It was the longest unbeaten run in English football, a veritable portcullis assembled outside the City Ground, an exclusion zone of the kind that the nearby Meadows estate would be most used to, indignantly and gleefully informing all who pass through in alternative colours that a point would, if they were fortunate, would be the very most of their reward.
Then along came City.
This is the biggest headline maker we’ve achieved so far in the Championship this season. The Forest record was one that had become a source of pride not only to the club, but also to the Football League. Week on week, game on game, the issue of who would eventually outdo Billy Davies’ men on their own patch would pop up again after watching each resounding win or, in a fair few cases, each late Forest equaliser that saved skins and prolonged the hype. And now it’s over, and everyone in the national media can say that it was Hull City that brought it to an end.
Whether it was a deserved victory or not is another matter. It’s one of those debates best put to the neutrals, as a partisan argument in red would say Forest deserved more on chances created and overall possession, whereas those with a soul coloured black and amber would care to point out that resolute defending and consequent clean sheets form the real fundamentals of success. In other words, Forest attacked more and City kept them out. Honours even would have been fair, but the City victory does produce an argument about not getting everything you deserve in the game. Still, when chances are created they have to go in, and Forest failed entirely to do that with a roughly equal blend of shoddy finishing and exceptional rearguard action from the Tigers. Those of us who get as much of a kick out of seeing our side win games through bravery, bloody-mindedness and pride felt vindicated by such an alternative stance.
And, when the one chance (yes, it was just one chance, really) came our way, we had the centre forward capable of turning it into a proper goalscoring opportunity and, ergo, a proper goal. And it won us the match, kept us within gnashing distance of the play-offs and, all told, maintained and reinvigorated the belief noticeably appearing within both squad and support.
Nigel Pearson made no outfield changes after the defeat to Cardiff City last week, needing only to throw the gloves back to an allegedly fit-again Vito Mannone. City’s teamsheet read thus: Mannone; Rosenior, Chester, Gerrard, Dawson; Evans, Koren, Harper; Simpson, Fryatt, Mclean. The list of substitutes included a recall for a fit-again Richard Garcia. I hope a majority of right-thinking City fans will agree that this is good news indeed.
The reason for the caveat on Mannone’s physical suitability for the occasion was that he tweaked a leg muscle, presumably the dodgy thigh that has kept him sidelined for a while, reasonably early on in the game. It didn’t affect his handling, of course, but it did mean Anthony Gerrard had to take the goalkicks (which he did with comical ineptitude) and prompted the odd furrow of worry about what would happen if the Italian needed to rush at full pelt from his goal at any point. Matt Duke’s loan spell to Derby, confirmed on Friday, may prove to be as short a loan spell as football has seen.
Anyway, the first half wasn’t up to much, and the first 20 minutes were a write-off for both players and author, as a train late enough to warrant a full refund meant your wordsmith arrived 20 minutes after kick-off, only to be informed that I had missed the square root of zero in terms of interesting activity. Mannone made one double-fisted save from Radoslaw Majewski after a cleared set-piece fell the Pole’s way on the edge of the box. The telly helped me with that one.
James Chester fouled Majewski wide on the left but Lewis McGugan, perhaps buoyed by the number of oddly spectacular goals he has managed this season, chose to have a shot from the free kick which was wasteful and imbecilic, as Mannone watched it career over his bar and Forest’s throng in the box remonstrated with the taker.
City’s only real smell of a first half chance didn’t even become that, as Matt Fryatt received the ball on one corner of the box, used close control and strength to fashion a run across the edge and find a shooting angle, only to then not actually get a shot in at all. The ball eventually went out for a corner from which City did little.
If not exactly toothless, there was certainly a cautionary element to City’s forward play, and this in a 4-3-3 that deployed Jay Simpson in a wide position again and forced both Fryatt and Aaron Mclean to hover across the whole breadth of a big City Ground pitch. Robert Koren, immaculate of touch but not always frequent of involvement, was neither receiving nor demanding much of the ball and, both to annoy the less intelligent City fan and also because it’s the truth, James Harper was City’s best retainer and giver in the first half.
Where City were really superb though was in defence. Gerrard’s commitment to the cause is extraordinary, given his status as a loan player who will undoubtedly get a mega wage rise if his parent club gets promotion to the Premier League in eight weeks time. Several challenges were robust but none unfair or late, and he is also bringing the best out of Chester, more talented as a footballer but quickly using Gerrard’s example of just how far sheer courage and single-mindedness can take you. The pair of them would prove even more heroic in the second half, but for now they were merely being superhuman rather than God-like.
Gerrard threw himself at one Paul Anderson cross late in the first half that cleared the danger from the six yard box and received taps of congratulation from keeper and fellow defenders and a roar from the Tiger Nation, 3,500 of them that as one, if not yet able to see all the good in characters like Harper, realise that Gerrard is the absolute monster at the back we’ve always loved. His fitness and availability is as crucial to City’s ambition for the remaining 11 games as any other individual in this settled and growing team.
Half time. A queue for the lavatories that needed you to inhale deeply in order to fit into it, and the playing of Mull Of Kintyre – literally the first chart song this author remembers – as the teams prepare to restart. It was notable just how many City fans not only felt compelled to join in with the words but actually knew them all. This was, however, a first visit to the City Ground since 1977, so many of the Tiger Nationals of a balding, failing eyesight, loose bowelled, smoky lunged disposition would still have been experiencing something new. And the biggest-selling single of 1977 was Mull Of Kintyre. It all links! It’s infinity, man! And we’re in the middle!
Right, second half. City attacking the end housing the 3,500, in tremendous voice. Simpson got one half chance from a good Corry Evans counter attack but hit the shot straight at a defender. Andy Dawson then put a free kick into Lee Camp’s waiting hands after Simpson took a tumble; Forest subsequently were given a similarly-positioned free kick at the other end which Robert Earnshaw clipped goalwards but saw land a yard wide after the weeniest of deflections from the Tigers wall.
Nigel Pearson withdrew Simpson and Mclean and threw on Nick Barmby and debutant David Amoo, whose position on the right wing against Paul Konchesky meant that one Liverpool loanee was marking another. The hour mark came and went, and it was all very nervy and very intriguing. Was this doomed to scoreless deadlock? Forest weren’t good enough where it most mattered; City were comfortable where it most mattered. Another Forest counter through the middle was then halted by an outstretched boot belonging to Chester, who strode forward a few paces before aiming a through ball down the middle.
The one bit of luck came from Chester’s ball. It was aimed one way but took a mild deflection – and it was mild, genuinely; yet still very significant – and that was enough to send two Forest defenders in the wrong direction and give Fryatt, probably not the original target of Chester’s thoughts, an opportunity to collect. He was a long way out, had a brutish defender to hold off and, lest we forget, he has not exactly had all cylinders firing in his last three or so matches, but his head was down, his strength was sufficient and, reaching the edge of the box, he slid a gentle but impeccably placed shot beyond Camp’s right hand and into the corner of the net. It was a gorgeous goal, and it was a glorious, joyous, riotous celebration.
There were 25 minutes left and, not surprisingly, Forest started to chuck men forward and City began sponging it all up. The defence was already saturated by the time Gerrard threw himself – and this is a literal sense of the word – at a goalbound drive from McGugan, blocking the ball with whatever bit of his airborne anatomy eventually got in the way. This is the sort of defending that makes you forgive the odd error or lack of sophistication. Gerrard already has so many freebies from the Tiger Nation to expend given what he has brought to our defence this season. This bit of self-sacrifice earned him many, many more. What a player he is.
Pearson made a shameless change designed to soak it up even more, introducing the sizeable Jack Hobbs in place of Koren. Mannone made a stretching low save from Wes Morgan’s header after the square-shaped centre back rose powerfully to head a free kick goalwards. Then Majewski aimed a shot on the run inches wide, finding all the power needed to beat Mannone but not the precision. Gerrard and Chester dually blocked a shot from Chris Gunter, and City survived five minutes of added time with some comfort to record a fantastic, mesmeric victory.
Forest fans can moan all they like, and will have natural justification in doing so, but only scoring goals will win you matches, just as preventing them will guarantee you won’t lose. Forest made chances and couldn’t finish them; City fashioned one and had someone with the class and presence to know exactly what was required to put it away. Calling it smash and grab has an element of begrudging truth to it, but City were still good for the win.
So, eighth, which will become seventh with victory over Burnley on Tuesday night. Then, with ten games left, the coveted sixth spot will remain within sight for as long as City keep this extraordinary doggedness and belief, because it’s that, more than flowing football, which is maintaining the hope for something tangible come May. We’re doing enough, sometimes more than enough, and someone somewhere else will slip up if we carry on. This is so exciting, isn’t it?