John Ryan took bankrupt Doncaster Rovers from the Conference to the Championship in ten years; and told me what he could have achieved with his second team, Nottingham Forest.
I was invited into his beautiful Cheshire home on Monday to get his thoughts on how Nottingham Forest has been run by Fawaz Al-Hasawi; and how to turn bad situations into great ones.
John took over at Doncaster Rovers in 1997, the same year that Forest recorded an 8-0 victory over them at their Belle Vue ground in the League Cup.
At the time, Donny were heading for the Conference thanks to the disgraceful operations of John’s predecessor Ken Richardson.
Richardson was jailed for four years after being found guilty of arson; he hired an ex SAS soldier to burn down the main stand.
The club would have to be rebuilt in every aspect, so if you think things are bad at Forest, think again.
His first move was to call up Neil Warnock and borrow kit from Sheffield United.
“I had three players, no footballs, no nets and not even a kit to play in,” John told me, reflecting on what he’d walked into on his first day as owner and chairman. “I always tried to pay my bills, it’s all about who you know in football and you never know when you might need each other”.
John could call upon friends in the game and vice versa; could you imagine anybody offering to help our owner in times of need?
Forest supporters think things are bad but we didn’t spend five years in non-league football, when Rovers finally got promoted to the Football League, the only way was up.
Under the leadership of John Ryan, they went on to win League Two, The Football League Trophy and promotion to the Championship; courtesy of the League One play-off victory over Leeds United at Wembley.
So, what is the secret to this success I asked John? “I was almost part of the team, I would be in the dressing room before the game to spur the lads on and I’d attend forty games in any season.
I believe in good football too, that’s why I recruited Sean O’Driscoll as manager”.
As soon as Mr Ryan mentioned Sean O’Driscoll I was desperate for his opinion on the manager’s dismissal by Fawaz Al-Hasawi, unsurprisingly it was one of bemusement.
“You go and beat Leeds on the telly and he gets sacked, give me a break.Nottingham Forest really missed a trick there because his teams really play the right way, the Forest way.”
John went on to reveal how he head hunted O’Driscoll from Bournemouth, having been impressed by O’Driscoll’s style of play.
Then came a mouth-watering scenario that unfortunately will never unfold for obvious reasons.
John Ryan told me that the only other club he would have ever run was Forest, and his dream would have been to have done it alongside the late Nigel Doughty. “I knew Nigel very well and together we could have returned Nottingham Forest to the Premier League without doubt; it would have been perfect for us both. “We would have made an ideal partnership, with me concentrating more on the football side of things for him”. I then asked John who they would have chosen as their first team manager? “Sean O’Driscoll without a doubt”.
John went on to tell me that he had turned down the chance to run Manchester City despite having links with their youth set up in the past, with Forest and Doncater the only clubs for him.
So where does his secret love affair with the Garibaldi Reds come from? John Ryan went to university in Nottingham and began watching Forest in the early seventies, before the arrival of Brian Clough even.
“Forest have always lacked that bit of ambition,” he told me, referring to the sale of Henry Newton, Terry Hennessey and Ian Story-Moore.
He spoke with a tone of disappointment that such entertaining players were allowed to leave instead of being the nucleus from which to build around. Remarkably, John’s family hail from different parts of Nottingham, one of which has actually played for Forest.
His Grandfather’s brother George Johnson, wore the famous red jersey in the early 1900s. John’s grandparents lived in Mapperly and his aunt in Hucknall.
I broached the subject of Oliver Burke to see what John thought of the whole saga. Was it good business by Fawaz I asked? “It is not; it’s actually a complete lack of ambition if you ask me, I would have kept him at all costs and allowed him and the team to progress,
“Then, maybe after a year or two when he’s helped you to promotion you could think about it; but hopefully he’d want to stay by then if you were back in the top flight anyway.”
I don’t think you’ll find many Forest fans who’d disagree with that!
Despite gauging John Ryan’s success against the lack of it by Fawaz, I must stress that John has always been frustrated by Forest’s lack of ambition. He quite rightly pointed out that as a club we’ve never really had an owner/chairman who’s set his sights on bigger things. Even during the European Cup days, it was more Clough and Taylor to be honest. I just wonder what things would have been like with that trio of John Ryan, Nigel Doughty and Sean O’Driscoll? I don’t doubt for a single second that we would be back in the Premier League and a world away from Kuwait!