English football’s powerhouses are changing
London, Liverpool and Manchester are English football’s city-states present and future
West Ham United’s French midfielder Dimitri Payet: has refused to play for the club again. Photograph: AFP Photo
Martin O’Neill and his Nottingham Forest teammates celebrate winning the European Cup with their 1-0 victory over SV Hamburg at the Bernabeu Stadium, Madrid, in 1980. Photograph: Getty Images
Meanwhile in Nottingham . . .
It is a tale of two football cities. Liverpool and Manchester dominate the Premier League weekend: Everton host Manchester City while Liverpool travel to Manchester United. It’s a heavyweight Sunday by the River Mersey, skimming through south Manchester to empty into Liverpool Bay.
Meanwhile in Nottingham . . .
Liverpool and Manchester are surging. The four major clubs are part of the belted-in top seven. The other three – Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal – come from London.
London, Liverpool, Manchester: these are English football’s city-states. This is the present, and it looks like the future. This is Premier League geography 2017.
Meanwhile in Nottingham . . .
On the banks of the grey Trent time stalls. Here it is a tale of two city clubs and the state they’re in. “Change and decay in all around I see,” as the football hymn Abide With Me mournfully reminds us.
County and Forest have just played 18 games without victory. County have lost 10 of their last 11 matches, including the last seven on the trot. Forest have lost six of their last seven, including the last five on the trot.
“Turbulent” was the description Alan Smith – blonde, Leeds Smith – used last Saturday of County’s plight. “Precipice” was the stand-out word from the Nottingham Post headline after Forest had lost again.
Smith’s remark came after the latest defeat – a 4-1 hammering at Morecambe, who played the second half with 10 men. “It’s not easy to play against 10 men,” Smith said. Not if you’re Notts County.
It was Smith’s first game as caretaker manager, and his last. John Sheridan had been dismissed earlier in the week seven months into a three-year contract. Sheridan, the former Irish international, was seen as County’s ideal man, an experienced lower-league manager – hence the three-year contract.
There was widespread sympathy within football, and within Nottingham, that County’s squad proved beyond Sheridan, which probably explains why Sheridan was immediately re-employed by Oldham Athletic, a division higher.
Burns added: “It’s not a good time for either of Nottingham’s football clubs.”
This was understatement. Burns represents, in particular, what Nottingham Forest used to be: the champions of Europe. It is a claim half of the Merseyside and Manchester clubs cannot make, along with Arsenal and Tottenham.
But Forest’s greatest days in Munich and Madrid were almost 40 years ago. While we as neutrals still frame our expectations of the club and its potential on the memory of Burns, Peter Shilton, John Robertson and Martin O’Neill, the dispiriting fact for locals is that Forest have not been in the Premier League this century. Of as much relevance to them as the European Cups of 1979 and 1980 are the three years spent in the third division until 2008.
Since then there have been many underwhelming afternoons of Championship disappointment and nine different managers, from Billy Davies (twice) to Alex McLeish to Stuart Pearce. The current manager is Philippe Montanier, but not for long.
The ownership of the club has also changed. Nigel Doughty was a Nottinghamshire businessman who died in 2012. A Kuwaiti family – Al Hasawi – took over but that was scheduled to end this week when John Jay Moores – owner of the San Diego Padres baseball club – was to buy control at the City Ground.
By late on Friday evening the club confirme the deal was off .
At least over at County there had been some developments of that nature. Businessman Alan Hardy confirmed his takeover and installed Kevin Nolan as Sheridan’s permanent successor. Hardy said he was “tingling”.
County have been all over the place. One place they have not been, though, is non-League. But the drubbing at Morecambe was part of a downward trajectory that could see Notts County relegated from the Football League for the first time in their history. They are third-bottom, one point above the drop.
And history is principally why the club matters. Notts County have never won the league, and while they did win the FA Cup once, it was in 1894.
But Notts County are the world’s oldest professional football club, dating back to 1862. The author Dan Goldstein once put it this way: “It is County’s sheer antiquity, rather than any on-the-pitch achievements, which gives fans and critics alike cause to expect better things. The club is older than the League, older than the FA Cup – older, even, than the FA itself.”
It is this status – historic and European – which led to Nottingham being declared, in 2014, England’s first “City of Football”. In 2015 Nottingham then became “Home of English Sport”. A geographic centre.
Its two clubs are challenging those titles. Nottingham football is staging a disappearing act.
Next, Forest, two points above relegation, go to Birmingham City. It is a local derby. County, in another local derby, host Mansfield Town.
It will be of interest, locally.
Meanwhile, north by north-west . . .
West Ham have enough problems without Dimitri Payet hanging around
Pierre van Hooijdonk did not even make the bench for Nottingham Forest’s final game of season 1998-99, which remains the club’s last in the Premier League. But if there is a name that Forest supporters associate with that season, it will be the Dutchman’s.
Van Hooijdonk began it by going on strike; Forest ended it by coming bottom.
Van Hooijdonk was upset that Forest’s hierarchy had not strengthened the squad as promised. That was his view and three years on from the Bosman ruling he was going to express it. Van Hooijdonk’s nonchalant vehemence on this did not sit easily with a manager such as Dave Bassett.
Van Hooijdonk did return to the Forest team mid-season but it was too late. They were second-bottom and the club, the team, were damaged.
His name inevitably resurfaced on as news broke of Dimitri Payet’s refusal to play for West Ham again. Payet wants to rejoin Marseilles from whom he signed for West Ham 18 months ago. A fee of £20 million has been mentioned.
West Ham, understandably, are annoyed – Payet signed a contract extension last February – and manager Slaven Bilic is determined not to sell.
But if there is a lesson from Van Hooijdonk it could be to accept post-Bosman reality, take £20 million and move on. West Ham have enough problems without this hanging around, just there, a constant irritation.