There was a shared sense of optimism and encouragement amongst Nottingham Forest fans when Chris Hughton replaced Sabri Lamouchi at the helm last October.
The club decided that, after four defeats from their first four games of the season, enough was enough as far as Lamouchi was concerned. They needed to steady the ship, none more so after inexplicably missing out on a play-off finish the season before.
It was not the first time Forest had to rethink their managerial strategy in recent years. Results and performances were inconsistent under Aitor Karanka in 2018/19, and in came what was seen as an experienced pair of hands in Martin O’Neill.
A recovery was needed after the frenetic way Lamouchi’s tenure ended having taken a slight gamble when appointing him in the first place, so who better to replace him with than a man who has been there and done it at this level?
Experience and knowhow to win promotion from the Championship was the main credentials Forest fans demanded from their new manager. Hughton, a promotion winner from this level twice before, was tasked with releasing Forest from the clutches of the Championship and returning them to the top-flight of English football.
Fast forward over 11 months, and there will be no one-year anniversary for Hughton. Six defeats from seven has brought a similar feeling to last season, with the club now looking to embark on another new chapter with their 14th new manager since the summer of 2011.
Hughton’s persona was spoken about following his arrival at the City Ground. You could ask anyone and they would say that he wasn’t just a manager who had been very successful in the Championship before, but above all, a gentleman. A person who would give every second of his time to anybody and everybody. A manager who would remain humble, polite and dignified throughout every hardship – plenty of which he encountered during his spell on Trentside.
He would remain coy on various matters during his time at Forest, whether that be on transfers, players or even on his own future. But even in what proved to be the final days of his tenure – where he may have even hinted that the end was nigh – his humble self shone through.
He ended his final pre-match press conference by saying: “I have to say, I have thoroughly enjoyed being at, and working at, this football club.
“It has been different, because all of that period has been through the pandemic – and we still have some restrictions. But it’s been wonderful to get back to having crowds.
“Irrespective of how it’s gone – and maybe the reception I’ve got sometimes when things haven’t gone so well – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being manager of this football club.”
Ultimately, what Hughton won’t have enjoyed was hearing those people who he was unable to develop a relationship nor connection with during his 11 months on Trentside, predict the inevitable last night. The fans’ cry of “you’re getting sacked in the morning” was the final chant he would hear as manager of Forest, before walking down the tunnel, conducting post-match duties, and being officially relieved of his duties this morning.
A manager’s success isn’t determined by how nice you are, however, nor is it determined on their track record or what they have achieved previously.
Where Forest go from here looks to be clear. Steve Cooper is the frontrunner to take over from Hughton, with the club working hard to get an appointment over the line by the time Forest travel to Huddersfield this weekend. The Welshman is unlikely to take the reins before then, with Steven Reid taking charge for an interim period, but the Reds have identified the man they want in.
Is the change in dugout really the only change needed to be made, though? Is a new man in front of the microphone the remedy?
Under new CEO Dane Murphy, Forest have a direction and blueprint of where they would like to go. To put it bluntly, the American is still trying to right Forest’s wrongs from the last few years of spending big on experienced, high-earning Championship players, most of whom have ultimately flattered to deceive and failed to deliver.
A lack of funds meant that Hughton, and the new-look recruitment team behind-the-scenes, were unable to really flex their muscles in the transfer market this summer. By Murphy’s own admission, it will take the club two to three transfer windows to fully embed their new philosophy of having a youthful-looking squad and targeting players aged 26 and under.
Cooper fits the bill in that respect. Not only is he 21 years younger than Hughton himself, but the 41-year-old made a name for himself in the England youth coaching setup, guiding an Under-17 side which included the likes of Phil Foden, Morgan Gibbs-White, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Rhian Brewster to FIFA World Cup success in 2017.
During his two-year spell at Swansea City – his first stint in management at club level – Cooper led the Swans to successive play-off finishes, reaching the semi-finals in 2019/20, and narrowly losing out to Brentford in the final last season. For a fairly inexperienced manager, he brings plenty of potential and promise. Indeed, experience has proven to mean very little in Forest and Hughton’s case.
Cooper also deployed a three-at-the-back system in 38 of Swansea’s 46 league matches last season, having been an admirer of the 4-2-3-1 formation the previous year. Not only does this show his willingness to change system unlike his potential predecessor, but it also opens up fresh ideas for Forest, who brought in wing-backs Djed Spence and Max Lowe in the latter stages of the transfer window.
In fact, perhaps the growing frustration amongst fans when it came to Hughton was his reluctance to change from his trusted 4-2-3-1 system. A structured set-up based on solidarity and organisation didn’t translate to goals, free-flowing attacking play and that entertainment factor which football fans up and down the country crave, none more so after being away from stadiums for a year-and-a-half.
Perhaps the statistic which sums Hughton’s tenure up is that, last season, Forest boasted the fifth best defensive record in the Championship. Norwich and Watford, who won automatic promotion, and play-off finalists Swansea and Brentford were the only teams to concede fewer goals. Solid, if spectacular.
And yet, at the other end of the pitch, where it matters, Derby County and Southend United were the only side in the EFL to score fewer goals – the latter were subsequently relegated from League Two to the National League.
When questioned about his lack of urgency to change systems, Hughton would point to the lack of numbers in his squad before managing to bring in a number of new faces before the end of the transfer window. Fast forward to now, and a new coach will be able to get their teeth into a fresh, youthful-looking squad left at their disposal.
Above Cooper, and Murphy for that matter, though, is a different story. A couple of fans stayed behind to voice their anger towards the directors’ box following the final whistle against Middlesbrough on Wednesday night, with one of the gentleman urging the owners to “sell the club”, reminding Evangelos Marinakis that this famous, old club on the banks of the River Trent is “not called Olympiacos”.
Forest have a CEO in place who adopted a clear strategy and was allowed to implement it at Barnsley. From rags to riches, the Tykes went under Valerien Ismael from relegation stragglers to play-off semi-finalists, only to be defeated by Swansea over two legs last term.
As the American looks to make his first managerial appointment at the City Ground, it is only meaningful if his new manager, or head coach, is given the reins to work freely with his squad and make changes where he sees fit. Similarly, it is down to Murphy to make changes where he sees fit too, without any interruption or disturbance.
With a glowing youth academy setup, and the club finally achieving Category 1 status, there are a plethora of players who could go from strength-to-strength under a progressive, up-and-coming coach, who could be the catalyst of a new direction and new chapter on Trentside.
The revolving door has closed at the City Ground once again, for now. Chris Hughton was a respectful, humble, polite, dignified manager who was perhaps the right man at the wrong time for Forest. His sacking came at the right time, in contrast, with the 62-year-old now looking to embark on a new chapter himself.
For Forest, another managerial appointment is on the horizon. Whether that be Steve Cooper or someone else, the club needs picking up, not just off the bottom of the Championship table, but off its knees at this moment in time.
Hughton may have missed out on his one-year anniversary in charge of Forest – perhaps an unwanted anniversary in truth, which only goes to show that he isn’t the only manager who has had to bid farewell to the City Ground over the last decade. But there is also another unwanted anniversary fast approaching.
It is nearly 23 years without top-flight football for the club, and fans will now be hoping that, in time, a new chapter can be written. Will the start of that be now? Who knows, but the need for the Garibaldi to rise again is greater than ever.
Even Hughton realises that need.
“It’s only when you’re here that you realise what a big and great football club this is. I’ve enjoyed it.”