One year ago this morning, for the 10th time in little more than 15 years following Brian Clough's retirement, Nottingham Forest were looking for a new manager after sacking Colin Calderwood. Beaten at home by Doncaster Rovers on Boxing Day, they were third from bottom in the Championship.
Calderwood had not been popular. But save for two or three exceptions, neither had most of Clough's successors. Ask Ron Atkinson, David Platt, Joe Kinnear or Gary Megson. In turning to Billy Davies, who had not only been sacked by arch-rivals Derby County but had also been in charge of – if only for 14 matches – the worst team in Premier League history, Forest seemed to have ensured the trend would continue.
Fast forward 12 months and Davies's approval rating could hardly be higher. Forest have been transformed from relegation fodder to promotion prospects. Davies, who has reached the play-offs in each of his three full seasons as a manager in the Championship, is proving that the skills he revealed at Preston, before his ill-fated tenure at Pride Park, are working in Nottingham.
In a quiet office at Forest's slightly chaotic academy complex, a mile from the City Ground, Davies reflects on what he has achieved. The conversation confirms the passion and excitement exuded by his jack-in-the-box pitch-side demeanour. Yet it reveals also a curious parallel with the first days of Clough's reign – and the potential for Forest's progress to be undermined.
It is a question about David Pleat that brings this to the surface. Pleat, the former Spurs manager turned media sage, is Forest's football consultant, a role that gives him the ear of the club's multi-millionaire owner, the venture capitalist, Nigel Doughty, who is reckoned to have funnelled £50 million into the club.
Pleat's presence would be a source of discomfort for most managers and rumours of spats with Davies have never been far away. Central to these stories was Pleat's place on Forest's transfer acquisitions committee, to which Davies must go if he wants to sign a new player.
Davies denies that he and Pleat have ever fallen out. "I've never had a cross word with David Pleat, I have a good relationship with Nigel Doughty and I've never fallen out with any member of the board," he says. "But when you have a strong Scottish accent and you jump up and down on the touchline like a lunatic, you get portrayed as a fiery Scotsman, always falling out with people."
This is not the real Billy Davies, he insists. The real one is the sparky little man with a twinkle in his eye and a zest for the game that consumes his life, who has been destined for management ever since – after turning down Manchester United as a homesick teenager to join Rangers in 1979 – he began compiling notebooks on the coaching methods of his managers, which he still has.
"What you see is what you get," he says. "Perhaps the greatest compliment I have been paid was by Darren Moore, after Derby had won the play-off final, who said that of all the managers he had worked with I was the most transparent."
As such, however, he cannot conceal the unease he clearly feels about Pleat and the transfer acquisitions committee, a group also comprising Doughty, chief executive Mark Arthur and financial director John Pelling, with echoes of the unique committee culture with which Clough, in his determination to assume full power, had to confront at Forest in the 1970s.
"When I came here I had an agreement with the board that the final say on football matters would be down to me. But I also knew that this club carried a transfer acquisitions committee. Now I don't have a problem with the transfer acquisitions committee. What I do is I recommend and advise on players I wish to sign.
"Once those recommendations go to the board and then to David Pleat, if the board don't want to sign that player that's not a problem. Whatever decisions they make it is up to them because this is Nigel Doughty's club, it is his money and that is exactly what I knew I was joining.
"Whether I agree with that is beside the point."
Does that mean he has players foisted on him? "No, they would not give me players I didn't want and I would never sign a player of somebody else's choice," he continues. "With the acquisitions committee, my problem is not the players that we sign but the ones that don't come in."
Indeed, it was the players Forest failed to sign last January that prompted Davies to look back on avoiding relegation last season as an achievement to outrank taking Derby into the Premier League. "When I came in, looking forward to the first transfer window, at a club with no financial restraints, I made my recommendations and genuinely thought there would be three, four, five, maybe six new signings. But for whatever reasons we never signed anybody.
"I don't know [why signings were not made]. All I can say is it was a major disappointment. Sometimes you need new signings to give the place a lift and after the window closed was a period of six weeks when there seemed to be a complete flatness.
"Taking over a team with an average age of 21, lacking in confidence, from that position in the League, it was always going to be difficult and this made it tougher still." Not surprisingly, he resents the suggestion that Forest are big spenders.
"Excuse me. Last season we spent £4.5m, this season £5.2m. And I hear big-spending Forest. That really sticks in the throat."
The approaching window, therefore, could be critical both for Forest's future and Davies's relationship with his employers, although of more concern for fans is whether a promoted Forest, were the dream to happen, would suffer a disaster in the top flight to match Derby's. Especially given that Davies repeatedly insists that they are not ready.
"We are a work in progress but it is a young team with great potential and better equipped than Derby, who were promoted two years too early. Derby had an ageing team who had done wonderfully well but it was a Championship team and we needed to spend £25m to £30m.
"But at the time the directors were preparing to sell the club and were not going to dip their hands in their pockets to that extent. In the end we spent £10.2m and so the inevitable happens and I last 14 games."
The circumstances of his dismissal are another source of vexation. He avoids specific details but you sense allusions are being drawn. "All you want as a manager is the same dignity to be shown when you leave a club as when you arrive, for someone to tap you on the shoulder and say, look, we are going in different directions now, thanks for what you have done and have a nice life.
"But that doesn't happen. What does happen is that they [football clubs] undermine your position, do things behind your back, spread propaganda against you in the press and you get hung out to dry."
However, it does not curb Davies' ambition. "I still think a mid-table finish this season would be an achievement after avoiding relegation last year but you know I'm going to go for promotion. And if we do get promoted, I'll do my best.
"If we do get to the Premier league I would think that the chairman here and the board would want to compete, to sustain the status and spend the necessary funds to become a strong Premier League club in the future."Reuse content