“Gobsmacked.” This was the reaction of one onlooker at the City Ground to Nottingham Forest’s collapse against Stoke on the final day of the Championship season. At kick-off Forest occupied fifth place with 70 points, three ahead of Swansea who were seventh and had a goal difference inferior by five. Despite a dire run of three points from their previous five games all Sabri Lamouchi’s listing team needed was a draw to guarantee a play-off berth. Even if Forest lost, Swansea would have to beat Reading and enjoy a five-goal swing to dislodge them.
Yet on 73 minutes the nightmare began when 1-1 became 2-1 to Stoke via a James McClean strike that was followed by Lee Gregory’s finish five minutes later. A Nuno da Costa own goal in stoppage time made the result 4-1 to Stoke. By full time at the Madejski Swansea had won 4-1 and, with goal difference level, Forest were consigned to seventh by virtue of having scored fewer in total.
Lamouchi’s description of the events he oversaw as “tragic” is stark. “It’s difficult to explain my emotion at this moment but I was extremely disappointed,” he says. “Of course, for everybody but for me as well. But we didn’t lose the play-offs in this last game. We did so for many reasons, for many details.”
Lamouchi’s remedy for recovery was to start focusing immediately on a new campaign less than two months away. “It was a very strange holiday [close season] for me, a very strange vacation. I feel I never stopped but in reality, I’m so proud to be here again. Why? Because I am exactly where I want to be in this fantastic club and I know it’s a big opportunity for me to start again.”
The minimum ambition for 2020-21 is to seal a play-off berth, as Lamouchi attempts to end the club’s 22-year wait for top-flight football. Forest have failed to compete in the Premier League this century, their last season there the 1998-99 campaign under Dave Bassett then Ron Atkinson.
The latter took the club down in bottom place and never managed again, ending a 38-year career. The view was Lamouchi’s time at Forest might be over for overseeing a soul-destroying episode for all connected with the club. He was summoned to Athens for a meeting with the owner, Evangelos Marinakis, but this was to review and analyze the failure and ascertain how it could be addressed. The upshot was the former Ivory Coast and Rennes manager embarked on an overhaul of squad.
Matty Cash, a pacy full-back and Forest’s best player, has been sold to Aston Villa for £16m but the defender Tyler Blackett, who is 26, midfielder Jack Colback (30), and wide man Luke Freeman (28) have arrived. The first two were free signings, Freeman a loan from Sheffield United, indicating the level of finance Lamouchi has at his disposal.
He has also added the 30-year-olds Miguel Ángel Guerrero, a striker from Olympiakos, and Fouad Bachirou, a defensive midfielder from Malmö, for undisclosed fees, and is hopeful of landing the defender Loïc Mbe Soh, who is 19, from Paris Saint-Germain.
Blackett, Colback (back permanently after two loans at Forest) and Freeman were recruited for a reason. “They are British so they know the Championship mentality, what the league it is,” says the manager. “We don’t have time to lose and this kind of player could be a big difference in the end. They are here because they are very good footballers and we need them to increase our level and to change the category [gain promotion].
“Immediately after that last day it was really important to send a positive message, so we looked to sign Colback, Freeman and Blackett. I’m surprised about their mentality – they are so positive.
“At the end we are all in the same boat – we want to be walking out at the end of games having made a lot of sacrifices and achieving the same result.”
Lamouchi, whose 19-year playing career took in Monaco and Internazionale, has a neat response when asked how confident he is that last season will be forgotten and this one a success.
“To be honest I’m not confident, I’m just positive,” he says. “Never confident because in football you never know – you are working well but at the end of the game [the result] is wrong.
“We feel good, we change a lot of things – the way we work, the atmosphere, the training – just to ask the players to focus on your job. We need to play with more consistency, character. If so we will be so close to the goal.”
The Guardian Sport