You’ve got to feel for Irish Nottingham Forest fans. You think you’ve finally freed yourself from the footballing nightmare that was Ireland in 2018 under Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, only to be revisited by the same horror show three months later.
Six games into his Forest career and O’Neill is already starting to echo his most unpopular decisions as Republic of Ireland manager.
Joao Carvalho, a creative number 10 who happens to be a fan favourite, is consistently left on the bench in favour of a more robust and workmanlike midfielder in the form of Ben Watson. Daryl Murphy, 35, is regularly picked ahead of Lewis Grabban, the club’s best striker and top scorer. Sound familiar, Ireland fans?
Like his time with Ireland, that’s all well and good if you’re getting results. Fail to get results, however, and the crowd will turn on you quickly, lambasting those decisions.
O’Neill hasn’t had anything like the instant impact the Forest hierarchy would have hoped for in his early days as Forest manager, with the East Midlands club sitting further outside the top six than before he took over.
The Forest board are getting exactly what they deserve. Part of the reason that Aitor Karanka wasn’t backed was because his football wasn’t exactly pleasing on the eye. That would have been absolutely fine if Forest had appointed someone who had a different style.
Who then, on the Forest board, looked at Ireland over the last 12 months under Martin O’Neill and thought this is the man to change their philosophy? It’s very hard to believe that someone actually looked at Ireland’s 0-0 draw with Northern Ireland in November and was inspired to hire O’Neill.
Hiring two ex-players as manager was clearly supposed to some sort of emotional response, but emotion-based football will only take you so far.
O’Neill’s ideas are archaic, and comparisons to a dinosaur are more than justified. Appointing him reeks of a regressive move by the Forest board, and they’ll no doubt be looking for a new manager within 18 months. For a club struggling badly for stability, that is absolutely baffling.
Performances have started to improve of late for Forest, in fairness to O’Neill, and but for poor refereeing decisions, they would have taken six points from their last two games, in difficult fixtures away to West Brom and Preston.
But drawing winnable games by not being brave enough was a hallmark of O’Neill’s Ireland tenure and that more than anything was the reason Ireland didn’t qualify for last year’s World Cup.
If O’Neill wants to avoid something similar happening at Forest, he needs to change his approach and actually go for games that they have a chance of winning.
Monday night’s game against Derby is hugely significant for both Forest and O’Neill for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, Forest haven’t beaten their biggest rivals since 2015 and Derby’s dominance in the fixture has been symbolic of Forest’s stagnation in recent years. Nottingham have also failed to finish above the Rams since 2013. In that time, Derby have been to the Play-Offs on three occasions, while Forest have managed just one top half finish and avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth in 2017.
Both clubs have been stuck in Championship limbo since 2008, but they have generally been poles apart. This is the first season that both clubs have been on a similar level and Monday’s derby takes on greater importance as a result.
Victory for Forest will move them to within a point of Derby, albeit having played a game more, and keep their very slim Play-Off hopes alive. A defeat, on the other hand, will make the gap between Forest and the top six more like a chasm and virtually guarantee that Derby finish above them yet again.
Derby are struggling badly for consistency and have stumbled through the last two months of league football.
Consequently, they are ripe for the taking, and it just depends whether O’Neill is prepared to go for it or not.