Who picked the Nottingham Forest team?

Sometimes in football, it’s only months after something has happened that you realise what was going on.

That was certainly the case when Paul Williams was appointed as the caretaker manager of Nottingham Forest in March 2016.

It’s becoming a theme that I feel sorry for managers who took over at The City Ground around this time, and it was also the case with Williams, who’d been given a hospital pass after the sacking of Dougie Freedman.

Together with everything else that was going on, Williams was ‘commuting’ regularly from his family home in Southampton – a journey that you wouldn’t be jealous of making at the best of times.

Williams actually sought Freedman’s approval before taking on the role, which he was given for ten games through to the summer.

In the end, Forest won only two of them, but comfortably stayed in the Championship.

In the final match of that season, Britt Assombalonga made his return from long-term injury and he and Chris Cohen scored in the sunshine at the MK Dons.

Everyone felt the future looked more rosy, with players back from injury and a summer in which to find the right manager.

From everything I heard, nobody had a bad word to say about Williams, who seemed to me to be a very honourable man who was having to front up and manage the situation as best he could.

But midway through his stewardship, there was controversy.

Williams was forced to say in interviews that he “picked the team and tactics” and that talk of interference in selection was “not true”.

With only a single point taken from the first four matches after Freedman’s dismissal, this was a pretty grim time to be in charge and allegations that Williams was close to quitting because of that interference weren’t helping the general malaise. 

Can you imagine the furore there would have been if Williams had gone, and Forest were forced to bring in another caretaker manager to replace the caretaker manager? 

The report in The Sun claimed that Williams was being “besieged with phone calls and text messages from the boardroom” and that “various members of staff are now being hassled by Fawaz Al-Hasawi for information about the team in the hours before matches”.

I’m now pretty sure I witnessed it at Reading before a Tuesday evening game at the beginning of April, though I didn’t realise what was going on at the time. 

I was sitting in the rather bland, but comfortable enough, press room, chatting to a Forest official at the Madejski Stadium before the game, when his phone rang.

It was Fawaz Al-Hasawi. With an apology, he left the room to take the call and I thought no more of it.

But, now with nobody to talk to, I decided I’d make the short journey from the press room out onto the press gantry, where you could see the pitch, and get ready for the programme.

That’s what I was there for, after all, and not for idle chit-chat to pass the time!

As I emerged onto the gantry, I peered down to look to the edge of the tunnel area and noticed that Forest’s players were taking a wander onto the pitch, having recently arrived at the Madejski.

I also noticed that the same official I’d been chatting to in the press room was handing his phone to Paul Williams on the edge of the surface a long way below me.

The body language did not look overly clever. 

I need to point out here that the following story didn’t come from that official (as it looks like it did!), but rather from within the dressing room a few months later. 

Forest was a very leaky club at this point – there were lots of people, inside and outside the dressing room, who were disgruntled at the way the club was being run and were only too happy to tell journalists about it.

Hence you’ll have seen plenty of uncomfortable stories about Nottingham Forest at the time in both the local and national media. 

Al-Hasawi had not been impressed with Forest’s shoddy defending in previous weeks, though they were suffering with a few injuries at the back at the time.

So the Reds owners’ suggestion (maybe more forceful than a suggestion) was that Williams pick creative midfielder Henri Lansbury to play at centre half, to improve their defensive solidity.

The ebullient Lansbury has plenty of qualities to offer a team, but I’m not sure that playing centre half (against the likes of Yann Kermorgant) was up his street.

Neither did Williams. 

I assume that Al-Hasawi had tried to call Williams, or members of his coaching staff, before trying the official who was sitting five floors up with me at the time.

To Williams’ great credit, he declined the ‘advice’ offered by his owner – which is often a brave thing to do, with career opportunities likely to be limited if you do.

The trouble is, though, that word spreads pretty quickly through the club about what was asked and the manager – albeit a caretaker – is hugely undermined by it. 

At a football club, the manager MUST be in charge of the dressing-room and he will gain the respect and authority from his players.

But Williams was being undermined, even if Al-Hasawi had the best of intentions in what he was doing.

Also, changing the team and the tactics 90 minutes before kick-off would not be a clever idea, either. 

This was the same game in which we pictured former manager Steve Cotterill chatting with Al-Hasawi before the match in the Director’s Box.

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Was Al-Hasawi lining up Cotterill (who he’d sacked within days of taking over, remember) in case Williams resigned because of the supposed ‘interference’ from above? 

It was a few days later that the story about Al-Hasawi’s interference emerged in the newspaper, and though he may not have liked having to answer questions about it, I’m not sure it did Williams any harm – it added to the feeling that Forest were a club lurking from one mishap to another.

Williams left Forest at the end of the season after “failing to agree terms on a return to a coaching job”, going on to work for the FA, and also becoming assistant-manager at then-Premier League side Swansea City. 

Photos: Dan Westwell

2 thoughts on “Who picked the Nottingham Forest team?

  1. The 5 years of Al-Hasawi ownership will always be viewed as incompetent and slap dash. He appeared to genuinely have a fondness for the club but he was way out of his depth and his entourage were meddling in affairs that did not concern them. Awful period but I guess, he possibly saved the club from administration?

  2. There was absolutely no structure to the club at all. You could see why respected figures in football came and went in the director type roles.

    Surely owners often want to pick the team, it is their money and as a football fan I know I would struggle not to want to live out playing football manager.

    I think this is a fundamental thing that disconnects football clubs from a sustainable future. Luckily Forest have At least maintained a decent production line in the academy.

    What everyone wants is a guy who is prepared to write a cheque each month and keep quiet, similar to the Sunderland doc but it always ends in disaster. Imagine a doc during Fawaz’s time at Forest!

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