Chris Hughton at a crossroads as Forest head into a basement date with Derby

At 62, you wonder what next if he becomes City Ground’s latest managerial casualty

Chris Hughton’s Nottingham Forest are bottom of the Championship afetr four games. Photograph: Tony Marshall/Getty

Chris Hughton’s Nottingham Forest are bottom of the Championship afetr four games. Photograph: Tony Marshall/Getty

 

For starters, let us cut Chris Hughton a slice of nostalgia. He may relish some soulful nourishment from the past given where he is at present.

It is October 1979 and Hughton, only 20, is at Dalymount Park. He is about to make his Ireland debut in a friendly against the USA. It is an experimental Irish team. There are recognisable experienced figures such as Mick Martin, and Paddy Mulligan appears in the second half to win his 50th and last cap; but Hughton is alongside Pierce O’Leary, winning his third cap, Jeff Chandler winning his second and Jerry Murphy doing the same. John Anderson, also playing for the second time, scores the winner from the bench. It is 3-2 and 20,000 go home happy.

The son of Christine from Limerick and William from Ghana, Hughton is on his way. There will be 52 more caps and a year later a goal at Lansdowne Road. It all lay in front of him. Those were the days.

On Saturday morning, aged 62, Hughton awakes to a different football world. He is manager of Nottingham Forest. They have played four games in the Championship and lost four, each by a single goal. They are bottom of the table. Last season ended without a win in six which means Forest have not won a league game since the first week of April.

Chris Hughton is pressed by Ruud Gullit during Ireland’s clash with the Netherlands at Euro ’88. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Chris Hughton is pressed by Ruud Gullit during Ireland’s clash with the Netherlands at Euro ’88. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

On Tuesday they exited the League Cup, losing 4-0 at home to Wolves. Forest had 26 per cent possession and no shots on target. Locals, eager to get behind Hughton when he was appointed last October, have gradually drifted into wariness, then scepticism and from some there is outright hostility. And on Saturday Nottingham Forest travel to neighbours Derby County.

It is the first seriously tense occasion of the season and the consequence of a Forest loss could be that the club’s hierarchy use the international break to apply the latter part of the phrase to Hughton. And at his age, after 28 years of coaching and management to add to the 16 playing professionally, that could be that.

This may appear an unnecessarily pessimistic premise - 62 is not the age it was and Hughton’s profile is good. But then look again at the record above. Forest, moreover, have not been slow to act - none of their last 12 managers has lasted two years in the job, with most of them not reaching a first anniversary. Martin O’Neill had 5 and a half months at the City Ground in 2019.

Downhill

O’Neill was replaced by Sabri Lamouchi, who lasted 16 months. Lamouchi guided Forest into the play-off places before the last day of season 2019-20. There was some optimism. Forest promptly lost 4-1 at home to Stoke and finished seventh. It was the club’s best finish for nine years but the play-offs were gone and it has been downhill since. When the first five games of last season were lost Lamouchi was axed during the first international break.

Should Forest lose at Derby and should history repeat itself in the boardroom, Forest will be onto the 20th permanent managerial appointment of the 21st century. That is two more than in the previous 111 years of managers at the club, a reason it had a name for stability.

Hughton may be able to find some consolation or explanation in that, but Forest’s modern recklessness will not guarantee him another chance. The work he did at Brighton pre-Graham Potter can be forgotten swiftly - leading the club to promotion and keeping them in the Premier League for two seasons is an achievement others have been unable to match, yet even then there was a perception that Hughton is a better man than he is a manager. It’s not the worst criticism, nor is it recommended professionally.

Presumably his record at Brighton is why the powers at the City Ground thought Hughton would be a good fit. But Forest ended last season 17th, 25 points off the play-offs and with fan grumbles about style. Those have been amplified in the last few weeks with supporters pointing out on Wednesday morning that Forest have not had a shot on target for three hours.

Former player Garry Birtles caught the sense of frustration when he said: “Look at Luton, Coventry, Peterborough, Barnsley. They’ve all got less resources than Forest. They’re doing something right and Forest aren’t. Our level is so far off it. People say we’ve only lost by the odd goal, but if we’d been more positive we might have won by the odd goal.”

Birtles manages to scratch the macro and micro issues there.

Derby County and manager Wayne Rooney have problems of their own heading into this Saturday’s east midlands derby. Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA
Derby County and manager Wayne Rooney have problems of their own heading into this Saturday’s east midlands derby. Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA

And so to Derby. They are hardly PSG. Derby have won once this season and have the real possibility of a points deduction coming for financial irregularities. It would throw doubt on their ability to stay in the Championship and across Wayne Rooney’s willingness to stay as manager.

Had Forest’s season begun differently, the focus would be all on the Rams. But it has started as it finished last season and the caution Hughton’s players have shown has not offered protection. “We’re going down with the Derby,” Forest fans sang at Stoke last Saturday.

It has come to this, a local derby played out amid the rubble of years of wrong decisions by two clubs who should do better. Chris Hughton knows what he inherited. He also knows what could lie ahead.

Keane back in the dugout?

Roy Keane is another Irish manager with age concern. Having turned 50 this month and having been out of frontline management since the end at Ipswich Town a decade ago, Keane has spoken to Gary Neville in his ‘Overlap’ programme about his desire to give it another go.

“There’s something in me where I could be a good manager,” Keane says. “That’s what’s kind of pulling at me to go back in.”

There’s some realism from Keane when he says: “Where am I going to go back, the Championship, top of League One?”

And there is also an awareness of “perception”. Which begs a broader question as to how Keane is perceived in 2021. From the public there is popularity stemming from his TV appearances as a pundit, Keane’s sharpness, humour and charisma making him always intriguing to watch. As Neville points out, Keane has 1.4m followers on Instagram.

The trouble for Keane is that the public do not appoint managers. Owners do and there has been clearly enough hesitation on their part to prevent them employing Keane. Had he not been at Forest with O’Neill, there might even have been a clamour to have him at the City Ground. We end up back at nostalgia.

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