The last couple of months have been very strange. I distinctly remember driving past The City Ground in my car listening to Colin Fray and Chippers talking about the Ipswich game and feeling very confident about how the season was panning out finally. It wasn't a dream. It had still been far from what I had expected and we had far fewer points on the board then than we had deserved, the coming games were going to be strange and follow that pattern too, scoring goals all over the place at times but only getting draws and somehow extracting the lowest possible points tally for our efforts. However, even after those next few games too, things were undoubtedly going well on 1st December 2018. No one could really doubt that Forest were, finally, on the up and moving in the right direction at last. Everyone was on the same page at last. Or at least that's how it seemed.
I had been happy to see the quiet addition of a Kyriakos Dourekas a few days after listening to that strange post match interview with Aitor Karanka when he just felt 'flat'. Little did I know at the time but it appears the Villa game a few days earlier had possibly sowed some seeds and a stew had been simmering and occasionally stirred since then. Despite the sweet taste of victory that day though, things were not to the taste of Aitor any longer. Things had changed and all hell was going to break loose. What followed we will probably never really know for sure. It was embarrassing, amateurish and regardless of the rights and wrongs of what happened it has, with any doubt, left the whole club well and truly 'flat' just as Karanka was. Maybe he was simply ahead of the curve and could see coming what we have all had revealed to us, step by step.
I am inclined to leave the whole subject well alone as it's become so toxic and divisive since I wrote my last blog post. But it's also like an itch you just can't scratch! I should say from the outset though it's nothing at all about the personalities involved. I have equal respect for Karanka and O'Neill. If things had happened the other way around my views would be no different and I would be advocating O'Neill needed longer before Karanka replaced him. We all need to put virtually everything to one side and simply rewind to early December and recall how right or wrong the decision to get rid of Karanka then was. Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing and the success or failure of any decision can mitigate any view you held at the time but really you have to judge where you stand without that benefit. You might be able to view it as 'crazy' or 'genius' later on. When these events unfolded they seemed to me to be some of the craziest and unexpected events we've seen at Forest for decades though.
Something happened. Something out of the ordinary that was above all else unexpected. I think it's fair to assume it was between Karanka and a part or all of the club hierarchy. Putting two and two together it was probably football related. Although the curve was very much on the up we were probably slightly below the, barely concealed, expectations of some. That is fair. I personally think Karanka and the team suffered under the pressure both in levels of performance and lack of belief and clarity of thought. When we had the odd bump we tended to doubt ourselves and be too reactive. The team seemed settled but then was unnecessarily shuffled, tactics too negative and blatant time wasting employed. I'd rather have seen more of a cavalier 'just go out and play' approach. I think the players were over training, over briefed and under too much pressure. It certainly wasn't nirvana under Aitor - however this had clearly all changed and now things were settled, exciting and moving in the right direction. We had also had little or no luck and that rarely changes. There was little dissent, everyone was on board and the good ship NFFC was sailing in the direct direction, just maybe not quite as fast as some might have expected or hoped. This however is Karanka's MO. It wasn't a surprise. He's was a perfectionist. A really nice bloke but someone who would slowly grind out success rather than magically produce it from a hat.
So what happened? What changed? There's always going to be a degree of a gap between owners and employees in any company. In a football club there's also the sport side too which has a life of its own and results matter so much. Throw into the mix the cultural differences too and it's no surprise there's a slightly uncomfortable feeling inside the club when anyones job might be gone at any moment. Not putting the blame on anyone but these divisions will inevitably exist in our current form - recently taken over with a foreign owner. They might all think they're singing from the same hymn sheet but when the chips are down the interpretation might be a bit different. Now for me, at that time, Karanka was close to untouchable. A manager should never feel too comfortable of course though. Maybe the owners had that same concern and simply overstepped when trying to do a reality check or maybe it was them that were living on a different planet. With our history though the last result we would want, when things were finally getting better and the long sought after stability for once be in sight, was to sack the man at the helm. I don't know what it was about, who started it and whether they were right or wrong, but the outcome was a disaster. Something went very Pete Tong. Nearly all the supporters couldn't believe it at the time, whatever they might say now, it was the wrong thing at the wrong time. There are many different ways to do things right, this was just wrong. Wrong thing and definitely the wrong time.
The die was cast. Karanka was on his way out. Whatever caused it, whoever made the decision, it was happening and was 'announced' to the press just one step below an official press release. The local media was astonished at what they were hearing. They were scared to report what they were hearing as it seemed like a badly timed April Fools' jape. In hindsight perhaps they should have said nothing as after they saw the response the club took a huge step back, said nothing more and hung them out to dry. Not only Karanka was gone but the club were well down the road interviewing replacements and planning signings. The way things turned out meant that those plans they had in place ended up changing and we had two old heroes back at the club. The club totally underestimated the support for Karanka. They seemed to think the appetite for success would outweigh everything else and, whatever the reason, this change could be painted as an ambitious club simply driving forward. How wrong they could have been? The support for Karanka from supporters and players could not have been any more unequivocal. For once the club spoke with one voice and it was definitely not what the owners wanted to hear.
Where the board stood in this maelstrom that engulfed us is hard to say. Maybe the news was released with glee or shock? Maybe even one of Vince Cables 'Exotic Spreasams' or something? They might have been united behind the owners or set against them. Chances are they were somewhere in between the two. Trying to make the best of it and navigate their way through the stormy waters that had been churned up. You have to hope the brains on the board outweigh their egos though and the long, painful silence and period of limbo was spent trying to get the parties to make up. Now, like I say, I can only speculate what it was about, who between and who was 'in the right'. My assumptions however are that the owners have the ultimate say, so the push out of the door would have had to come from the very top, above board level, whether they supported it or not, whether their position is even clear at this point to either of the parties involved. It's possible both sides believe that had their backing. Karanka could have left at any time if he'd wished. Slavery has been abolished, although he'd obviously forego his payoff if he did. No reason he should make it easy and resign though if he was in the right as he no doubt believed. Now there has been a lot of character assignation carried out by third parties and a more subtle 'reimagining' of the past by the club since he's left but I have no doubt whatsoever that Karanka is a genuinely nice bloke and extremely committed to his profession. I have no doubt he would have stayed if he was able to. I do believe there might have been changes that were made of one sort or another that he would not accept. He could easily have given them an ultimatum - change this or I have to go. That's plausible although I still don't think it's likely. Around the Ipswich game though something happened. I suspect it was quite obvious, a big deal, not something small. What I do not believe for one moment though is that he just lost interest and didn't want to stay. That's for the birds.
The fact he had to go in the end was virtually inevitable however. Once the cat is out of the bag it had to happen. Probably, hopefully, when it actually happened everyone should have known it was the wrong thing to do but it had to be done. The huge delay and uncertainty screams of the better part of the club desperately trying to fix things but finally, far too late, having to accept the inevitable. Whoever caused it, this sad episode, also certainly created ourselves one way or another, blown out of all proportion and totally unavoidable, it had to come to an end. You don't get to deal in many facts when you talk about managers' coming and going from football clubs. It's generally ifs and buts but this was a bad dismissal and whatever caused it avoidable and 99.9% not likely to be the thing that would prove to be more instrumental in our success than keeping Aitor in post. The wrong side won this one. Unfortunately the delay also probably delivered the double whammy of ruining the season in the process too. The whole thing would be a farce if it wasn't a tragedy. Regardless of what roles you may choose to cast the characters involved it cannot detract from the fact that the club is by far the biggest loser out of the whole sorry affair.
A payoff was agreed, NDAs signed and the club got to tell their story without fear of contradiction. Aside from a few words being exchanged with a fan on a flight to Spain leaking any of Karanka's views to the world. Carefully constructed no doubt and leaked via respectable but tame journalists to keep it as much at arms length as possible to make it look plausible, but not subject to any serious interrogation it would had been put into less sympathetic hands. It contained everything but not the WHY. Every story needs a why and the journalist failed to deliver and seemed unable to proffer one. This is basic stuff. If he wasn't given a why he should have asked, if he wasn't given an answer then that's the crux of the whole story. It smells bad. It was swallowed whole, the only way it could possibly be digested, by some supporters but generally, I feel, only did more harm than good to the club's reputation. Failing to give the impression of being genuinely open and honest. The amount of paranoia surrounding the club since then is off the scale. Although they're happy to pump out tweets about anything of a passing interest to a Forest fan they would really rather all of social media would just go away and no one, especially anyone who people listen to, expresses anything other than total adoration for everything the club does, not just the club itself. It doesn't breed trust. Why can't people say what they like, within the realms of decency and the law of course, about Forest? Nick Randall QC can't have enjoyed the unforgiving glare of the Sky cameras during the uncomfortable triumph over Leeds and has adopted a far lower profile since then not customarily welcoming our latest signings as he's always made a point of doing previously. I have to wonder, indeed hope, that there are many who feel far less comfortable about things after seeing recent events unfold. Indeed that might be the only positive thing that can happen. Maybe the ones the wrong side of the argument feel less comfortable and those on the right are emboldened and able to stay and do things better in the future. Maybe lessons will be learned and next time, when it might have gone pear shaped again and 'deserve' too, someone benefits, a manager gets more time than they really deserve and the club and supporters are the ones who ultimately do benefit as we have really lost out so far.
Regardless of what any of us think, we will never know and probably never agree either. Whether you believe Karanka should have been given the time promised or whether he alone decided to pull the ejector cord and leave well ahead of schedule it's now, unfortunately academic and the clock is once again reset. Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane's initial stay is only scheduled to be the minimum we would wish any manager to be given and, regardless of success, might well not be extended at their wish. The time we all hoped to be given to someone and the stability we crave won't be back in the near future. That alone is tragedy. For the club, aside from the individuals.
So where are we now? We have a new management team in place. It didn't seem likely that we'd be seeing O'Neill and Keane in the Forest hot seat ever if the smoke signals were to be believed. More so from their side of the equation rather than ours. It wasn't a job that they had showed much sign of ever fancying and now they seemed unlikely to be asked. Apparently the club however was always primarily after them. Whether or not that was the case they played their trump card and probably broke the bank at the point of greatest weakness and probably least value too really. The return of two legendary figures was always going to warrant a huge fanfare and deserve our appreciation. The club PR went into overdrive but despite all the genuine love the 'firework display' was a bit OTT and with a couple of uninspiring results to boot 'that loving feeling' has barely lasted until the morning after the old flame was relit. Fans are divided. Some have bought into the club line 100% and are very much of the line 'my club, right or wrong'. Others still can't get their heads around what happened and the way in which it was done. Neither is wrong, they're just different opinions, glass half full or half empty. It's hard to convey all the degrees of grey in a tweet, just because someone deeply regrets him getting sacked it doesn't mean they also thought we never lost a game or he was perfect. They don't deserve to be called 'rimmers' for simply believing sacking him wasn't right. They're only saying it because they genuinely think it would have been better for Forest, not because of a man crush or something. Equally those who want to move on, thinking Karanka was all or partly to blame and buy the club line deserve equal respect. There's a third kind who just want to bitch and complain about everything without any sense to it and seem to only get pleasure from things going wrong. Those I'd rather went off to support the Sheep because they are definitely not part of the solution to anything ever. Otherwise there's a natural reaction for fans to be angry, sad, happy or whatever based on whether or not they think it was right for the club and what's best now, going forward. Personally I think the only good to come from this episode are if lessons, I thought we already had learned, truly are this time. We have to simply move on now and just do everything we can to get back to where we were and beyond it once again. It doesn't matter who the manager is or who wears the shirt. We can all have our opinions about the best choices but must equally support those given the honour above all else. Our opinions ultimately don't matter one bit. Everyone on the internet could do well to remember that. Just because one person disagrees or is daft, you're the other side of the equation right? So 1-1, what did you expect? Everyone to agree 100%? It's never going to happen, would be boring if it did but don't get excited about it or worry too much when you see it. If this idiot you found were to agree with you it'd hardly make your position any more powerful would it? It doesn't matter much really does it? We are all on the same side don't forget. That's the only thing we know we have in common so let's cut each other a bit of slack because we're all dealing with the same 'problems', it's only how we try to deal with it that differs. Fighting amongst ourselves is one thing that is never going to help anyone.
I am disappointed by the clubs reaction in respect to the dissent that the Karanka saga has dragged up though. I feel it's entirely the wrong way to try and address a problem. Start on the PR and work backwards? Not possible. Don't care what people think. Decide what you want to do. The open letter Randall wrote to us was spot on. A great thing to have put out there, nailing your colours to the mast for everyone to see. Now though all you need to do is strive to back those words up with actions. You will never stop some people complaining, you definitely can't please all of the people all of the time. You just have to, as owners, board, business, and club strive using every fibre to actually do what you've said you'd do, stick to the course you have set and however choppy the seas just drive on. The values you have stated are generally accepted to be wholly good and fundamental. If you are not committed to them then you're a fraud and should go and find a club doing things 'your way'. You don't expect perfection but you can expect genuine commitment whether you're talking about the players or other staff - if you're paid by Forest you should be, first and foremost, committed to doing everything you can to make the club the best it can be. What more can you do or be asked to do? There lies the solution, success maybe, but at least pride in your club. You cannot put lipstick on a pig. You'll only make things worse by trying to fool people and shut them up. Embrace the differences and the struggle. Nothing easy is worth doing.
It was strange to see Karanka in the Sky studio for the West From fixture. Unable to say too much, careful to say nothing he wasn't able to and somehow now 'just another boring pundit' rather than our manager as he was only weeks earlier. The man whose name we sang and believed was firmly on the road to the Premier League sooner or later was now just someone you found more annoyingly hard to understand somehow. In a way it was cathartic - there isn't going to be any more fuel added to the fire that had been raging now. In fact that fire was now undoubtedly extinguished. Every club has mysteries that no one ever knows the answers to. Antonio, Billy, the dodgy agent stories, not to mention Pierre. Aitor is another one of those few who know the real stories but never reveal them to the world. They fade into history and become accepted if not understood. Generally speaking this is probably a good thing.
The other thing that people need to remember whichever side of the Karanka fence they may be is that things change, people come and go. The only ones who are in this for the long haul - a life sentence, with or without good behaviour! - is us, the supporters. Some of the staff will be fans, I hope every player that ever pulls on the Garibaldi will forever be a Forest fan too, but in reality many of the people currently employed by Forest or even owning it are just passing through to some extent and it's just business. That's fine, what else would you expect? Nothing lasts forever. Whoever they are, whatever they do. Demand they do their best for Forest, pull their weight on or off the pitch. Let's appreciate what they do. If they earn our support they should expect it. Whatever manager or players we sign, I hope they are the next Dessie, the new Psycho or Birtles. Try to hope for the best but you always know there will be far more that never become legends. Just demand their absolute commitment to the cause and in return give them the respect they deserve. It doesn't extend to thinking they all deserve to be picked every week, you're sometimes wise to rest your best players to get the best out of them, but don't abuse them. Try and give all the staff and your fellow supporters the benefit of the doubt whenever you can. Even when things go wrong, the best option is obviously always to do whatever you can to stick to the script. As supporters, however we feel about things, all we can do is whatever we can to support the team. However that's a two-way street and the club needs to also focus on their aims and work hard to actually achieve these, rather than trying to spin the PR to give that impression. You can't please all the people and you certainly can't fool them all of the time either. Don't try to and you'll be forgiven more than you imagine. Hopefully we can all learn that lesson from this sorry episode. For now though we have to let Karanka go, with many regrets, into the past. Just the latest name on a long list of former managers. Get behind O'Neill and Keane and hope that they are given every opportunity to achieve success at Forest before they inevitably are the next names added to that list too.