On May 29, Nottingham Forest and Huddersfield Town will face off in the Championship playoff final at Wembley Stadium. The annual game is one of the most exciting on the English calendar with the winner earning the last remaining spot in the Premier League the following season. The event makes for tremendous drama, and it is often referred to as the "richest game in football" due to the sheer monetary value for the winners.
On top of that massive value, there is also the prestige and pride. This is especially true for Nottingham Forest, which is one of England’s oldest clubs and is even contested to be the world’s oldest Football League club. Nottingham Forest's glory years came in the late 1970s. In 1977-78, it won the First Division title (the highest level in England at the time).
The past two decades have not been as kind. It hasn’t been in the Premier League since 1999 and even as recently as last season it was in a relegation fight to avoid dropping to the third tier.
The 2021-22 season has been one of its best seasons in recent memory and now just 90 minutes separate it from the Premier League.
At the heart of the turnaround has been Dane Murphy, the club’s American CEO who has found tremendous success in the front office since he retired as a player in 2015 at the age of 28.
At first, he was a scout for the New York Cosmos of the now defunct NASL. Then he moved to become the technical director of Real Salt Lake in MLS. In 2019 he moved within the league to take the job as the technical director for D.C. United.
Less than a year into that role with D.C. United, Murphy was hired by Barnsley in the English Championship (England's second tier). There was an opening at Barnsley to replace Gauthier Ganaye and what helped Murphy get the job was his ability to use data analytics (sometimes referred to as a “Moneyball” approach) to find undervalued players and cost-effective approaches to building a roster. This method also looks to cut out overpaid or overvalued players who are paid more on their historical data than actual current output.
"There are lots of clubs that use data and have brought in analysts to push in this direction,” Murphy said at the time. “But at Barnsley it’s the principle, it’s the root of what we are doing. There are clubs that say, ‘We need to bring it in as an ingredient,’ but here it is the bedrock. Like Brentford in a way and Red Bull on a global scale, data is the first thing that wipes out the noise for us.”
Murphy initially struggled at Barnsley. His first season saw the club, then coached by current New York Red Bulls boss Gerhard Struber, only avoid relegation on the final day of the season with a win over a Brentford team that was playing for a spot in the Premier League.
Over the course of that year, Murphy learned quickly about the differences between running an American club and an English club.
“It was extremely difficult,” Murphy recalled. “It's almost like two different sports. In MLS, everything was sort of laid out in front of you as to how you manage the roster and the cap, how you build out a squad year over year, what the rules and restrictions are. It's very clear cut and dry, whereas here it's a bit more like the Wild West.”
“You're all going after the same players,” he added. “There's no restrictions on what you can spend in the Championship or how a roster can be built. When that is the case, you think: 'Oh, great, I'm going to be able to put my stamp on this right away.' But that isn't the case because there are so many different layers how to create a team and a club that's actually viable.”
But Murphy’s second season saw a phenomenal turnaround for Barnsley, one of the smallest-budgeted teams in the Championship. After holding onto a mid-standings spot into the end of January, Murphy made a pivotal move in bringing in American forward Daryl Dike on loan from MLS's Orlando City.
The move raised eyebrows and some criticism from those above him. But Dike scored nine goals the remainder of the season to qualify for the playoffs – a finish virtually no pundit in England predicted. The move to bring in Dike impressed many throughout the Championship and it even helped to boost the stature of American players beyond the known U.S. national team stars in the Championship.
“All these are additives to the fact that maybe the American market is being overlooked just because they haven't had the global success in the past,” Murphy said. “But those narratives slowly die as players do better in England and across the continent. With Daryl all coming in, it opens the door clubs in the Championship saying, OK, maybe there are younger kids who have come through the university system or the MLS academy system that can make an immediate impact.
"Again, if Daryl was able to change the narrative, which I think he did in a short period of time, then that's great because I know and personally just having a feel for both divisions now the Championship in MLS, there are plenty of players in the MLS that could come in and make an impact in in the Championship.”
Last summer, Nottingham Forest brought in Murphy to help orchestrate a similar turnaround. Forest was coming off a disappointing 17th place finish but is a much larger club in England that many see as having more potential.
The start to the season was brutal as Forest had just one point from its first seven games. Murphy and his team then made a coaching change and Steve Cooper was hired. The club went on a rapid turnaround and climbed the standings all throughout the season, ending in a fourth-place finish and a spot in the playoffs.
The news only continued to get better for Murphy. As a result of Nottingham Forest’s climb, he was named the Championship’s CEO of the Year for 2021-22. Then in the first round of the playoffs, Nottingham Forest thrillingly defeated Sheffield United in the first round of the playoffs after a shootout victory at home in the second leg.
American players doing well in England is not necessarily new. At the higher levels, it hasn’t been kind. American owners are often ridiculed. Bob Bradley was mocked as the first American-born manager in the Premier League. Jesse Marsch has been compared with Ted Lasso.
Murphy, now 36, admits that he did deal with some negative aspects of being an American but generally tries to stay out of the spotlight – which helps.
“I think behind closed doors I did - especially being as young as I was,” Murphy said when asked if he dealt with any negative stereotypes of being an American in England. “I was 32 when I came over and I was the only American and with no prior experience in Europe on this side of sport. But to be honest, I really appreciate the fact that here the spotlight it's always on the coaching staff and the players. It allows me and my group just to get our work done and not have to deal with the outside. I guess the outside elements can distract at times. I don't really partake in a lot of interviews.”
There is also the big question of where Nottingham Forest is going. Reaching the Premier League is obviously huge but then what? Is it to be a yo-yo club, or is there something more? Murphy is confident that with his team and, especially with owner Evangelos Marinakis, the club could be on the verge of returning to its former status as one of the bigger clubs in the country.
“We're very lucky to have the owner [Marinakis],” Murphy said. “I think in every challenge that he's embarked on in life, he's been successful. He also owns Olympiacos and they're perennial winners of their league. And he is invested in a way that's smart and diligent and he knows and he believes that once this club is able to get back to the Premier League, where it does belong, that he can take it to another level.
“There is excitement and the feeling that we haven't been in this position in a long time, and we do feel as a club that we should be in the Premier League. We are a Premier League level club with a Premier League level owner. They use the phrase over here all the time – ‘sleeping giant.’ And this is outside of Leeds, who recently just got back in the Premier League was probably the biggest sleeping giant. If we get back to the Premier League, who knows where we can take the club and its path for the future.”
As for Murphy, he is groundbreaking for Americans to have a role which encompasses making the sporting decisions for ambitious clubs. For the second straight season, his clubs have surpassed expectations. But for Murphy, it is all about learning.
“Every day there's something new because of the way the sport is made up over here, especially in the Championship - if you think you know it all, you're going to fail because each day there are new obstacles that you have to get around,” Murphy said. “That first year probably taught me more in a 11 to 12 months span and I've ever learned in my life.”
“I'm learning every day now.”