The dawn of a new season.. usually a time of so much optimism with the anticipation of possibility hanging in the air. Writing this, things feel oddly subdued as we prepare for our second debut in the Premier League. Comparisons with our first are unavoidable as we face the same opponents in Aston Villa as we did on a warm August day back in 2015. Our greatest ever team, led by our greatest ever manager taking a deserved place among the top clubs in the country. The excitement was palpable.
With possibly one of the least exhilarating promotion campaigns ever witnessed under our belts we now embark on a Premier League campaign which we know is going to be one of struggle. We knew the same in 2015, albeit with a little naivety perhaps about quite how difficult things were going to be.. but we were living a dream. The early days of a new season in the top flight normally see teams buoyed with the momentum that promotion brought them and we were no different that year. We were just happy to be seeing our team in a division we never thought we would be in. Eddie Howe still wanted to play the same attacking football that got us there in the face of a chorus of voices telling him that he would have to change that philosophy to survive, so we still saw our club’s identity and traditions on the pitch.
In 2022, that momentum doesn’t seem to be there for us. We’re battle scarred. We know how hard this is going to be. We haven’t stormed back through the Championship - our attritional struggle to clinch second place was never convincing. There was always a feeling that the team hadn’t reached the levels that they were capable of and there was always more to come - but it never materialised, only really showing glimpses of full fluidity. Scott Parker cuts a divisive figure on the sidelines, a man with no prior connection to the club playing a brand of football that doesn’t always sit well with the Dean Court crowd. The manner in which promotion was finally won may help - much was forgotten and forgiven in the celebrations that followed Kieffer Moore’s moment of magic… but with Parker himself telling the world that we’re not good enough in recent days that seems a long time ago.
With every season the gap between the Premier League and Championship gets pushed wider. There’s a financial chasm between the two. The incumbents have far more established players and have had more money coming into them for longer. Last season, two of the three promoted teams went straight back down managing to win just 11 of 76 games between them. With five substitutes now allowed, the depth that the established clubs will have at their disposal will be even more evident. Many fans have joined the head coach in being critical about the lack of reinforcements but it’s easy to spend huge amounts of money without materially increasing a team’s competitiveness an awful lot. Forest, a team that was greater than the sum of its parts in the Championship last season are doing just that. Perhaps they have to, but there is a risk to that strategy. Sometimes it works as it has recently with Aston Villa. Sometimes it doesn’t - as Scott Parker found out with Fulham on his last stay in this division. Will Forest still have the same spirit that got them here - or are they adding players that have come for the division and not the shirt? Time will tell. For our part, we are in the fortunate position of having been able to retain a lot of Premier League quality in our squad. The strategy of retaining a smaller squad but keeping as much quality as we could in it paid off in the end. Dominic Solanke has benefitted from two full seasons in the Championship and has gone somewhat under the radar with Mitrovic’s exploits at Fulham capturing the headlines. He’s a much better player now than when he first joined the club and may well surprise many of those writing him off before a ball is kicked. We have players of genuine Premier League quality already in him, and in Lloyd Kelly, Lewis Cook, Jefferson Lerma.. it may be a cliche but our recruitment team need to add quality in the right places and not quantity. We need to add players that want to be a part of what this club needs to be over the next 3 or 4 years - not just this season. If that’s promotion campaigns as well as relegation battles, they need to be here and relish whatever challenges we face as a club. It has taken time, that has perhaps frustrated the manager who wants to be working with his whole squad as soon as he possibly can - but we seem to be getting there. There are solid links with players fitting the exact profile that we need so we can be confident that we are heading in the right direction.
It will be tough - but let’s be honest - we’re on a free hit. Promotion last season was so much more important than survival is this year. We’re building the training ground, we’re building the club. We can make bigger strides this year than we did in the whole 5 years of our previous stay in the division if we invest wisely and all the indicators point to us doing just that. It’s going to be a difficult year on the pitch, we need to be clear what success means to us and celebrate it whenever we find it.. and stick together in the face of adversity - that’s when we do our best work.
TogetherPS. Nice to be back.