ignored. 

But, having been given the job until the end of the campaign, Forest were hammered 5-1 at Norwich in the next match and won only one game in the next seven.

So Brazil was booted out – there was absolutely no thought of the medium term, let alone the long term. 

I felt sorry for the dutiful Brazil, who was working under the most trying of circumstances, with the most difficult of bosses.  

The appointment of Warburton – and the backing from the new owners, after he’d kept the Reds in the Championship – seemed to be a clean break from the Al-Hasawi era, where managers were under huge pressure if they had the audacity to go six matches without a win.

Warburton was promised the “precious commodity of time” by new chairman Nicholas Randall QC, who’d also said – in a damning indictment on the previous owner – that “it is clear to any outsider the club has not been run as it should have.”

Around that time, the club appointed a Director of Football, a Chief Executive and other football staff, as new owner Evangelos Marinakis put the foundations in place of a properly-run club – foundations which had eroded under Al-Hasawi, and unsurprisingly almost led to the complete collapse of the club.

All of those appointments have given a manager the opportunity to succeed, and then it’s up to them to make it work.

Frankly, I don’t think any manager had the chance to be successful at Forest in the seasons before it, because there was little or no structure to the club.

Warburton’s first game in charge was the draw against Derby, when Daniel Pinillos’ powerful last-minute header at the Trent End earned a point. 

It seemed as though Forest were easing to safety under Warburton, and had the chance to go eight points clear of the relegation zone if they beat Blackburn on Good Friday at The City Ground. 

With four matches to go, they’d have been all but safe.

But a 1-0 defeat on Good Friday, was followed by the same result at Cardiff on Easter Monday, and the Reds were back in trouble.

Instead of being eight points clear of the relegation zone, Forest were one.

However, a 3-2 win over promotion-chasing Reading at The City Ground (where Warburton’s side had led 3-0 thanks to a dazzling display from Muzzy Carayol) meant that they headed to QPR knowing a win (or perhaps even a draw) would be enough to ensure Championship survival ahead of the final day.

Defeat at Loftus Road left Forest in huge trouble, out of the bottom three on goal difference alone, with one game to go.

QPR’s win ensured their survival in their final home game, so there were celebratory scenes on the final whistle with Rangers’ fans swarming onto the pitch to party.

Usually, I’d conduct the post-match interview pitchside with the manager after the game, in a quiet deserted stadium.

That wasn’t possible on this particular Saturday evening though, so Warburton made his way to the back of the stand and we sat down close to the press box to talk.

He looked absolutely shell-shocked, he was struggling to find the right words to convince people that Forest would be ok, and – if I’m honest – he looked to have fear in his eyes.

I may be wildly wide of the mark here, but I think he thought there was nothing he could do – his team were going to get relegated.

Fortunately, the following week, Jordan Smith produced that save, and Forest went on to beat Ipswich and stay in the Championship. 

Warburton wasn’t a man I ever got to know as Forest manager – he didn’t indulge in any small-talk, and everything felt like a business transaction.

Usually before and after an interview with a manager, there’d be some small amount of chat, but not with Mark.

Some managers I’d chat with for about a minute before the interview, and I knew when they wanted to get a move on.

Others, I spent hours with.

It was pretty much straight down to the task in hand, and he was hardly massively enlightening in his interviews either. 

So when people asked me what Warburton was like, I had to say “I’ve no idea, really.”

It was obviously a policy that had served him well at Brentford and Rangers, and I wonder if he left Scotland a little singed by their ferocious media, and was wary by the time he got to Nottingham. 

Maybe, in time, he’d have relaxed a little more and learned to trust the local media, but that wasn’t the case in the nine months he was at the club.

That was in stark contrast to how his time at Forest started – as BBC Radio Nottingham and the Nottingham Post were invited to a “getting to know you” meeting at the Nigel Doughty training ground, just a few hours after his appointment.

Warburton – together with assistant David Weir, and Director of Football Frank McParland – were in the room with Colin Fray, Paul Taylor and myself. 

There was nothing overly revelatory in the meeting, but I left feeling optimistic that we would get along well and a decent working relationship would develop.

And, to be clear, there was never any argument or refusal to do an interview from Warburton – there was just no real connection. 

Only towards the end, in the last couple of post-match interviews, did he get even mildly annoyed with one or two of my questions – and showed a rare glimpse of passion.

I can’t help but feel he should have let the fans and media know a little more about the real Mark Warburton, and not the image he presented.

Despite that, I’d have been tempted to stick with him as manager – you’ll know by now that I tend to favour sticking with a manager for too long, rather than cut him off too early.

But it seems what was perceived as an ‘unambitious’ list of January targets, at the time he was struggling for results, led to the decision to make a change. 

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Pics – Dan Westwell

3 thoughts on ““He looked to have fear in his eyes” – life under Mark Warburton at Forest

  1. Mark Warburton is a football purist. He laid the foundation down at Brentford and look where they are now, in evolutionary terms. If QPR stick with him for a couple of years they would probably benefit from MW’s philosophy.

  2. Always remember McParland buying us a round of shots in the Southbank after we stayed up. He didn’t have to because he was just driving by, but he did. Maybe a little bit of better game management and Warburton would have succeeded. I think Rangers damaged him, he lowered his standards to their level in a poor league and maybe struggled to raise them again to what we needed

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