If there is one story that sums up Martin O’Neill’s inability to win over his players at Nottingham Forest it probably goes back to a prosaic game at Ipswich on March 16th when his team had to settle for a 1-1 draw against the worst side in the Championship.
Adlene Guedioura, one of the club’s more experienced players, had been left out and remained on the bench as Forest huffed and puffed through a match that hardened the impression O’Neill’s team were falling short of the playoffs. At the end of the game it was customary for the unused substitutes to go through some warm-down exercises on the pitch with the fitness staff. Except Guedioura refused and, when challenged, he started protesting that the game was over and, as far as he was concerned, that meant he was on international duty.
The flaw in that argument was that Guedioura had been left out of Algeria’s squad for their games against Gambia and Tunisia. O’Neill was livid. There was a dressingroom confrontation and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Guedioura did not start another game for the two-times European Cup winner.
O’Neill, sacked as manager on Friday against a backdrop of growing dressingroom disillusionment, had been in charge only five months before Forest added him to their list of managerial statistics.
Sabri Lamouchi, a 47-year-old Frenchman who last managed Rennes and took Ivory Coast to the 2014 World Cup, has taken over in a quick turnaround, designed to minimise disruption, and the Guardian can reveal everything came to a head for O'Neill, in the first week of pre-season training, because of his poor relationship with a significant number of key players, their failure to embrace the former Republic of Ireland manager and, in some cases, a loss of respect and discipline.
Some of Forest’s more influential players had made it clear behind the scenes they did not enjoy working with him and that the atmosphere had deteriorated to the point they held little hope of it being a successful season.
Tellingly, a number of those players had also complained to the club’s hierarchy about his predecessor, Aitor Karanka, and this has been a recurring theme for Forest during 20 years of drift outside the top division: players turning against the manager and, in O’Neill’s case, the people in charge reluctantly concluding that the damage was irreparable.
All of which means no happy ending for O'Neill at the club where he was part of the football miracle that saw Brian Clough take an ordinary team from 13th in the old Second Division to promotion, a league championship and back-to-back European Cup wins.
O'Neill's return to the City Ground certainly made a nice story but the reality is that Forest's owner, the Greek shipping magnate Evangelos Marinakis, is not the sentimental type. He employed O'Neill not for romance but because he was impressed with a list of achievements that made him, trophy-wise, the most successful British manager in the sport. Marinakis met him twice and was won over by O'Neill's drive and energy to fill the void left by Karanka's departure.
Unfortunately for the decision-makers at Forest, it is nearly 25 years since O'Neill had that golden period at Leicester where he transformed a second-tier side into one that secured four top-10 finishes in the Premier League and reached three League Cup finals, winning two. O'Neill subsequently won seven trophies with Celtic, as well as reaching the Uefa Cup final, and was talked about for a long time as the best qualified man to succeed Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
Instead, he went to Aston Villa, with sixth-placed finishes in each of his last three seasons, but he then had a poor spell in the managerial wastelands of Sunderland and five years with the Republic of Ireland that divided opinion.
Many Forest players were nonplussed by his appointment and more intrigued by the news that it would mean Roy Keane, someone they knew much more about, joining as assistant. Keane announced last weekend he was leaving the club because he wanted to restart his own managerial career.
Keane’s departure has been a big factor in what has subsequently happened, not least because it sharpened the appetite of the people at the top of the club to get an accurate gauge of the mood of the players. That feedback has been overwhelmingly negative and convinced them to act now even though Forest’s hierarchy know it will invite more criticism on a club that has long been accused of employing managers on a revolving-door policy.
O’Neill made it clear before taking the job that he regarded it as unfair to be branded a “dinosaur” and, to give him his due, he has experimented with various formations since inheriting a team. Again, though, the style of play has not always been pleasing on the eye.
O’Neill has never been convinced by João Carvalho, the club’s £13 million record signing, who was not in the team or in his best form when the manager was appointed. As such, O’Neill used the Portuguese only fleetingly when the vast majority of supporters believed he should have been an automatic starter.
Many of those supporters had never wanted the club to part company with Karanka and, from day one, O’Neill was targeted on social media. Although this did not sway the decision, Forest have been taken aback that so many of their younger fans, in particular, have been unsparing about one of the club’s “Miracle Men”.
Forest were eighth when O’Neill took over but dropped into mid-table after a four-match losing sequence in April. They ended the season with three straight wins to lift them to ninth but O’Neill has not been embraced by the club’s fanbase in the way that might have been anticipated.
As for O’Neill’s critics in the dressingroom, they grew to dislike his ideas. There have been complaints that his training methods were uninspiring and that, tactically, the players were unsure about how he wanted them to play. Over the last week, as he led them on a series of punishing runs, attitudes have hardened. Yet the truth is a nucleus of senior players were unconvinced from the start.
There have been several examples of the atmosphere not being as it should. In January, Forest signed a midfielder by the rather optimistic name of Pelé on loan from Monaco. Yet O’Neill cut that short when the player, nursing an injury, missed an appointment with the club’s doctor.
One first-team player was dropped after reporting so late he missed the team coach. Another key performer – a player who also fell out with Karanka - was too loose-lipped on holiday and criticised O’Neill so strongly that it ended up on a supporter’s Facebook account and got back to the club.
O'Neill's sympathisers might legitimately question whether Forest's players exist in a culture of excuses, pointing out that Karanka's methods were also questioned by some members of the team and that the same happened to another old favourite, Stuart Pearce, and various others during the churn of managers, post-Clough. Yet it is also true that part of O'Neill's job was to bring the players together and improve the team, albeit with only an 18-month contract. In that regard, Forest have decided it has not worked out.
As a player, O’Neill helped an unheralded club become the champions of Europe and talked about it “like getting on a train and never getting off”. As their manager, O’Neill lasted only 19 games and, at the age of 67, it cannot be ruled out that this might end his long and, for the most part, distinguished career. – Guardian