why must we fail?

thoughts on culture, memory and identity after another calamitous implosion at Nottingham Forest

Ray

Prior to the final match of this season, Nottingham Forest – my team – stood poised on the cusp of the Championship play-offs.  Having occupied the top six for much of the campaign, and all of its closing stretch, they needed a single point to ensure qualification; only defeat, coupled with a Swansea City victory and a five-goal swing in the latter’s favour, would condemn Forest to the ignominy of surrendering, at the death, a further chance to push for promotion.

As I expected, they blew it.  Level at 1-1 and, it seemed, comfortable up until the 73rd minute, Forest then contrived to crumble in a hare-brained final twenty minutes to lose 4-1; Swansea beat Reading by the same scoreline.  The Reds finished outside the play-offs.  What a bunch of flunkers.

Yes, I had expected Forest to fail.  My analysis was not simply based on recent form, though that didn’t bode well: the team had no win in five leading into the game and were evidently fatigued, with key players carrying injuries.  Neither was my pessimism primarily informed by a more fulsome evaluation of Forest’s season – though I did see it as salient that they had conceded in stoppage time on some five occasions this term, squandering nine points in the process.  It was, moreover, that these last-gasp capitulations seemed to manifest a malaise which, I believe, is deeply rooted and runs some way back through the club’s more recent history – one which must be tackled if they are to finally achieve promotion.

For, in reviewing the last couple of decades, what do we find?  Whenever their primary goal is near, and their path to it seems clear, Forest typically can’t cope.  Those all too familiar with the history may now wish to scroll down a little; for others, here are some key details.  In the play-off semi-final of 2003, after a drawn first leg, Forest took a 2-0 lead in the return at Sheffield United; then they folded, losing 4-3, the tie effectively decided by an own goal.  Fast forward to 2007 and, despite being two up after the away leg of the play-off semi against Yeovil Town, Forest were eliminated after being humbled 5-2 on their own turf, their display encapsulated by Wes Morgan gifting a goal to the opposition by dint of a tragicomically unnecessary and haphazard back pass. 

In 2010, Forest’s semi-final tie with Blackpool was level by half-time in the second leg at home: they went on to lose the game 4-3 – “we had too many players freeze on the night”, said then manager Billy Davies.  The first leg of the following season’s play-off semi against Swansea ended 0-0, despite Forest playing host to an opposition reduced to ten men after only two minutes – “the tension emanating from the Forest supporters in … was understandable”, read the Guardian match report; in a return partly memorable for Davies’ ineffectually idiosyncratic team selection, Forest were defeated 3-1.  

More recently, too, I recall a League Cup Fourth Round tie at Burton Albion in 2018: whilst not seemingly a huge game, it did present Forest with an opportunity to reach a cup quarter-final for the first time in 25 years.  As soon as manager Aitor Karanka acknowledged this, speaking of Forest’s “chance to do something nice”, I knew they’d lose.  Burton won 3-2.

In each case, it was arguably not simply that Forest did their unfettered best but were outplayed; every one of those defeats can be correctly categorised as, at best, a failure to securely clasp hold of available advantage, and at worst an implosion, the hapless fumbling of a golden opportunity. 

What seems apparent, then, is a prevailing trend: recurrently, at key moments, players’ frightened eyes, flailing limbs and frazzled decision-making speak of a fundamental deficit of belief – one which persists despite the turning of many years and the changes these have brought in the club’s management, playing and coaching staff, and ownership. 

How might this be explained?  Like a gegenpressed defender desperately seeking a passing option, I scoured any literature I could find that seemed relevant – firstly, to the matter of organisational culture.  This, I learned, can be defined as comprised in significant part by intangibles such as shared understandings and beliefs, which may run deep; and as being rooted in history and tradition, and not necessarily rational in foundation or operation.

It seems important to understand, then, how such shared beliefs are formed.  According to text and conversation theory, organisations are essentially defined by their communication.  Similarly, within the sociological disciplines of social constructionism and symbolic interactionism – stick with me on this! – our notions of reality are largely informed by our interactions with others.  Hence, the communication that occurs within a group does much to shape its common sense of events; this, in turn, significantly influences the way group members act.  Additionally, research in the field of communicative memory – which likewise focusses on the role of everyday communication in forming a group’s shared understanding of the past – shows how such collective memory can develop not only through the content of conversation, but also through body language, dynamics between participants, and any emotions in play within or around interactions.  

These insights perhaps offer ways of envisaging how collective beliefs and identities might be formed, reinforced, and sustained through time, be they openly or tacitly held: most communication is non-verbal, after all.  (The potential for a group’s dispositions to become persistent also seems apparent in studies which demonstrate that social groups of any size – up to and including entire societies – can suffer the effects of significant adversities over generations; this can occur to the extent that members can be impacted despite not having been born at the time the event occurred).

All this leads me to wonder: within and around Forest, what is being expressed in the fine details of communication – tones, postures, shifts in atmosphere – in the days leading up to a decisive game, or through the closing weeks of a promising season?  From the outside, little can be known beyond the blandly positive game the club typically talks in public.  However, it did seem to me over this season’s closing weeks that head coach Sabri Lamouchi might be channelling some fear; he sounded increasingly strained, as if ever more aware of the impossibility of escaping a looming catastrophe.  In their penultimate league fixture, from which they again needed a single point to secure a play-off place, Forest visited Barnsley – a team in the relegation zone, albeit playing well.  Lamouchi adopted what seemed an unduly defensive tactical approach; his team, having invited sustained pressure, shipped another stoppage time goal to lose 1-0.  Negative strategies arguably represent their own form of communication, and cultivate similarly toned articulations of body language.

To be fair to Lamouchi – and I certainly wish to be – a notable measure of unease seems inherent to the role he occupies.  Forest’s frequent, sometimes unexpected or seemingly unwarranted, replacing of managers over the last decade cannot have helped to foster any ambience of assurance or stability: whether this in itself may be a factor in the team’s trials is open to question.  Changing the personnel overseeing a club’s on-field exploits could serve to shift its culture, of course, though such disruptions are not guaranteed to produce positive results.  However, another human element with an influence on performances has a membership which, while not constant, morphs more slowly over time: as Danny Baker sometimes emphasised to supporters calling in to his 1990s radio phone-ins, “you are the club”.  

I’ve no wish to be critical of Forest’s support – I am among their number, and we suffer enough; it is true, too, that our away cohort is recognised as one of the most voluminous and vocal in its division.  That said, when at the City Ground I have tended to find fans relatively impatient, quick to express dissatisfaction with their side (perhaps my own recent pessimism also made me, however distantly, a vector for bad vibes).  It can sometimes feel as if our expectations – indeed, perhaps sometimes our demands – constitute a weight which the team finds difficult to carry.  Whilst supporter pressure would not seem a major cause of Forest’s troubles (no spectators were present to witness their most recent failure), one feels this may sometimes be a factor.  

There is, as much of the football world knows, a basis for raised expectations.  Between the late 1970s and early 1990s Forest were, in relative and sometimes absolute terms, incredibly successful; under the command of Brian Clough, first with his (still much undervalued) assistant Peter Taylor and later without, Forest came from nowhere to establish themselves as an elite side.  Perhaps naturally, this is now the high bar against which any Forest team tend to be judged; against which, one might speculate, those at the club may measure themselves, even if only subconsciously.  If this latter speculation is indeed accurate, I suspect there may be a problematic gap between the club’s aspiration to restore itself to former glories, and its internal belief in the possibility of this being achieved; in such a gap, doubt and anxiety can fester. 

Organisational culture, one recalls, is partly informed by tradition.  Through the prism of this definition, one might see Clough’s period of success at Forest as largely representing an interruption of an unglamorous club’s historically established and longstanding image of itself as generally middling at best, just muddling along; a shock from which their identity has perhaps more recently been recovering through reversion to mediocrity.  The intense pushes and pulls of our identities may sometimes bring challenge to the accepted notion that we necessarily always want to succeed in our undertakings.  For instance, as anthropologist David Graeber has noted when speaking of some of those ostensibly pressing for social change from the political left, “a lot of people don’t want to win”.  I have indeed encountered people who seemed to inextricably identify with the role of the oppressed embroiled in strife; one could sometimes perceive in them a fear that, should they ever leave that position, their very selves would cease to be. 

Happily for Forest, for many years Clough played the part of wizardly winner with natural ease: there is a sense in which, above all else, he singularly imposed his successful identity upon the club through the sheer force of his personality and ability.  It helped that he could operate without much restraint: his insistence on having extensive control of the club during his tenure seems significant in respect of his apparent power to compel it to psychically reconfigure.  

Clough was, then, arguably bigger than the club, and it may be that he remains so; if that is the case, since he is no longer present to carry it with him, his magnitude may constitute a conundrum as much as it confers esteem.  Those who espouse the theories of Carl Jung, founder of analytical psychology, might see Ol’ Big ‘Ead as representing, for Forest and its followers, an archetypal Wise Old Man – one to whom they still unconsciously look in vain, and in whose absence they remain bereft of a critical scintilla of confidence.  Now that Clough’s brilliant sun has dipped beyond the horizon, perhaps what largely remains is shadow, in the gloom of which the club still struggles to find its way.

Jung wrote that “a man who is possessed by his shadow is always … falling into his own traps … living below his own level”; and, elsewhere, “the less [the shadow] is embodied in … conscious life, the denser it is”.  What is required, he asserted, was “to retain awareness of the shadow, but not identification with it”.  Thus, whatever disappointment may still be in play at Forest – be it the dissipation of Clough’s reign and consequent relegation from the top flight in 1993, or simply the cumulative hurt of repeated play-off losses – the first step towards healing would seem to be to openly acknowledge the wound.  Shared recognition, solidarity, and cooperation are thought to be key to recovery from collective adversity; focussing on individuals tends to have limited effect, with consequences continuing to recur where their social basis remains unaddressed.  Likewise, if the subtexts of an organisation’s culture remain in unawareness, any unhelpful prophetic ideas may be left free to ‘self-fulfill’.  And if theories relating to the overshadowing effect of Clough’s charisma are well founded, then Forest perhaps also now need some big personalities around to help them establish a fresh era of confidence and success. 

In the wake of the disastrous Swansea result, there has been talk as to the viability of Lamouchi’s continued tenure at the club.  I would be sad to see the genial Frenchman depart.  He has done well, in his first season in England, to propel the team into a position whereby it could fail as it did; besides which, Forest remain desperate for stability.  Moreover, as I see it, Forest can splash cash and shuffle staff as much as they might in endeavouring to enhance their footballing prowess: but when the stakes are high and the prize is nigh, it will make little difference – because, in such moments, their problem isn’t fundamentally one of football.  It is collectively psychological and cultural; and, until that problem is solved, promotion may remain beyond them.