Nottingham Forest feel aggrieved… yet they know PSR sanction could have been much worse – The Athletic

By Daniel Taylor8h ago

At one stage, it was threatening to be eight points. The lawyers acting for the Premier League had studied the financial excesses of Nottingham Forest and concluded they warranted a higher punishment than the six points Everton have been docked for their own overspending.

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So it could have been worse, even if Forest say they are “extremely disappointed” with the final verdict of a four-point deduction.

Yes, their punishment for breaching the Premier League’s profitability and sustainability rules (PSR) represents a considerable setback to their hopes of staying up. And yes, it is going to require a feat of escapology to clamber out of danger now they have replaced Luton Town in the relegation zone.

The new Premier League table

Position Team Played GD Points
1 Arsenal 28 46 64
2 Liverpool 28 39 64
3 Manchester City 28 35 63
4 Aston Villa 29 18 56
5 Tottenham Hotspur 28 17 53
6 Manchester United 28 0 47
7 West Ham United 29 -4 44
8 Brighton & Hove Albion 28 6 42
9 Wolverhampton Wanderers 28 -2 41
10 Newcastle United 28 11 40
11 Chelsea 27 2 39
12 Fulham 29 -1 38
13 Bournemouth 28 -11 35
14 Crystal Palace 28 -15 29
15 Brentford 29 -13 26
16 Everton 28 -10 25*
17 Luton Town 29 -18 22
18 Nottingham Forest 29 -16 21**
19 Burnley 29 -34 17
20 Sheffield United 28 -50 14
*Deducted six points
**Deducted four points

But can you imagine the sense of doom if the independent commission had agreed with the Premier League’s lawyers that an eight-point sanction was a good starting point? Coach Nuno Espirito Santo’s side could have been five points adrift of safety this morning. Hypothetical now, perhaps, but it would have needed something special in their remaining nine games to stop their toes from being tagged for the relegation morgue.

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Instead, the commission decided a lower sanction was more appropriate because of the mitigation put forward by Forest’s legal team to explain why the club had exceeded their spending limits by £34.5million ($43.9m).

Everton, to put it into context, had gone over by £19.5million before their punishment, originally 10 points, was reduced to six last month on appeal. And the report into Forest’s PSR charge, released by the league, makes it clear that was a big consideration. “The breach was 77 per cent larger than in Everton,” it states, going on to explain the case against Forest argued this “logically suggests a starting sanction (before mitigation) of eight points”.

Forest’s legal team seem to have played a blinder, in other words, to persuade the three-person commission their case was, in fact, a less serious breach than Everton’s over a shorter space of time. The club gained extra credit for “exceptional cooperation” and the final report made it clear that, unlike Everton, no information was passed on that turned out to be incorrect or of a “misleading” nature.

All things considered then, it is probably understandable if many of the club’s supporters are just glad those asterisks next to Forest’s name in the league table above do not necessarily mean irreparable damage. One point behind Luton after 29 matches, there is still the opportunity to put it right. If anything, it can sharpen everyone’s focus now some of the uncertainty has been cleared up.

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That is not to say Forest come out of this episode with any real distinction when it has caused so much stress for their supporters and the final report, stretching to nearly 25,000 words and over 50 pages, reveals the people at the top of the club ignored the advice of their own finance director, Thomas Bonser, once it became clear they were playing a game of high risk.

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Bonser had put together a report on PSR in September 2022 and he warned the club’s hierarchy that Forest were heading towards a “significant breach”.

“These communications did not deter the club from bringing further players in,” the report states. “Further forecasts prepared in December 2022 also showed a breach. It is not clear why Forest did not take steps to address the looming PSR problem during the January 2024 transfer window (instead of making further signings).”

Bonser had initially forecast a breach of £6.9million. It ended up being around five times that amount. And that feels particularly relevant if you remember how Forest’s then chairman, Nicholas Randall, was assuring fans in public that PSR would never be an issue on his watch.

“We have always complied with PSR and we will continue to do so,” Randall said in one interview. “That’s always been a part of our philosophy.”

In reality, Forest made six further signings in January 2024 — three transfers, two loans and one pre-contract agreement — to go with the unprecedented splurge in which 22 players arrived the previous summer. Striker Chris Wood was the most expensive of those January signings, arriving from Newcastle United for £15million, with a reputed £100,000-a-week salary. Keylor Navas, the former Real Madrid goalkeeper, arrived on loan from Paris Saint-Germain.

“The commission does not criticise Forest’s business model but does question whether it should have acquired all the players it did (particularly in the January 2024 window) when it knew it had to sell players,” the report states. “Forest effectively went through the entire 2022-23 season with a squad that it could not afford (if it wanted to comply with PSR).”

Closer reading of the final judgement also reveals Forest do not keep minutes of their board meetings. There were only “a few emails or messages” supplied to the commission and not a great deal else, it was noted, because “most communications were apparently oral”.

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As for the buying and selling of players, that still appears to be largely the domain of Ioannis Vrentzos, the former chief executive, even though he left three years ago to help Forest’s owner, Evangelos Marinakis, run his Greek club, Olympiacos.

It was Vrentzos, therefore, who appeared before the commission to explain the circumstances of the £47.5million sale of Brennan Johnson — named in these proceedings as Player A — and why, specifically, it had been delayed beyond the June 30 deadline that would have meant Forest staying within PSR limits.

By their own admission, Forest were acutely aware their only way of avoiding a possible points deduction was to sell the Wales international. The problem, however, was they left only a two-week period from the middle of June onwards to make it happen. As Bonser acknowledged, “not many” major transfers happen that early in the summer window.

“It appeared to be Forest’s position that it would have the entire summer 2024 window to sell Player A,” states the report. “Indeed, the commission notes that only on 28 August 2024 did Mr Vrentzos get the instruction from Mr Marinakis to sell Player A.”

Some of the other details are remarkable.

Atletico Madrid made a £42.9million bid for Johnson via an email entitled “Offer” on June 30, but stated it was dependent on the Spanish club selling an unnamed player first. Forest rejected the offer, emailing back to say they wanted £55.8m. But then, for reasons unexplained, it was never followed up.

So why did Forest, in the commission’s findings, do “little to market (Johnson) proactively”?

Ross Wilson, Forest’s chief football officer, did speak to several English clubs, including Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Brentford, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa. None, however, made an official bid until Brentford came in with a £32.5m offer (July 21), followed by one of £35m (July 24) and, finally, £40m (August 28).

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All were turned down and Johnson’s move to Tottenham only went through late in the evening on September 1 — transfer deadline day. They were, the commission was told, “sailing close to the wind”. Forest called it a “near miss” or “golden mitigation” but that two-month period was critical in terms of the club being punished. The new season was underway and Johnson played in their first four games of it, including a 2-1 Premier League win against Sheffield United. It was, according to the commission, a clear and unfair sporting advantage.

Spurs didn’t sign Johnson until September (Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

In Forest’s defence, perhaps there is something for the Premier League to learn here about the realities of the transfer market.

Forest’s mitigation was largely based around the fact that, having been promoted in summer 2022 via the Championship play-offs, they were restricted to lower spending limits than their more established rivals. How could that be fair, their lawyers asked, when they clearly needed to spend big to stand any realistic chance of staying up?

There are other questions, though, for the people who make the rules. Why, for one, is the PSR deadline set as June 30 when everyone in football knows the best time to do business is later in the summer?

“In the eyes of the other clubs, had Forest sold (Johnson) within the first few weeks following the PSR deadline, this would have demonstrated a willingness to comply,” the commission states. “So why not make the ‘miss’ as near as it could? It may have cost Forest some money, but it would have demonstrated that Forest showed some respect for the rules.”

That, however, would have meant making Johnson available for a drastically reduced fee rather than waiting to get the best price possible. The whole point of PSR is to make sure clubs are in a strong financial position. But it would have made zero sense for Forest to sell Johnson in, say, July for £30million. Would any business, in any walk of life, wave away almost £20m like that?

Even if Forest had wanted an early sale, Johnson was in the process of switching to a new agent, an arrangement that went through in the first week of the July. Realistically, there was no chance of a transfer happening before that stage.

Against that backdrop, Forest make some valid points in their statement, complaining that “aspirant clubs” are being treated unfairly by the rules.

“There will be occasions when a player transfer cannot be completed in the first half of a transfer window and can only be completed at the end of that window,” reads their statement. “This should not be a reason for the condemnation of a club.”

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It is difficult to think of another time when the club have released such a strongly worded statement and, though it was not credited to him individually, the final sign-off came from Marinakis.

The current PSR model, according to Forest, “destroys mobility in the football pyramid” and is stacked against any club trying to break into the elite”. Forest’s punishment will “drastically reduce the room for manoeuvre for all such clubs, leading to the stagnation of our national game”.

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The club were “extremely dismayed by the tone and content of the Premier League’s submissions”. It had “harmed the trust and confidence” Forest had previously had in the league, claiming “that the Premier League sought a sanction of eight points as a starting point was utterly disproportionate when compared to the nine points that their own rules prescribe for insolvency”.

Maybe an argument lies somewhere in between. Marinakis is entitled to be frustrated when he is being stopped, he believes, from building the team he wants. At the same time, it is undeniable Forest could have avoided the first points deduction in the club’s 159-year history if they had been more strategic, less impetuous, in their transfer dealings.

Too often, they have undermined all their good work with some erratic decision-making behind the scenes. It has cost them four points, leaving them 18th in the table.

Forest, to put it into context, have taken their past four points over the course of six games.

And yet, they will also know it could have been a lot worse.

(Top photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

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Daniel Taylor is a senior writer for The Athletic and a four-time Football Journalist of the Year, as well as being named Sports Feature Writer of the Year in 2022. He was previously the chief football writer for The Guardian and The Observer and spent nearly 20 years working for the two titles. Daniel has written five books on the sport. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DTathletic

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