Championship preview: Aitor Karanka has had a transfer window to set Nottingham Forest on course
The Reds. The Tricky Trees. The European Champions of 1979 and 1980. Nothing has been the same since the Brian Clough era. Not playing in the second tier of domestic football, not finishing 17th. Last year was disappointing. Nottingham Forest fans are probably accustomed to the feeling, having failed to win promotion back to the top flight for the past 18 years. There’s a generation of Forest fans who have never seen them higher than the Championship.
The bar is set incredibly low for Aitor Karanka’s first full season in charge, but five wins out of five in the preseason, including a 2-0 victory over Premier Leaguers Bournemouth, has the fans believing again. Can the club deliver?
Karanka arrived at the City Ground in January after being well-received at Middlesbrough, where he earned the club promotion three seasons ago.
While the half season was taxing, Krank was working with an inherited squad. He's been busy in this transfer window and learned to work a crowd, too, playing up the club's success in friendlies. He’s gone on record by stating the Forest players are ahead of schedule.
Any manager who takes the Forest job is graded against Clough eventually, but Karanka must first provide meaningful success for people to begin comparing.
For the first time in a long time, Reds owners have put their money where their mouth is, allowing the manager to spend. Fifteen million euros brought in Joao Carvalho and broke the club record. The Portuguese youngster was tipped for big things at Benfica. He could be the star Forest needs.
At the other end of the calendar, Michael Dawson returns to the club after l3-and-half-years in exile. At 34, he adds both experience and composure at the back. No doubt he’ll be working closely with former Manchester City goalkeeper, Costel Pantilimon, who joined from Watford.
Lewis Grabban makes the veteran presence into bookends by coming to the City Ground to lead the line.
Also, the club has made several young signings from around Europe, players joining permanently and on-loan. Benfica, Sporting, Monaco and even Zagreb have all done business with Forest this summer; it could be the start of an exciting generation.
Eric Lichaj left the club, which does present a problem. The American right-back was a key player for the five years he spent with the Reds. Karanka plays differently than his predecessors, but it’s still wise to sign a player who’s comfortable at right-back. No out-and-out right backs are among the newcomers.
Only Ben Osborn played every league game for Forest last season. The 23-year-old midfielder has become a fixture in the squad. He’s spent the entirety of his career with the club and now the entirety of matches thoroughly involved. He’s getting forward and back, playing for the badge. The spine and success of the club are rooted to Osborn.
Ben Brereton announced himself to Forest fans properly last season; and will play a major part again. A partnership of age and experience with Grabban could be very fruitful. Nor should Barry McKay's contributions be forgotten. The Scottish international proved his worth in his first season for the club.
Given the massive influx, it's unlikely any academy stars will graduate to the senior team. Lewis Walters was the club’s next big thing a few seasons back. He was loaned to Barrow and let go in the summer. So much for him.
Jorge Grant and Tyler Walker have been loaned to Luton Town and Mansfield Town respectively. Jason Cummings will spend a year with Peterborough. All are young enough to learn from lower league sides and contribute to Forest in the future.
The big question then. Will Forest finally do it? Can they secure promotion for the first time this millennium? The squad is certainly better on paper than last year. So is the stray puppy my girlfriend has adopted, however. It's reasonable to wonder if the new group even cares. With a new manager, can they fully understand the club's history?
Dawson and Osborn must take it on themselves to properly educate their teammates. drill it into them and get them playing for the club. If they can get the new lads playing for the badge, the playoffs are a possibility. The quality is there.
Otherwise, they’ll suffer the same as those who came before. Players playing for a transfer, not the club. No team spirit, no success.