Barlow becomes reluctant hero of unlikely renaissance at Forest

One of Forest's co-caretakers does not want to be the manager. A man who has made an artform out of being an assistant talks to Richard Rae about two months that have transformed the club
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The Independent Online

It was getting on for 20 years ago that Frank Barlow first realised he did not like what being a football manager did to him.

Mug of coffee in hand, Nottingham Forest's reluctant co-caretaker manager is trying to explain why, despite taking the club from the fringe of the First Division relegation battle into the fight for a play-off position, he simply does not want the job on a full-time basis.

Then the manager of Scunthorpe United, Barlow recalls going for a walk through the town centre and being suddenly struck by the realisation there were people nearby who might not know who his team were playing next. He shakes his head at the memory.

"It amazed me, because there was I thinking about nothing else. You think the whole world must be sensitive to the fact your best player isn't on song, or your goalkeeper is injured.

"The fact is, management changed me. Maybe there are some who really can divorce the mood they're in at the club from the mood they're in when they go home - Jose Mourinho maybe, he looks like he can, though he hasn't had many bad afternoons - but for me, when there was a problem at work, it came home.

"You watch television, but you're thinking about moving X to outside right. The kids tell you things, and you're thinking about whether to change to three at the back."

And so, Prufrock-like, Barlow has decided he was not Prince Hamlet, nor was he meant to be. Advancing progress, starting a scene or two, was what suited him, and despite having achieved good results during spells in charge at both Scunthorpe and Chesterfield, the former Sheffield United and Chesterfield defender stepped back into coaching roles. Youth and reserves at Barnsley, seven years at Sheffield Wednesday, two at Birmingham City, back to Hillsborough as assistant, then Bristol City, and finally to Nottingham Forest as assistant to Gary Megson.

When Megson resigned after Forest were beaten 3-0 at Oldham on 15 February, the board asked the 59-year-old Barlow, and the reserve team coach, Ian "Charlie" McParland, to take temporary charge. Eleven games later, eight of which have been won, they remain in control, with Barlow insisting he does not want the job permanently, and the board working out a formula - McParland in charge, with Barlow as assistant is their latest idea - that might persuade him he does.

"To say the turnaround is down to a little bit of luck would be a cliché, but what it has shown is that just a little tweak can make the difference between things going for you and things going against you," said Barlow.

He insists there has been little fundamental change from the way the players were being coached under Megson.

"We're doing the same things, but if you say the same things as I say, it might sound a bit different," he points out. "Gary Megson did a lot of good work, and that's basically the team he put together out there. We always felt we had a decent squad, and if we could get a kick-start we could put together a run."

If Barlow is reluctant to go into specifics, others are not. The captain, Ian Breckin, says the players feel more relaxed, which will surprise no one who witnessed Megson's touchline rantings and readiness to criticise in public. You cannot imagine Barlow inviting angry fans into the dressing-room to berate the players after a poor performance.

As well as playing more thoughtfully, the team is also more settled. In Megson's final eight games, 19 players had at least one start. In Barlow and McParland's first eight, the number was 12, and in positions in which they were comfortable. Again, there is an element of fortune in that they have not had to contend with the suspensions which deprived Megson of several key players, but it is also true that on-field discipline has improved markedly since he left.

Barlow acknowledges Megson's belief that his departure might help the club go forward was probably justified.

"When the crowd had a go at Gary, the team reacted negatively, so when he felt he'd become the problem, to a large extent you'd have to say he was right.

"All the staff were sad, because we felt that if he could turn it around things would improve, I won't say dramatically, but quite a bit. But then I think decisions are always easier when they're not yours to make."

Like the one about whether he should have a final crack at management. Barlow admits there are obvious temptations, perhaps the biggest of which is the size and loyalty of the Forest support. More than 28,000 cheered Forest on to victory against Yeovil two weeks ago, and a similar crowd is expected against Bournemouth today.

"That, and the chairman's willingness to spend money, will drag the club forward," said Barlow, simply. "Sometimes it's the other way round, the team drags the club, but here it's the club, its supporters, staff and facilities, which mean that whether it's me and Charlie, or someone else, it'll happen sooner rather than later."

That McParland, an energetic and occasionally volatile Scot who used to play for Notts County, is such a different character to the phlegmatic and quietly spoken Barlow is, the Yorkshireman believes, one of the reasons they work so well together. The new Clough and Taylor, perhaps.

"After 11 games? OK, we've won eight and drawn two, but if you can't guarantee to me that will continue, no thanks. I have enjoyed it though, and it's been different with Charlie, because we can support each other.

"But I wouldn't say I'm on my hand and knees at night, praying for the job. And if you ask me directly do I want it, the answer's no. No."

The lack of emphasis suggests he may yet be open to persuasion. Defeat at Hartlepool last week may have jolted the Forest bandwagon, but beating Bournemouth, and Bradford next week, should be enough for it to roll into the play-offs.

If Forest are promoted few would be surprised if Barlow and McParland are still holding the reins next August - though the name of the Scot might come first.

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