Ten games ago, Alex McLeish was the manager of Nottingham Forest, the club’s fifth manager in 18 months. The club had dropped from seventh to fourteenth place in the championship table since the sacking of Sean O’Driscoll after arguably the best performance of the season – a 4-2 defeat of Leeds United on Boxing Day.
Nine games later and Forest lie fifth in the standings, following a run of three draws and six successive victories under their returning managerial hero – Billy Davies. So how has this transformation come about?
It’s all too easy to point to the undoubted galvanising, motivational talents of a man for whom the word ‘firebrand’ looked to have been invented in his first City Ground stint. Relentless controversy and condemnation of the club’s lack of ambition were at the heart of many a passionate Scottish outpouring.
Now he’s back. Just as definite in his views and just as demanding in what he expects of his players. Yet there is perhaps a rather less aggressive approach, maybe a reduction in unexpurgated vitriol that hallmarked that first period in charge.
Interestingly, Davies has yet to add a single player to his squad. The same players that were plummeting down the division are the very same that are within one game of equalling the club’s record of successive victories. There is little doubt that Davies has looked at the bigger picture, completely changing the midfield formation and moving Chris Cohen from the right side of midfield to left back. It appeared merely a stop-gap move but Cohen has responded superbly with a series of excellent performances.
That decision is reminiscent of the messianic Brian Clough who transformed a tubby, dishevelled midfielder called John Robertson into arguably the best left winger in Europe in a couple or three seasons. For two seasons Forest ruled Europe, with two 1-0 victories in successive finals. Robertson made the winner in the first of those finals (for Trevor Francis) and scored the winner in the second. But for Clough he would probably have left the club and achieved little or nothing.
However, Billy Davies has done far more than changing the composition of the bigger picture. A meticulous mind is at work which delves in pointedly forensic detail in aspects of management that may seem irrelevant or unnecessary. Upon his arrival at the City Ground players were immediately banned from the club kitchen – they has previously had unfettered access. A fridge in the dressing room was dispensed with and a number of other minor details were changed.
On a wider level, Davies restructured training practices and player conditioning and, with a new approach instilled at all levels, the same squad began to achieve very different things. It reminded me of the rise of Novak Djokovic from number three in the men’s tennis rankings to the undisputed number one in a year of stellar brilliance.
When asked for the secret of his significant improvement, Djokovic did not single out any particular element of his preparation or performance. He simply explained that he and his coach had forensically examined every single aspect of how he went about things – training, diet, each individual shot, psychological approach and so on.
Nothing was eliminated from this relentlessly specific examination. The outcome was the Djokovic improved in every area of his preparation and performance. Those improvements were – by themselves – very small but incrementally they came together to produce an overall level of improvement to propel him to the top of the world. Such are the fine margins at the apex of world sport.
Maybe we can take this attitude into the betting arena, another area where the finest margins can make a significant difference. Were there even two bets in a month we didn’t need to make? Did we listen to someone’s supposedly ‘inside’ information? Did we back a specific horse ‘because we always do?’ Did we join in on a gamble when all the value had already been eaten up?
There will no doubt be many more examples all of us can bring to mind. Whatever your situation, never stop learning, never stop refining and honing your strategies and always look to add that latest small incremental amount to your edge over the bookmaker.