Football: Wray's departure is too late for Forest

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NIGEL WRAY'S decision to step down as chairman of Nottingham Forest plc, announced on the stock market yesterday, will be seen as a victory by supporters who have made the entrepreneur the scapegoat for their club's plunge towards relegation from the Premiership.

But the resignation is unlikely to have any significant effect on the ailing former European champions, either in the short or long term.

Eric Barnes, the 66-year-old Nottingham businessman who takes Wray's place both in the chair and on the plc board, brings with him no substantial cash injection and makes no promise to reverse Forest's fortunes as they await the almost inevitable drop into the Nationwide League. Indeed, one of his first acts as chairman was to defend the record of his under-fire predecessor.

Wray, whose personal fortune is said to be worth pounds 100m, provided the financial clout behind the takeover of Forest two years ago, but has not endeared himself to supporters, rarely visiting the City Ground and preferring to watch Saracens, the London rugby club in which he has invested pounds 8m. It has been rumoured recently that he is keen to buy a stake in the First Division football club Watford, whose ground Saracens share.

Moreover, he is widely blamed for Forest's pitiful season in the Premiership after their promotion as First Division champions last year. Based in London, he has been perceived as a remote, dispassionate figure with no interest in the football club other than its potential for stock market returns. Indeed, his reasons for stepping down - that the club would be better fronted by a chairman based in Nottingham - recognised that view.

Wray's refusal - along with other members of a plc board that includes the Monaco-domiciled former Tottenham chairman, Irving Scholar - to finance any major forays into the transfer market last summer led to Dutch international Pierre van Hooijdonk, the club's record signing, staging a one-man strike, insisting that Forest could not survive in the Premiership without substantial investment in the playing staff.

But Barnes, the deputy chairman of Great Universal Stores, said last night that charges of under-investment against Forest did not stand up.

"People ask where the money has gone," he said, perhaps unintentionally echoing the chants of protesting Forest supporters during recent weeks. "I can tell you where pounds 18m has gone since Nigel Wray became involved. Some pounds 3.5m went to pay off bank loans, pounds 1m on reorganising the club's infrastructure, pounds 6m to soak up operating losses and a net spend of pounds 7.6m in the transfer market."

The club's chief executive, Phil Soar, who was the driving force behind the takeover consortium which recruited Wray, added his support for the outgoing chairman, insisting Forest were in considerably better shape than before his arrival.

"When we came in there was an up-front debt of pounds 11.3m," he said. "Now we owe somewhere between pounds 4-5m, including long-term debt, which is much more manageable.

"Furthermore, we have established a youth academy and study centre headed by Paul Hart, who was behind the development of the youth set-up now bearing such rich fruit for Leeds."

Barnes, who has plans to recruit two more Nottingham-based directors, is confident of a quick return to the top flight. "The aim is to regain and retain Premiership status," he said. "I'm hopeful that we can bounce back at the first attempt."

Meanwhile. the likelihood of Ron Atkinson continuing as manager - his contract runs to the end of this season - has yet to be formally discussed.

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