Sunday, 1 June 2014

Finished Business: Mark 2

And so it was that, at around 11PM on Saturday 31st May 2014, Nottingham's second portion of sporting 'unfinished business' came to a shattering conclusion. This time round though, the result was the one which most of the sports fans in the city would have hoped for.

If the Carl Froch vs. George Groves rematch didn't quite live up to the relentless hype which Sky Sports bestowed upon it, then the ending certainly did. Whilst the contest itself was absorbing if not spectacular, the final act was devastating. Carl Froch teed up Groves with one of his trademark left jabs and, as the challenger tried to counter, Froch unleashed a right hand which spun Groves' head so far round he resembled an owl. His legs crumpled underneath him leaving him looking like a vanquished character in a streetfighting computer game. There was no controversy about the ending this time - there was never a way back for Groves.

Until that point the fight had been incredibly close. Froch appeared infinitely more focussed than in the first clash whilst Groves was taking a more cautious approach; perhaps wary of running out of steam and definitely respectful of Froch's renowned staying power.

The first few rounds were cagey to say the least and either fighter could've made a case for being ahead on points. Sky Sports' Jim Watt had Froch shading affairs whereas Amir Khan felt Groves was in the ascendancy.

Round five saw an escalation in hostilities as a flurry from the Cobra seemed to wobble his younger opponent. A couple of rounds later however a beauty from Groves caused Froch to blink to clear his eyes and head, though it didn't seem to take too much out of his legs. If Froch had taken the early rounds there was the hint that the tide was just starting to turn in Groves' favour. That is, until 2 minutes 34 seconds of round eight.

So, what next for the two fighters? If Froch had been defeated it's likely he would have retired. Now though, following a well-earned break, he can contemplate the possibility of entering the final tick in his boxing, er, box, with a fight at the sport's Mecca of Las Vegas. As for Groves; he's young enough and good enough to bounce back from this. I can't see a Froch/Groves III happening any time soon but there's plenty of good opponents out there for Groves in what must be one of the strongest divisions in world boxing.

The last word must be about the - and still - IBF and WBA Super Middleweight Champion of the World. Froch once again defied both his age and critics and must be regarded as one of Great Britain's finest ever pugilists. Whatever the rest of his career brings, if it brings anything at all, he, his city and his country can look back on it with pride.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

If You Can Stand to Eat, Then Go to The Kitchin

Ever since we first saw Tom Kitchin on the Great British Menu, and through his subsequent appearances on Masterchef and other cooking programmes, Clare and I had wanted to go to his Edinburgh (well, Leith) based restaurant The Kitchin. So, when an opportunity to take a mini-break in Scotland's capital city presented itself, a visit was always going to be top of the list of things to do.

Although we arrived nearly half an hour early on the night of our booking, we were given the choice of going straight to our table or having a pre-meal drink in the stylish bar area. Declining the drinks, we were ushered through to the dining area and settled in. Before making our menu choices we were presented with a helping of crispy raw vegetables and breadsticks accompanied by a blue cheese dip to whet our appetites. After polishing these off we both opted for the seasonal tasting menu and wine pairing with the optional whole lobster to share for the fish course.

Our first course of the menu proper was a smooth, chilled pea veloute served alongside a ham hock croquette. The veloute was nicely pea flavoured (well, obviously) and contained a few plump, round peas (again rather obviously) and some small croutons for texture, whilst the croquette was crunchy and packed full of salty ham. Together the two made for an excellent start to the evening. This opening course was preceded by some piping hot crusty bread served in what looked like a workman's hat.

Next up was a crystal-clear consomme of tomato which coated a helping of crunchy vegetables and some hefty slivers of hand-dived scallop. The scallops were also served chilled and their sweet and subtle fishiness was delicious alongside the clear soup. It seemed amazing that such a light, delicate liquid could contain such an intense tomato flavour.

The only slightly discordant note of the evening was the time between the second course and the next but when it arrived it was well worth the wait. This course, in my opinion, proved the value of choosing a tasting menu rather than an a la carte option. If I'd have been selecting dishes for myself, I'd have given a wide berth to a dish containing braised ox tripe and crispy ox tongue. However, that's what the third course consisted of and very nice it was too, with the rich, meaty tripe being perfectly complemented by the crispy tongue, all topped off with a warm quail's egg.

Following this we were back to the sea, with our lobster being presented to us before it was cooked. This was the tastiest lobster I've ever had the pleasure of eating; beautifully grilled and covered in snail butter and bacon which provided a salty contrast to the sweet meat of the crustacean itself. For me this was the highlight of the menu and definitely worth the extra we paid for it.

After the ocean it was a return to the fields, with our main course comprising perfectly cooked lamb. A duo of small pink slices were joined by shredded shoulder meat which had been encased in a thin mesh of stomach lining. Trust me, this was much nicer than my description sounds! The lamb came with vegetables, an olive tapenade and a sumptuous black olive jus.

By this time we were both pleasantly full so we skipped the optional cheese board (though it did look pretty impressive) and went straight to our first dessert. This was an immaculate quenelle of Earl Grey sorbet and a strand of candied lemon peel. The sorbet was packed with the unmistakeable bergamot flavour of the popular tea but not overpoweringly so, and the lemon supplied a refreshing zing.

Finishing things off was an impressively towering rhubarb soufflé with a sphere of rhubarb ripple ice cream and a smattering of crunchy biscuit. The creaminess of the subtly flavoured ice cream was delicious, as was the sour rhubarb contained within the fluffy exterior of the soufflé. The biscuit added the necessary texture and the whole thing was a fantastic end to what had been a wonderful meal.

Coffee and petit fours - a square of carrot cake and a chocolate and vanilla macaron - were included within the price and, impressively, the service charge was entirely discretionary, with the option being given to add a 10%, 15% or 20% service charge.

This was a really impressive meal in a beautifully appointed setting. Service was, for the main, exemplary and it was nice to see Tom Kitchin himself conducting proceedings in the kitchen. If you ever find yourself in Edinburgh then a trip out to Leith to sample Tom's wonderful cooking is definitely recommended.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Nottingham Forest 1 - 0 Birmingham City

At long, long last. After 12 matches that have felt like an eternity, Nottingham Forest finally registered their first victory under caretaker manager Gary Brazil as they saw off Birmingham City by one goal to nil. Indeed the match itself felt like an eternity and the sense of relief when the referee blew the final whistle was palpable.

For some reason I can't quite explain I'd been really looking forward to this match. Given recent results and performances there wasn't much reason to. But when I saw the starting lineup I'll be honest and say that my illogical optimism started to wane. The absence of Messrs Reid, Lansbury and Wilson was desperately disappointing, though this was slightly tempered by the return of David Vaughan. The absentees meant that Danny Collins once again partnered Jamaal Lascelles at centre-half. Greg Halford played right-back in place of Gonzalo Jara and youngster Ben Osborn started in a five-man midfield with Vaughan and Lee Peltier. The two Jamies were to provide width behind the lone striker Matt Derbyshire.

And it didn't take long for Mr. Derbyshire to make his mark on the match. With less than two minutes on the clock he ran onto Jamie Paterson's through-ball and continued his late season renaissance by slotting calmly past City keeper Darren Randolph to give Forest the lead. Yes, you read that right, give Forest the lead.

After some Birmingham pressure following the goal, the Reds pretty much dominated the rest of the half, playing their best football in a long time. David Vaughan in particular was at the heart of everything Forest did well. Osborn headed a Derbyshire cross over the bar and he and Vaughan both went close with long range shots. At the other end, a lack of communication between Karl Darlow and Halford nearly gave City an opening but otherwise Forest were comfortably on top and could've led by more at half time.

The second half started in the same manner as Jamie Paterson spurned a great chance to double Forest's lead. He appeared to think he was offside and hesitated before hitting his shot straight at Randolph before Mackie lifted the rebound over the bar.

Unsurprisingly - due to his time spent out injured - Vaughan was subbed off early in the second half and just as unsurprisingly Forest started to wobble. Jonathan Greening replaced him but couldn't drive the home team on in the same way and subsequently Birmingham came more into the match. The stereotypical big galoot Nikola Zigic saw a good headed chance easily saved by Darlow before he too was replaced.

More substitutions followed, as did more Birmingham pressure but despite a couple of goalmouth scrambles they couldn't find an equaliser. Forest's attacks became more and more infrequent but Darius Henderson nearly sealed the points as his curling shot went just the wrong side of the post. A Birmingham leveller seemed just around the corner but, this time, the corner didn't come and Forest hung on for a long overdue victory.

In the first half especially this was a much improved performance. The defence still looked shaky at times but luckily weren't seriously tested. Mackie and Paterson gave their usual energetic performances and Osborn seems to have the makings of a decent player. Special mention though has to go to Matt Derbyshire and David Vaughan.

Derbyshire took his chance - the kind of chance Forest have been missing all too often this season - really well and gave another energetic performance. He may not be the answer to our striking prayers but, in my opinion, he's worth a new contract as a backup option. David Vaughan's 55 minutes were outstanding. As well as keeping the ball well and moving Forest forwards he showed some moments of genuine skill to beat players. The word is that he'll agree a two year contract when his loan expires. I really hope that's true.

So, it may not have been convincing but some pride was restored and, unlikely though it may seem, we still have a chance of making the playoffs. We'd need to win our last three matches but at least now we should have a bit more confidence. Leeds away on Easter Monday is next up and anything better than conceding five goals on TV again will be an improvement. Take all three points and never know.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Email to the Football League

I've just sent this email to the Football League in respect of Scott Duncan who refereed Nottingham Forest vs. Sheffield Wednesday. I'm not expecting a reply, but it had to be said.


I am sending this email to complain about the appalling standard of officiating displayed by one of your referees – Scott Duncan – in the Football League Championship match between Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday at the City Ground, Nottingham on Tuesday 8th April 2014.

As a Nottingham Forest fan you will probably assume that my view is biased and, of course, to a degree it is. However, most fans, however biased they may be, can take decisions being given against their team, as long as the referee appears to be consistent. In the case of Mr. Duncan however, consistency was totally lacking.

Here is a list of decisions which I believe, having attended the match and seen subsequent replays, that Mr. Duncan and his assistants got wrong:

·         The Sheffield Wednesday penalty – Forest defender Danny Collins clearly and cleanly wins the ball before making any contact with Wednesday attacker Chris Maguire. I don’t believe the assistant referee – who was better placed – flagged for a penalty, yet Mr. Duncan overruled him
·         Leon Best – Repeatedly fouled Forest players and was repeatedly warned, yet never received a yellow card
·         Joe Mattock – Had hold of Jamie Mackie’s shirt. Mackie eventually broke free and made his way into the penalty area, only for play to be stopped so Mattock could be booked. The booking was correct, but advantage should have been played
·         Jamie Mackie’s booking – Mackie took a shot on goal and his follow through caught a Wednesday defender. He was shooting, not tackling and this shouldn’t have even been a free kick
·         Sheffield Wednesday’s second goal – Lewis Buxton appeared to lead with his arm as he jumped against Forest keeper Karl Darlow, and may even have handled the ball in, yet the goal stood
·         Jeremy Helan – Had already been booked and then proceeded to kick the ball away after Forest had been awarded a free kick. Did not receive a second yellow card

These decisions are just the ones I'm certain on. There were several others, such as what appeared to be a blatant foul on a Forest player in the penalty area in the second half and was not given as a penalty, of which I am not as certain. This is because I was sitting in the ground – not keeping up with play as Mr. Duncan should have been doing.

As I stated earlier, most fans understand that referees have a difficult job and can accept some errors being made. What, however, we cannot and should not have to accept is inconsistent application of the rules. What we should also not have to accept is that the officials seem to be in no way accountable for their errors. After last night’s shambolic performance, Mr. Duncan should at least have to explain his decisions, if not apologise for them, and if his assessors were watching the game then they should make sure he is not allowed to officiate again for some time; at least until he has gained a fundamental grasp of the laws of the game and the ability to apply them consistently.

I don’t expect any reply to this, nor any action to be taken against Mr. Duncan, as I imagine the arrogance which seems to pervasive among many match officials comes down from those who appoint them. Try to remember though – seasons can turn on the actions of officials and consistently poor performances might, ultimately, turn fans away from football. And without the fans, football and its governing bodies are nothing.

Nottingham Forest 3 - 3 Sheffield Wednesday

With all due respect to Sheffield Wednesday, a home draw against them probably shouldn't feel like a win; and indeed, this one didn't. However, the context of this draw - coming back from two goals down whilst hampered by the single worst refereeing display I've ever seen - made this result feel just a bit sweeter than it really was.

Manager-in-waiting Stuart Pearce was at the City Ground - quietly ensconced in one of the executive boxes - to watch this game and it would have given him a brilliant snapshot of just what to expect from Nottingham Forest as they fluctuated between excellent and excrement. There are certainly positives he could have taken from this match; but it will also have given him a taste of the scale of the job he'll walk into on July 1st.

Forest lined up in a 4-4-2 formation again, with this week's striking partnership consisting of Matt Derbyshire and Darius Henderson. Henri Lansbury made a very, very welcome return in midfield, partnered by on-loan Lee Peltier. Gonzalo Jara and Dan Harding were at full back with Jamaal Lascelles and Danny Collins at centre half as Kelvin Wilson suffered another injury, this time to his hamstring.

The Reds actually started well, with a couple of decent crosses testing Owls' keeper Chris Kirkland before, a quarter of an hour in, the tone of the game was set. From where I was sitting Danny Collins appeared to take the ball with a sliding challenge on Chris Maguire. Referee Scott Duncan thought otherwise though and pointed to the spot and, despite Karl Darlow diving the right way, Maguire himself got up to put the visitors 1-0 up.

This injustice seemed to spur Forest into greater action and tackles were flying in from both sides. I tweeted at the time that I'd be amazed if we finished the game with 11 men, as Lansbury in particular was incredibly fired up. Matters weren't helped when, shortly after Derbyshire had a shot cleared off the line, Forest were denied what might have been a penalty as a cross appeared to be handled in the area.

Eventually the home pressure told as a jinking run and cross from Jamie Paterson was headed home by the late-arriving Jamie Mackie to bring Forest level. The parity was short-lived though. Jara's misplaced pass eventually led to a Wednesday corner which Lewis Buxton turned in. Darlow may have been at fault as he appeared to hesitate, but his protestations after the goal suggested he thought he was impeded. In any event, the goal stood and Forest traipsed off 2-1 down.

Matters got worse early in the second half as a speculative Wednesday shot hit Collins and went out for a corner. The ball was pulled back to Joe Mattock who fired home from outside the box to make the score 3-1. Given the performances of both Forest and the referee at this point in time, it seemed like that was game over. There was certainly no hint of what was yet to come.

Forgotten man Marcus Tudgay and Greg Halford replaced the hapless duo of Henderson and Jara and it was Tudgay who gave the Reds hope. Mackie won the ball in a tackle which - miraculously - the referee didn't punish, and his floated cross was headed powerfully in by the ex-Wednesday loanee to reduce the deficit. This hope appeared to have been snuffed out barely minutes later when Collins received a second yellow card for hacking down Maguire meaning Forest had to see out the game with ten men.

Against all expectations though, this latest setback spurred the Reds on even more and, with time ticking away, Forest were awarded a free kick just outside the Wednesday area. Up stepped Paterson to curl home a wonderful effort and bring Forest back level again. Late pressure brought the unlikely hope of a victory, but Wednesday held out and the game finished 3-3.

The sponsors Man of the Match was Jamie Mackie (though the award was made before Paterson's equalising goal). I'd find it hard to argue with that as his usual effort was, this time, backed up by moments of real quality with his headed finish and cross for Tudgay's goal. Paterson wasn't far behind him with a goal and assist himself.

Lansbury provided his usual drive and showed just how much we've missed him and he was ably assisted by Peltier who put himself around well. Harding and Lascelles weren't too bad and Derbyshire and Tudgay deserved praise for their efforts. Neither has been given much of a look in this season but they both showed a hunger which has been lacking in recent performances.

Henderson did not have a good game and Jara seemed to carry his midfield form with him to right back. His mind already seems on the forthcoming World Cup. Danny Collins also had a poor game. I have some sympathy with him for the penalty decision but his sending off was needless; though, ironically, his two bookings were probably the only things the referee got right. In fact I'm not sure if the boos that rang out as Collins trudged off were aimed at the referee or at Collins. Which brings us to the referee...

To the neutral reader (if there are any of you), it probably seems like sour grapes because the big decisions didn't go Forest's way; but it's not. One can take that if the referee is consistent, but this one wasn't. Fouls given against Forest players were ignored when Wednesday committed them. Leon Best flattened Harding at least three times but wasn't booked at all, whilst one bad challenge by Lascelles earned him a yellow card. Mattock grabbed Mackie's shirt and was rightly booked but only after the referee had failed to play the advantage and a Wednesday challenge which looked very similar to the one they got a penalty for was ignored and signalled as a goal kick!

The worst decision was seconds after Collins had been sent off though. Wednesday defender Jeremy Helan - who had already been booked - blatantly booted the ball away after Forest had been given a free kick. But did the referee send him off too....? Did he buggery. If you're going to apply the letter of the law you have to do it consistently. Scott Duncan did not do this and, if the FA assessors have any sense, it'll be a long time before he's allowed to officiate again.

Anyway, let's try and end on a high note. Yes, this was another game without a win and yes, at times Forest were very poor; but at least they showed some spirit and quality amongst the dross. Stuart Pearce should have found some things to encourage him in this display. If he can instil his determination and passion into this squad and can build and trim it as required, then next season may provide us with a fitting way to celebrate the club's 150th anniversary. If nothing else we'll have a man at the helm who truly loves the club - and that means a lot.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

All We Are Saying, Is Give Pearce A Chance

As I write this, it seems increasingly likely that Nottingham Forest legend Stuart Pearce will be returning to the club as its new manager. There's still i's to be dotted, t's to be crossed, and details like whether he'll start immediately or after the season to be confirmed; but, barring any complications, Pearce will be the man chosen by Fawaz al Hasawi and John McGovern to take over the poisoned chalice hotseat recently vacated by Billy Davies.

In an odd way, Pearce's appointment will divide the Nottingham Forest fans as much as Davies' return did, albeit for very different reasons. Whereas Davies by nature is a divisive character, with as many people loving him as loathing him (though that balance has probably been tilted toward the latter now); Pearce is almost universally worshipped by Forest fans for his playing career. It's his subsequent managerial experience which has people doubting.

I won't trot out win percentages and such things but one could hardly call Pearce's time in charge of Manchester City a resounding success. A strong start, including a memorable derby win against neighbours Manchester United, was followed by a period of home matches with no goals; though it must be added that Manchester City were a different club from the financial powerhouse they are now.

Pearce's career as England Under 21 manager was arguably better however, as he took his charges to the final of the European Championships in 2009 before they suffered an all too familiar defeat at the hands of Germany. His last tournament in charge was disastrous, though the squad he was allowed to select from was by no means the strongest.

To an outsider looking at the situation - and even to some Forest fans - it might seem like a crazy idea to appoint Pearce as manager and it might yet prove to be. From a purely results based perspective there are better options out there. But football's a funny old game as they say and who knows what will happen? Outsiders might not realise just what Pearce accomplished at Forest and the esteem in which he's held here. And if anyone can instil passion, desire and will to win in a team and squad where it has been sadly lacking recently, then it's definitely Stuart Pearce. It takes more than that to bring success of course, as Tim Sherwood is currently finding out. And, as important as Pearce's appointment will be those of his backroom staff and, hopefully, the one of a CEO to help Fawaz with running the club.

But for all my misgivings about Pearce returning to Forest as manager I'm fervently hoping that there are no last minute hitches and that the appointment is confirmed soon. The sight of him in the dugout, whether it be this season or next, and the sound of the City Ground chanting 'Psycho' again like the old days will be something to behold. Indeed it's got my hairs standing on end just thinking about it. If he can get the players feeling the same way and get the right support team around him then he might just prove the doubters wrong.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Nottingham Forest 0 - 1 Charlton Athletic

After a painful separation or schism there's an often used saying that 'things will get worse before they get better.' I sincerely hope that last night's match represents the nadir of this particular slump because it was most certainly worse. The last home match - the 0-0 draw against Doncaster Rovers - was bad, but this affair made it look like El Clasico. The happenings of the last few days seemed to catch up with the players as they produced by far their worst home display of the season.

Caretaker Manager Gray Brazil's first (and maybe only?) team selection saw Forest return to a 4-4-2 formation. Greg Halford lined up at right-back with Gonzalo Jara and Jonathan Greening in central midfield. Djamal Abdoun was recalled to patrol the flanks with Jamie Mackie while Simon Cox and Darius Henderson started up front. Jamie Paterson - rather surprisingly - dropped to the bench. The formation gave some cause for optimism. It didn't last long once the match actually started.

Forest created the first chance, with Danny Fox's excellent cross being headed wide by Mackie. A neat through-ball then set Henderson free but his low shot went wide after perhaps grazing the post. At the other end, Marvin Sordell rattled an upright after a quick break saw him played through. Not long afterwards Simon Cox also hit the woodwork when through on goal and Henderson's follow-up header was tipped over. As with many recent Forest games we kept possession neatly without looking menacing and it was no great surprise that the first half ended goalless.

The second half served up more of the same from both sides. Lots of passing, not much urgency and little in the way of chances. Jamie Paterson replaced Simon Cox as Forest seemed to revert to a five man midfield and Tottenham Hotspur loanee Jonathan Obika came on for Sordell for the visitors. Rafik Djebbour then made his return in the place of Henderson, just after the big striker had ballooned an awful shot high over the bar when well placed. A fitting end to his evening's involvement.

Then, toward the end of the match, a mistake from Jamaal Lascelles presented a chance to Charlton substitute Obika. His effort rebounded off the post and fell to Jordan Cousins who slotted home to give the Addicks the lead. And that was that. Djebbour sent a late header over but, in truth, we never looked like equalising.

Where do I begin to pick the bones out of this display? I remarked on Twitter after the game that, if I had been the match sponsor I'd have refused to name a Man of the Match as none of them really deserved it. The sponsors gave the accolade to Jonathan Greening who I suppose warranted it as most of his passes at least found a team-mate, even if they did mainly go sideways. As for the rest...

Karl Darlow had little to do and, from what I could see, no chance with the goal. Fox was caught out of position far too often though he did provide some decent crosses. Halford was at least an outlet down the right but didn't create much. Danny Collins seemed at times to be just watching the Charlton forwards rather than marking them and Lascelles had, I believe, his poorest match of the season. He's young though and will, I'm sure, put nights like this behind him.

Mackie was, well, Mackie and though Abdoun was clearly trying, not a lot came off for him. Henderson and Cox offered little with the latter particularly poor. What has happened to the player who we signed at the start of last season? The one who scored his first goal against Huddersfield away so clinically and followed it soon after with wonder strikes against Wigan and Birmingham?

And, finally, we come to Gonzalo Jara. It might be cruel to single out a player in this way but this was the worst individual display I've seen from a Forest player this season without a doubt. Jara can clearly play - he's going to the World Cup as part of a decent Chile side - but last night he was woeful. The most simple of passes would often find an opponent or go straight out of play. His touch was poor - at one point the ball just went right under his foot - and it's obvious his confidence is shot. Straight after the Charlton goal he appeared to square up to Jamie Mackie. On the evidence of the match if he'd tried to punch Mackie he probably would've ended up knocking out one of the Charlton players instead. I don't know if Gary Brazil wants the job full time, I doubt he does. But if he did I'm afraid the players did him no favours last night.

So it's down to Fawaz to make another managerial appointment but we need so much more than that. He's already said he intends to recruit a CEO in the summer - if there's any way he can do it sooner then he should do because the club is crying out for some structure and organisation. There's no doubting Fawaz's passion, desire to succeed and to please the fans but he can't do it on his own and he needs to stop trying too hard to keep us happy.

Fawaz - if you're reading this: Please appoint a strong, experienced, visionary CEO and let him help you appoint the right man for the manager's job. Then help them work together to plan and take our great club forward. But please - whoever you appoint - you need to trust them to get on with the jobs you've brought them in to do. That might be difficult after the recent experience with Billy Davies but it's vital. Making John McGovern a Club Ambassador was a smart move and you'd do well to listen to his guidance.

The crazy thing is that after all the turmoil and upheaval, after all our recent poor performances we're still only two points from the playoffs. There's still a chance to salvage something from what's turned into a car crash of a season. It has got worse but hopefully rock-bottom has now been reached and, from there, the only way is up.