It lasted just 30 days and six matches, and featured a touchline ban, a couple of furious rants, and a passing reference to the Antiques Roadshow. It did not feature a win.
Troy Deeney’s reign as Forest Green Rovers head coach came to a premature end on Thursday, with the club rooted to the bottom of the 72-team Football League and seven points from safety.
The 35-year-old long-time Watford striker’s dismissal came just hours after he was handed a four-match touchline ban and fined £1,500 for abusing a match official when he was sent to the stands towards the end of a December 29 defeat by Swindon Town.
And then last weekend, after a 2-0 home defeat against Harrogate Town, he had very publicly called out his players saying the squad included “too many babies, top to bottom”.
The club’s owner Dale Vince said that was a mistake, and Deeney apologised live on UK TV’s Sky Sports the following day, but that would prove to be his last game in charge. Forest Green are now searching for their seventh manager in less than two years as they face relegation back to non-League after seven seasons in the EFL.
This is how Deeney’s brief, yet turbulent, first job in management went wrong…
Deeney had initially joined Forest Green in the middle of August last year as a player-coach.
He had been persuaded to move south to Gloucestershire from big-city neighbours Birmingham, of the Championship, by the fourth-tier club’s new manager David Horseman, who he knew from their time together at Watford.
It felt like a fresh start and new beginning for Forest Green, who had finished bottom of League One last season, their first ever at that level, with just 27 points. Former Everton, Newcastle United and Scotland striker Duncan Ferguson had arrived halfway through that season for his first permanent job in management but presided over a sorry spell that saw one win in 18 matches.
At his unveiling at the eco-friendly club, Ferguson had been presented with a vegan burger and appeared puzzled, admitting he’d never tried vegan food before.
After his dismissal last July, academy manager Hannah Dingley served briefly as interim first-team manager, to great media fanfare, before Horseman came in.
Despite the club having dropped down a division, Horseman, whose only previous managerial job was with then Premier League side Southampton’s B team, was unable to stop the rot. He was sacked on December 20, with Deeney promoted from his assistant role as his successor. At that point, Forest Green were in one of the fourth tier’s two relegation places, a point ahead of rock-bottom Sutton United.
On taking the job, the man who captained Watford to the FA Cup final in 2019 said he was determined to make an immediate impact.
In a local newspaper column, Deeney wrote: “I want us to become horrible to play against. Some people have asked why I wanted to take over a club next to bottom in League Two for my first job in management, but I have never been one to turn down a challenge. I remember Paul Ince and Sol Campbell taking over at Macclesfield in similar circumstances and leading them to safety. It’s also true that there aren’t enough Black and ethnic minority managers in English football.”
Just months earlier, in an interview with the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, Deeney, who holds a UEFA A coaching licence, spoke of his ambition to be a successful manager.
“I want to be a manager and to go as high as I can,” he said. “The ultimate is to be an international manager — whether that is England, Brazil… Whether you can get there is a different thing. But you don’t want to say, ‘You know what? My ceiling is League Two’. That’s the aim, and I want to put those hard yards in to understand it.”
Lofty ambitions and big dreams, yet it all started for Deeney at home against Gillingham, in front of 3,265 fans. In that game, three days before Christmas, Forest Green picked up a creditable 0-0 draw against a side then 10th in the division, a result which felt like a platform to build on.
However, it didn’t take long for it to all start unravelling.
In the next game, away against Newport County the day after Christmas, Forest Green were two goals up at half-time but capitulated, having midfielder Callum Jones sent off six minutes into the second half and going on to lose, 4-2.
In Deeney’s third game, a 2-1 defeat at neighbours Swindon, Deeney was sent to the stands for two bookable offences. Striker Matty Stevens missed a stoppage-time penalty that would have earned Forest Green a point. (Earlier on Thursday, before being sacked, Deeney was given a four-match touchline ban for his “improper” behaviour and “abusive and/or insulting” language towards a match official in the 85th minute of that match. He was told he couldn’t get around the ban by selecting himself to play for the club.)
Looking to bounce back, Forest Green earned a 1-1 draw at home to AFC Wimbledon on New Year’s Day before conceding a stoppage-time penalty when 2-1 up at Salford City — the ensuing equaliser saw their winless league run, stretching back to October, continue.
Following that latest setback, Deeney went on the attack, and publicly called out his “childish” players.
He said: “They have just been told that the nice days of Dave (Horseman) and (his assistant) Lou (Carey) are long gone. We will get reinforcements.
“I have said it to the boys: if you are in a street fight, you do not hit the person and they drop down and (you) go, ‘Wait, get up, take 10 minutes and go get your friends and then come back’. You fight until you have won and that is what happens at elite level in sport, but here we are quite childish.”
However, that dressing-down felt mild compared to what was to come…
Deeney pledged to bring in new players and, before Forest Green’s next game, at home against Harrogate last Saturday, three of them arrived — Alex Gorrin, Dominic Thompson and Tommy Simkin. Gorrin, a free transfer from Oxford United of League One, was subsequently sent off 48 minutes into his debut and Forest Green’s 10 men then succumbed to a 2-0 defeat.
In a post-match outburst, Deeney said: “I was trying to be nice, and cosy my way into it. But what is going to have to happen is the sledgehammers are going to have to come out and there are going to be a lot of people that won’t like it, but I do not really care.
“My job is to try and save this football club in the short term, but also to put it in a better place moving forward and at the moment there are too many babies — and that is not just young players; there are too many babies, from top to bottom.”
He added: “First half was boring — I’d rather watch fr***ing (BBC TV Sunday evening staple) Antiques Roadshow than that… no offence to anyone that likes Antiques Roadshow.”
Calling out individuals, Deeney hit out at midfielder Reece Brown for being late and full-back Fankaty Dabo over his dip in form.
On Brown, Deeney said: “He is 27 years old and he’s my senior midfielder but he can’t turn up for work on time. If you had someone turn up (late) twice in two days, would you put him in your squad? Would you trust him to get you through a game? So, that’s it. Reece is my senior leader of pros in the age group and that’s what he does. It’s a continuation of nonsense and it won’t be tolerated.”
Turning on Dabo, a 28-year-old who came through Chelsea’s academy, he continued: “Dabo was poor and awful again and I have just told him that he will not be playing on Tuesday. He’s not been good for five, six, seven, eight, nine weeks. I have just told him in front of everyone — six months ago, that kid had a kick to go to the Premier League (playing for Coventry City as their Championship play-off final against Luton Town went to penalties). Now he won’t get a game in the National League. So, is that me or him?
“He has pure ability but he gets run every game and never makes a tackle and when the ball comes to him he looks like he kicks it with his shinpads.”
Deeney’s patience may have been wearing thin, but, by this time, so was owner Vince’s.
After that Harrogate match, Vince said of his head coach’s rant: “I think it was a mistake. He apologised for it, so I think he sees that. It was just wrong to talk about the players in that way. It was probably driven by emotion.”
The following afternoon, Deeney appeared as a guest on Sky Sports, alongside fellow former player Jamie Mackie, to preview Queens Park Rangers against Watford in the Championship. Mackie said he hadn’t heard about Deeney’s remarks before going on the show.
“Look, we’re all learning on the job,” Deeney said during that programme. “I let my emotions get the best of me at times. As a player, you can say what you want. Listen, I still stand by what I said but I probably shouldn’t have let that out. I’ve already spoken to Dabo and apologised. I expect high standards. And, in the era we came up in, that was a minimum.”
A source close to one Forest Green first-team regular, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect relationships, said Deeney’s comments after the Harrogate match had not gone down well with the squad.
They told The Athletic: “Troy pressed the self-destruct button after the Harrogate game. That was definitely not constructive.”
However, the same source stressed that Deeney had walked into a very difficult job with a losing team who were low on confidence.
They said: “That was such a hard job. Not a lot of people could get them going or can get them going. For somebody that’s never managed before, to go into a team that’s not used to winning, and haven’t done now for 18 months, that’s a big problem. A part of me sort of feels for Troy, because you can’t choose when you get opportunities and jobs. If you don’t take it (when such an offer arrives), you maybe never get it (another one).”
They thought Deeney should have picked himself in the team more as, even at 35 years old, he was still one of the club’s better players. He didn’t name himself in a matchday squad at all during his six games in charge.
The source feels the club had lost direction since Richard Hughes, their director of football, left to join League One side Portsmouth in September 2022. That came just four months after head coach Rob Edwards, who had just taken them to the League Two title and third-tier football for the first time in their history, left to manage Championship Watford.
Since then, Forest Green have had four permanent managers while Hughes’ replacement, Stevie Grieve, lasted just five months as head of performance and recruitment. Allan Steele, formerly of Brentford’s B team, then came in as director of football while Will Daniels was brought in as the club’s head of recruitment, analysis and innovation in August from AFC Wimbledon.
Vince admits the club have struggled to recover from the departures of Edwards and Hughes.
Even after Deeney’s very public outburst at the weekend, two more players joined the club this week — Maxi Oyedele on loan from Manchester United and Emmanuel Osadebe from fellow League Two side Bradford City.
Neither will get to play for Deeney, however, as he was sacked on Thursday night.
A source close to Deeney, who asked to remain anonymous to protect relationships, said he hadn’t been given enough time to properly prove himself.
They told The Athletic: “The way the club have acted is terrible. Using his name to generate interest around the club itself and in the recruitment department. Three weeks and six games, how can you possibly judge any manager on that?”
Vince admitted performances had been decent but said he had to act for three reasons.
He told The Athletic: “Our results haven’t been good enough for what we need. Six games, three points. We’ve had three sendings-off in six games. But that was only one factor.
“We would have run it for longer had there not been an outburst against the players after Saturday’s game against Harrogate, which was quite astounding, really. I was very surprised by that. Really harsh things were said about the players and I don’t believe you can motivate a squad that way; you can only do the opposite.
“And then on Thursday, the FA gave Troy a four-game ban for his sending off at Swindon for abusive and insulting language towards officials, which is a really difficult thing to contemplate and accept as a club.
“My feeling was this wasn’t working, and actually it probably wasn’t going to work, and rather than wait another handful of games for proof of that, it was better to move early and have more chance of saving the season. So it was really in the interests of that.”
He added Deeney’s promotion to replace Horseman had come too soon in a young coaching career and that he has sympathy for the tough position he found himself in. Vince said the club would now look to a more experienced manager as they bid to avoid back-to-back relegations.
For Deeney the manager, it’s a case of dusting himself down and learning lessons from a bruising first experience in the dugout.
Additional reporting: Adam Leventhal
(Top photo: MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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