This season has served up plenty of surprises.
Granted, they’ve mostly been of the fall-down-a-manhole, open-a-box-and-get-punched-by-a-boxing-glove-on-a-spring or bloody-horse’s-head-in-the-bed type. But surprises galore there have been, as the vindictive Allams continue to vandalise our sorry football club.
Yesterday was a different kind of surprise. For we won a game of league football.
I didn’t see it coming, you didn’t see it coming, no one saw it coming except possibly the irrepressibly cheerful Nigel Adkins, but come it did, and much needed it is too. It was a peculiarly bloodless performance by the home side, as Forest’s players spent most of the game mooching around half-heartedly and the sum total of their attacking was so meagre that they forced Alan McGregor to make precisely no saves at all. They are an appallingly badly run club, and their players appeared yesterday to have caught that mood. We too are an appallingly badly run club, anchored to the spiteful Allams, but in contrast our players spent most of this match looking full of vigour, purpose and confidence. It could hardly have been more different from the dross we’ve viewed across most of the last few months.
Will Keane, willowy physique, loping gait, gets the nod to do the hard yards up front on his own, with Jon Toral handed the brief to supply a link between Keane and the midfield four. So we card:
Aina Hector MacDonald Clark
Bowen Irvine Larsson Wilson
Off we go, a raw, damp and blustery afternoon by the banks of the River Trent, a collision of two clubs that between them have won the European Cup twice. We have taken bigger supports to the City Ground in the past, and we’ve been given better accommodation too – today we are tucked into the southeastern corner of the ground instead of behind the goal, but the City support is boisterous, and the mood develops positively as it quickly becomes plain there’s little to fear from an anaemic home side.
The first moment of note, seven minutes in, is game-changing. A glorious pass is curved round the back of the Forest defence by Seb Larsson into the path of young Harry Wilson. He is marginally baulked, but, scarcely credibly, the referee, Oliver Langford, points to the penalty spot. Soft as melting snow. Jon Toral takes on the responsibility, but his left-foot shot is placed at comfortable height for any goalkeeper, and Pantillimon blocks it, and Forest shovel the ball away for a corner. Bah. Big chance, wasted. So in comes the corner, Toral is left unmarked at the near post, and he is allowed time to head the ball home from close range.
1-0 to us. Rarely does football permit such instant redemption, so well done Jon Toral, but kudos too to an abysmal piece of defensive inattention by Forest. Aitor Karanka working his magic there.
Ten minutes later Matthew Cash strolls through our midfield and defence with effortless ease – Nigel Adkins working his own magic there, with the assistance of the alarmingly ineffectual Michael Hector – and strikes a low mudskimmer of a shot that seems destined to level the scores, but it cannons back off McGregor’s left hand post and away to safety. Forest will get no closer to scoring before the sun goes down.
Both midfields cancel each other out now, and the game becomes scrappy and disjointed. But we are winning it, and the limited moments of flash and flair belong to us too. On 28 Bowen and Keane combine well, flustered Forest concede a corner. Then a glorious pass from left to right frees Bowen in space to advance into the box, but he is uncharacteristically feeble and imprecise, and the ball spins out for a goal kick.
On 38, a vision of joy, a shimmer of glitter. Ball inside – ping – ball back out wide – ping – ball low and hard across the face of the goal – ping. Beautiful fast slick football by Irvine, then Bowen and then Keane, Forest defence shredded, young Wilson surges into the box and bludgeons the chance into the roof of the net. 2-0, and that is as good a piece of football as we have served up all season.
It could have got better still, as Keane duffed a free shot straight at Pantillimon on 42 and Toral plonked the rebound haplessly wide, but the half time whistle signals a two goal advantage, which is in part certainly down to an astonishingly subdued display by Forest but also recognition of a complete team performance by our own side. There’s not been a hint of the stench of relegation that’s been hanging over this side for weeks now.
Question is, what happens if Forest get back into the game – will our evidently fragile self-belief drift away into the chilly breeze blowing across West Bridgford? Forest want to test that, and, presumably in receipt of some well-chosen Basque curses from Mr Karanka, they come out for the second half looking briefly more purposeful. On 46 they howl for a penalty, a frankly silly claim, but more dangerous is a stramash in our box on 48 during which a whirl of feet fly fearlessly before the ball is finally hoofed to safety by Clark.
On 52, Toral, limping, is replaced by Stewart – like for like, one feckless shadow of a midfielder for another – and by now Forest’s initial gusto has subsided. Even at this early stage of the second half they seem resigned to their fate. Why so meek? They are almost introduced to the risk of a proper hiding. Wilson slides a cute pass to Larsson, who surges past a static back-line to reach the by-line, from where he strikes a superb hard low cross direct to the feet of Will Keane, inside the six yard box, unmarked and with the goal yawning in anticipation in front of him. Keane reacts as if his shoelaces are tied together and misses the ball completely. Bowen is standing behind him and, understandably startled by this fiasco, he collects the ball but shoots wildly over the crossbar from close range.
Will Keane. Needs to do better than that.
Forest enjoy a decent slice of possession, but do nothing at all with it. Zero creativity from the home side, though praise too for our defensive shape, which is secure and rarely stretched even remotely.
MacDonald (a fine cricketer incidentally, known for farming the strike) is on the evidence of two games a solid acquisition. He doesn’t do fancy. He just defends. That will do me. Our bench, by the way, shows sign of either Michael Dawson or Kamil Grosicki. Dawson would be entitled to a brief sulk after being denied a lucrative move ten days ago, but, given the character of the man, I hope and expect it is but brief. Grosicki? I have no faith in his commitment or professionalism. I don’t know if we will see much, or any, more of him (in case you have forgotten what he looks like, here is a picture). Much probably depends on what the manager of his national team is telling him. If it’s ‘You need to get some game time if you’re going to force your way into the World Cup reckoning’, then I expect our Polish wingman will deign to show up a few times come the Spring. If it’s ‘Kamil, you’re in the squad come what may, just don’t get injured’, then not so much. (A similar story likely attaches to Abel Hernàndez, except in Spanish).
Wilson, who played very well, is replaced by Diomande, who did his usual eager running with no end product schtick, and Keane comes off for Campbell. It is a measure of Forest’s feeble lack of menace that Mr Adkins dared to field two (two!) attackers in tandem against them as the clock ticks down. A curio is that we didn’t play Forest at all between 1977 and 2010, as they conquered Europe under the immortal Brian Clough and we plummeted through the Divisions in disgrace and misery under the entirely mortal stewardship of Terry Dolan and that ilk, but today we are making it five wins out of the five visits to the City Ground that have taken place since the broaching of that desert. Remember Paul McShane’s handball, remember a fine strike by the likeable Aaron McLean. But none of the four previous recent wins was as comfortable as this one. Late on Aina boots a shot clear with McGregor flat-footed, but I think the effort was dribbling past the far post anyway, so Forest didn’t spoil their spotless record for the afternoon of zero (0) shots on target.
It’s an error strewn finale to proceedings, charmless football played out against a golden sunset in the West behind the ageing main stand at the City Ground. Forest gave this one up long ago. Three minutes are added, nothing happens, and the game is over, won by us.
After the trinket of a trip to Chelsea, we resume League business at Middlesbrough a week on Tuesday. We play 6 games in the space of 18 days, and four of them are at home. I fully appreciate that on-field activity pales into insignificance when contrasted with the harm inflicted off the pitch by the malicious Allams, but I still would like not to be relegated. Play like we did yesterday, and we won’t be.
Stephen Weatherill (via Tiger Chat)