Gary Neville’s comment was outrageous… this is NOT over yet: Explosive interview with Nottingham Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis

Gary Neville’s comment was outrageous… this is NOT over yet: Explosive interview with Nottingham Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis

  • Nottingham Forest owner welcomed Mail Sport to his central London offices
  • Marinakis has gained a reputation for his fiery, often bombastic approach 
  • CHRIS SUTTON: Arsenal players will feel SICK if they don’t win the title… I wonder if they can go again next year – Listen to the It’s All Kicking Off! podcast 

Say what you will about Evangelos Marinakis, but don’t doubt that he cares.

If anything, he cares too much. It’s why he and Nottingham Forest found themselves at the centre of a relentless storm.

‘Who created this storm?,’ queries the Greek businessman. ‘Regrets? None at all. But for others to make all these comments and all this bullsh*t…’

Marinakis believes he knows exactly who’s to blame for what he views as a faux furore surrounding Forest’s infamous social media post that caught fire last month.

He has no qualms with spilling the beans, either. But all in good time.

Marinakis showed of his collection of tattoos, which included messages on both arms and the Olympiakos crest on his left bicep

At his offices in central London, the city in which he founded his first company in 1991 at just 24, the man now worth an estimated £3billion is perched on one of the three sofas positioned in the centre of his spacious domain as he welcomes Mail Sport with a sincere warmth that flies in the face of his domineering public persona.

Imposing? No doubt. But he’s gentle, softly spoken and at pains to ensure I’m comfortable. He challenges me to a game of table football.

‘People say you learn from your defeats – but I want victories not defeats,’ Marinakis explains. ‘I don’t want to learn from defeats. I want to keep winning.’

Marinakis humbles this Mail Sport reporter 5-3. I should have known.

But he doesn’t gloat, a modesty entirely in-keeping with the friendliness he exudes – though he was rather more bombastic when discussing his beloved Olympiakos’ 4-2 victory over Aston Villa that booked their place in the Europa Conference League final last week – the Greek club’s greatest European achievement in their 99 year history.

Our hour long conversation zips by. We discuss his angst with the referees body (PGMOL), why the Premier League’s financial fair play rules need altering and the fallout from Forest’s loss to Liverpool after which Marinakis was accused of chasing referee Paul Tierney down the tunnel.

‘I didn’t storm on the pitch to confront the referee, all this was in the imagination of Sky and the others that said this,’ Marinakis insists.

‘I was there to show unity with the team, as I have done many times in the past, after a terrible (refereeing) decision. I was just stood outside the tunnel, the referee walked past and I didn’t even look at him. That’s why the Premier League never even questioned me about this.’

But while his views towards refereeing standards becomes a prevalent theme during our chat, we also discuss his love of the arts.

The contemporary paintings that adorn the walls are of his own hand, he has also written lyrics for several songs, including one called ‘Excitement’ for Greek singer Natassa Theodoridou that reached one million views on You Tube in just six days.

His office is more akin to an opulent hotel penthouse suite than a place of work. High ceilings, gaping bay windows overlooking Hyde Park, plush cream carpets, intricate cornice beading across the walls all bordered in a subtle but sweet fragrance that inhabits the room.

Marinakis stood alone on the touchline at the City Ground, a study in brooding anger, after Nottingham Forest's defeat by Liverpool in March

Marinakis took no prisoners in a game of table football with Mail Sport reporter Sami Mokbel

The 56-year-old billionaire displayed a softer side than many are accustomed to seeing

Marinakis celebrates Olympiakos' celebrates 44th Greek championship title in 2017

The eye-catching ornate roses on the ceiling are the piece de resistance.

Jars packed to the brim with Haribo and Moam sweets are placed enticingly on the tables. There’s even a jar in the waiting room, which is accessible through a set of doors in the top left corner of his impressive surroundings.

To the left of the main entrance to the room is a small circular table stocked with around half-a-dozen or so vintage whiskies. If none of that floats your boat, then the luxury table tennis table may interest you.

His penchant for the colour red becomes abundantly clear, too. The drawings on the wall are red. The beaded jewellery on his left wrist, perched just above a gleaming Rolex, is red.

There’s a model of giant dog that’s red. The sofa cushions are, of course, red.

The football table in the left hand corner of the room is red. The table ornament on his desk that reads ‘Never Never Give Up’ – the exact one he recently gifted Olympiakos and Forest’s players – is red.

It comes as no surprise then that two of the Greek executive’s most treasured sporting acquisitions are iconically crimson. The tattoo of the Olympiakos’ crest on his left bicep offers a glimpse of his true allegiances.

He grew up in Piraeus, the port city – just five miles from central Athens – where the Greek club is located. His father Miltiadis was an Olympiakos investor from 1979, long before Marinakis himself purchased the club in 2010.

Yet with all that said, his commitment to the other red love of his life is unquestionable.

‘Brian Clough, John Robertson, Stuart Pearce, Roy Keane, Trevor Francis, the European Cups, I know the history,’ Marinakis insists. ‘For me, having owned the biggest team in Greece, if I invested in England I wanted to invest in an equally big team.

‘A team that has big crowds and a big supporter base. But also I’ve always liked Forest.

‘When I first came to the UK when I was 15 years old, I always remember it was the time Liverpool and Forest were doing extremely well. I don’t see it as money, or a transaction. For me it is our duty to revive our history.’

Much has happened in the seven years since Marinakis purchased the club, just days after it avoided relegation to League 1 on goal difference. Relegation battles, play-off euphoria, an FA Cup quarter-final and EFL Cup semi-final.

Marinakis has ploughed £250million into a club stuck in a cycle of mediocrity when he took over in May 2017. Forest have benefited. The city has benefitted.

Often portrayed as the villain of the piece, we are rarely exposed to Marinakis’ softer side.

Last month, he opened the doors to the City Ground to be transformed into a cancer drop-in centre, while in March Marinakis welcomed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to the club for the unveiling of a county-wide community health initiative.

Larry Lloyd celebrates Forest's second European Cup triumph in as many seasons after victory over Hamburger SV at Santiago Bernabeu on 28 May 1980

Marinakis bought the club days after they narrowly avoided relegation to the third tier in 2017

Marinakis cannot be accused of being an absent owner, in a landscape filled with the like

In a world of absent owners, Marinakis’ finger prints are all over his club.

‘I have attended over 100 games at the City Ground or away and we never had any incident,’ Marinakis suddenly says unprompted. ‘We’ve won and lost games – big games – but we have always had an excellent reputation.

‘Even the Key Match Incidents panel admits that we’ve had seven wrong decisions against us and there’s another nine to my count not admitted.’

It is clear at this point that Marinakis is building up to something. The elephant in the room.

‘You are entitled to ask me this,’ says Marinakis almost as if to open the door to the inevitable line of questioning.

The social media post that dropped on Forest’s official X account on April 21, which revealed they had contacted the referees’ body to flag concern over experienced official Stuart Attwell being appointed as the match VAR for their showdown against Everton because he supports relegation rivals Luton Town caused mass hysteria.

The post has been viewed over 45 million times. Forest were denied what they believed were three penalties at Goodison Park. Attwell did not send on-field referee Anthony Taylor to his pitchside monitor to review any of the incidents. Although even the PGMOL admits that one was a clear-cut penalty.

Nevertheless, it is Forest and Marinakis that have been brutally criticised ever since. Particularly by Gary Neville. Over to Marinakis: ‘The truth is this specific referee is well known to be a Luton fan – and no doubt declared his interest to PGMOL, as all of them have to.

‘In my opinion, the PGMOL should not have selected him for this match. Luton were directly below Forest at that time. In the final relegation place in eighteenth position.

‘The match against Everton was hugely important for the club’s survival in the Premier League. The PGMOL should not have risked even the suspicion or perception of any bias, even unconscious bias.

‘To be clear, we don’t expect to dictate or to impose a change to the PGMOL or Premier League but it is our duty to warn of a situation and be proactive. If this is crime…’

You may not agree, but Marinakis makes a compelling argument. His disclosure that Forest have since completed a digital analysis of all three penalty incidents through the use of artificial intelligence and referee experts approved by FIFA and UEFA adds further weight to his assertions.

‘There were three undisputed penalties – not one. We have the analysis from trusted experts to prove it,’ says Marinakis in response to a question about referees chief Howard Webb admitting that Forest should have been awarded at least one spot-kick at Everton.

For Marinakis the entire affair is a storm in a teacup stirred into a frenzy by a TV network and high profile pundit. His crosshairs divert: Sky Sports and Gary Neville are in range.

Forest were incensed by three decisions that went against them against Everton last month

PGMOL chief Howard Webb admitted that Forest should have had at least one penalty

Nottingham Forest launched legal action against Sky Sports after Gary Neville's mafia slur

‘We made this announcement because we tried to protect and then there is a big fuss – but that was made from Sky Sports and specific guys,’ said Marinakis.

‘I can bring you 100 examples of times they exaggerated, didn’t say the truth and humiliated people.

‘Neville is subject to FA rules too, surely – he is a director of Salford FC. His comment about the club was outrageous, but the FA have done nothing.

‘I need to be careful – because our lawyers have already been in contact with Sky regarding Neville and this is not over yet. The comments and words he used were inappropriate, didn’t correspond with reality and harmed people.’

Mark Clattenburg, who joined Forest as a referees consultant in February, has since resigned from his position, saying in a statement he’d become ‘more hindrance than help’ to the club following calls from Neville for him to step down in the aftermath of Forest’s tweet.

The fall-out from that day will linger for a while yet. The FA charged Forest, along with their head coach Nuno Espírito Santo and player Neco Williams for their comments after the loss on Merseyside.

Yet it has not gone unnoticed that there was no action taken against Neville for his ‘mafia-gang’ comment.

Yet, when the curtain finally closes on the 2023/24 campaign next weekend, there is every chance Forest will retain their Premier League status in spite of points that Marinakis considers were lost along the way due to errors by match officials.

‘For sure these have hit our position in the table,’ he insists. I am very concerned about this and still considering and discussing with the board what would be the appropriate course of action, including legal measures.’

Of course, their survival fight would have been far more comfortable had they not been handed a four points deduction for breaching Premier League profit and sustainability regulations (PSR).

‘The current PSR seems to me to be an unfair system that doesn’t match the reality of global standards in football,’ Marinakis says. It’s a system that over the years has allowed changes in ownership to give opportunities for significant increases in spending, not reflected by statements of revenue and without exposure to any sanctions.

‘I drove Forest back to the Premier League after 23 years and had to invest in order to create a competitive and sustainable club.

‘This was for the benefit of the Premier League. I did it in a transparent way, without trying to inflate our revenues. I did it by investing in players whose values would increase in the future. This was the only way to create a fully financially sustainable club – which is supposed to be the goal of PSR.

‘We did not obscure our financials or seek to inflate our revenues. We were open and fair. Our only problem was that we failed to complete the sale of a key player [Brennan Johnson] until a few weeks later than needed to – for technical compliance.

‘This was a technical breach, not a substantial breach. The club made the sale, for the right value – almost exactly as per our strategy, but later than needed for the PSR deadline.

Forest's coaching staff were up in arms at a decision during their loss to Liverpool in March. Members of staff later surrounded Paul Tierney after the game

‘In my view the Premier League was very strict towards us, and the points deduction that they sought – which could have lead us into relegation.

‘This was the first time that any club has been sanctioned in the same season as its breach, and without giving any extension of time to achieve compliance.

‘I personally believe that the handling by the Premier League of our case was not the same, not consistent with their practice over previous years.

‘I think what we have done, and what people don’t realise, is the selection of players, in majority, that we have signed in the last two or three years – are young, extremely talented players.

‘Murillo, Morgan Gibbs-White, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Anthony Elanga, Danilo, Neco Williams, Taiwo Awoniyi, Nicolas Dominguez, Ibrahim Sangare, Andrew Omobamidele. We also signed Nelson Abbey for Olympiakos.

‘They are all young, talented players that have great value. They will ensure the club assets go higher and higher. The reality is this was a wise decision, a clever decision and we see the benefits.’

The passion with which Marinakis defends his club should hearten Forest fans. So, too, will his plans to invest.

His plans to elevate the club’s off-field operations are taking shape too. Marinakis has already recruited a new team having made a number of key appointments including heads of HR, commercial, legal, safeguarding and diversity and inclusion.

Yet one of his biggest legacies will be addressing the aging infrastructure of the club.

‘The stadium and training ground are not befitting the status and ambitions of the club,’ he says.

Whilst Marinakis continues to pump money into the club, Forest fear they are behind many of their top-flight rivals in terms generating the revenues it requires to make significant progress.

The existing stadium is owned by the council and with negotiations to remain and expand at impasse, Marinakis, who is acutely aware of the fans’ passion for the City Ground, is set to launch a supporter-led discussion on the matter.

Among the topics to be debated are likely to include the use of the City Ground for academy and women’s games.

However, sites have also been identified which would allow for Marinakis’ big ‘dream’ becoming a reality – a fully sustainable sports village with a 50,000 state-of-the-art stadium.

Marinakis claims that ‘for first time in the history, there is genuine chance to elevate the club to the next level of success on and off the pitch’.

Most recently, an memorandum of understanding has been signed with key council partners to help the club identify suitable locations for a new training facility to accommodate the mens, women’s and academy teams.

But it is clear the future of the City Ground needs resolving.

‘It will change the history in years to come of the region and the team for our supporters,’ he said.

‘It’ll be hard to leave City Ground, but in an age when revenue streams dictate success on the pitch, there’s no doubt moving to a bigger facility will set the club on the right path.’

And it is clear Marinakis wants to be the heartbeat of it all.

The club were unsuccessful in their attempts to overturn a four-point deduction for PSR breaches

The squad has seen a massive overhaul in recent seasons since returning to the top-flight in 2022

The Forest owner stands with reporter Sami Mokbel after welcoming Mail Sport to his London offices

‘Over the last 10 years, the city of Nottingham has lacked the confidence and ambition of the other big regional cities of Manchester and Birmingham,’ he says. ‘Nottingham needed a new leader to be brave, ambitious, to invest and be honest.

‘There is no one, in the history of the county, who has invested over £250m of their own private wealth in the county.’

Marinakis has put his money where his mouth is to return Forest back to the big time and he isn’t intending to stop. He’s willing to accept the blows. But not only that, he is prepared to muster a few blows of his own in response.

‘When I see decisions or actions against us that are not justified, it’s my character that I come back even harder,’ the 56-year-old said. I’m not discouraged. It make me stronger. At the end of the day we are winners. It’s something that has been with me in business, art, sports, daily life. I enjoy it.

‘I enjoy the uphill, not when it’s easy. The struggle. The most fun is the chase, the way we create. I like the journey. Enjoying a victory is just for a few seconds but the journey is what I’m interested in.’

For Marinakis, the journey is far from over.

Sami Mokbel

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