February 22, 2024

Towards the end of last season, when Steve Cooper and his players had extricated themselves from trouble with surprising dexterity and gave themselves a final-day party at the Palace, the song was repeated ad infinitum by Nottingham Forest supporters: “Thirty signings, who gives a f**k, the Reds are staying up”.

They knew then, deep down. Fans were drunk on Premier League survival and nobody could blame them for the merriment, but this was a joke 90 per cent at everyone else’s expense and 10 per cent at their own, a brief nod towards dark humour. Now we know who gives a f**k. Now we know why it mattered.

You can believe that the Premier League’s profit and sustainability rules enable protectionism for the established elite, those clubs who have the highest revenue. You can believe that those rules are weighted against promoted clubs, because permitted losses allowed in Championship seasons (but still count in the Premier League calculation) are set lower.

You can think that those who have a large number of loan deals when promoted are further hampered, because the expiration of those temporary deals leaves a great hole in the squad that only new signings can fill.

You can think that selling Brennan Johnson for £15m less than his eventual sale price just to meet an arbitrary deadline goes against the whole point of sustainability – surely getting the maximum sale price should be incentivised above anything else? You can think that rules which incentivise selling academy products at all are illogical. You may think that the 30 June year-end deadline itself seems entirely arbitrary.

But here’s the thing: the clubs agreed upon that deadline last summer, voting as a majority for a 31 December submission date and 30 June end date for each season so as to accelerate the process.

Otherwise, you have the Everton scenario: punishment in the next season that hardly helps those who stuck to the rules when they didn’t.

These are the rules, and every club agreed to abide by them and every club knew them. Nottingham Forest agreed to abide by them and Nottingham Forest knew them.

You may have heard that those rules are being changed this summer, and thus it clearly demonstrates that these ones are unfit. But that is a one-eyed view used by those guilty of bad faith. If they do change, it will be because, again, the Premier League clubs vote for them like they voted for these.

Things change. But you cannot play by what you believe the rules should be rather than what they are when you break them. That is how only chaos reigns.

You may (will) have heard and read the words “Manchester City” in every reply to these charges. You can believe that it is unhelpful from a PR perspective to have City’s 115 charges hanging in the air while these further charges are being handed down – that seems undeniable. Some have even written about differing treatment of clubs.

To which the obvious answer is: yes, because they are entirely different cases. Beware siding with those who make imperfect comparisons simply because they happen to lie well alongside your own loyalties.

Everton and Forest have admitted breaking the rules. City face 115 charges surrounding alleged systematic cheating to avoid breaking the rules. They face the most serious allegations and theirs is an extremely complex case.

Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis has paid the price for playing with fire (Photo: Getty)

City’s lawyers will argue the case robustly because they know that it requires a burden of proof that a simple admission of guilt does not. Of course that case will take far longer – we are comparing apples with orange elephants.

You may think that Forest’s punishment, when it lands, is too harsh. That a points deduction that makes relegation more likely as a response to ambition is illogical.

To which the obvious answer is: consider Wolves. They were so concerned about breaking the rules for the year ending 30 June, 2024 (particularly after committing money to Matheus Cunha) that they sold Ruben Neves, Nathan Collins, Matheus Nunes for around £120m in the summer, also allowed Raul Jimenez, Adama Traore and Joao Moutinho to leave and made budget signings to fill the gap.

 

If Wolves do indeed pass the test next June, and others fail, would they consider the impact of the loss of those players to be, say, six points? Presumably yes. If the punishment doesn’t immediately seem to fit the crime, consider the opportunity cost missed by those who chose to abide by the rules.

You may claim that Forest needed to make lots of signings. You may point out that recruitment isn’t a perfect science but an artform with peaks and troughs. But Forest didn’t have to sign the player with the broken leg who hasn’t made an appearance. They didn’t need to sign the midfielder who was dropped after a few games and ended up on loan in Major League Soccer.

They didn’t have to sign the two players who were then immediately loaned to Olympiakos. They didn’t have to sign four goalkeepers in the same season, a further two this summer and then still now want a new goalkeeper. They didn’t have to sign the forward for £16m who scored two goals and was loaned to Turkey. They didn’t have to sign another central defender during the last minutes of the last day of the window just ended, for £11m – he hasn’t played a minute yet either.

You may say that pinning any blame on the owner displays a lack of gratitude, or that it is those below him who are to blame, but there is a middle ground here.

Forest have been chaotic in the transfer market for a long time, the revolving door of appointments and departures of those involved in recruitment has long whirred at speed, and the owner’s son has always had an influence in signings.

Supporters are allowed to be grateful for the investment but cautious about the mismanagement that has ended with these charges.

None of any of this changes reality. For all the caveats and the yeah-but-what-abouts, Forest got this badly wrong. They knew the rules and they must have known how close they were to breaking them. And, at that point, they carried on spending.

They made deals in January that seemed illogical and overpriced then and have since been proved as much. They scattergunned their way through last summer. They played with fire and they were burnt.

This now has to be a lesson. The punishment should be accepted – the hope is that it is not large enough to cause relegation. And, if not, Forest must pursue a quality-over-quantity model of recruitment that has escaped them for too long and is the natural tendency of the most successful promoted clubs.

Nobody is criticising the ambition of those in charge, nor their loyalty to their vision. But vision without structure often warps into a rapidly expanding fever dream. The wild windows must end now.

 

 

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