Tuesday, 5 May 2015

And Now, the End is Here

So another season has stuttered to a disappointing end for Nottingham Forest. The high hopes and expectations have ended, once again, with zero achievements. It's not been all doom and gloom of course; we've had the emergence of Ben Osborn as a regular, some fantastic performances and goals from Michail Antonio, a wonderful cameo from Gary Gardner and, of course, that victory just up the A52. However, 14th place is certainly not what we all hoped for as we watched the Reds take to the field for the first time on that sunny day in August.

Rather than do a review of the season, I'm going to take a look at how the players have performed( when they have performed). Starting with those who are under (or just out of) contract rather than loanees, which means that instead of Karl Darlow I'll kick off with.....

Eric Lichaj: After a shaky start to the season, the nadir of which was the aberration of a backpass against Brentford, Lichaj improved markedly and was one of our better performers. Strong in either full-back position, though better on the right, he should be a mainstay of our back four next season.

Michael Mancienne: Looked an inspired signing at centre-half at the beginning of the season, but faded as the team's form dropped. After returning from injury was asked to line up in defensive midfield and in both full-back positions, but didn't look anywhere near as confident. Should be retained, as long as he's played at centre-half!

Danny Collins: After a spell in the wilderness, was recalled for Dougie Freedman's first few games in charge and, to be fair, acquitted himself pretty well. With younger guns like Laing and Riera at centre-half though, and being out of contract, he should be released.

Kelvin Wilson: Has the physical attributes to be an impressive centre-half, but doesn't use them anywhere near enough and often looks lazy and uninterested. Will probably be retained but could do with a kick up the backside.

Matty Fryatt: Looked good as a foil for Britt Assombalonga and, when fit, worked tirelessly for the team up front. Not fit enough though and has missed too many games through injuries. If he can stay healthy then he should definitely stay at the club.

Chris Cohen: Another season of heartbreak, after having fought his way back from serious injury last time round. After three awful knee injuries you have to wonder about his capability to perform consistently in the Championship. If he can't do that then I'd love to see him take his coaching badges and remain at the club in some capacity.

Britt Assombalonga: It's typical of Forest's luck with strikers that, just when we get a good one, he gets struck by a season-ending injury. Hopefully he'll be back and scoring around January 2016, and, providing he gets the service he will score. He's proved that already.

Henri Lansbury: On his day one of the best midfielders in the division. Looked at his best in a three-man midfield with Gardner and Osborn and had a real purple patch when Dougie took over. If he can recreate that form consistently then we should fight tooth-and-nail to keep him, as there'll be interest from other clubs for sure.

Andy Reid: Pretty much the same comments as Chris Cohen. When fit his craft and guile are a massive asset, but one has to wonder how often he'll be fit. Should be kept, but will probably have to be used sparingly.

Danny Fox: Looks better going forward than he does defending, where he often seems to be out of position and resorts to the FoxHoof far too regularly. Left-back continues to be a troubling position for Forest and if we could somehow get a replacement I'd probably let Fox go.

Lars Veldwijk: To score over 30 goals in a season at any level of football suggests he must have something about him, but to be honest he hasn't shown it when played. If there's interest in him I'd be tempted to cut our losses. If not, send him out on loan for six months to try and get some confidence.

Michail Antonio: The shining light of Forest's season by some distance. When off form he looks clumsy, but when he gets it right he's devastating. 15 goals and nearly as many assists is a fantastic return and we'll need to do whatever we can to a) keep hold of him and b) get him some back-up, because you can bet that teams will be looking our for him next season.

Jamie Paterson: What's happened to the player of last season? Admittedly hasn't had as many chances but, when given them, he hasn't grasped them. Showed glimpses against Cardiff of what he can do and, with Forest needing a winger, it would be a massive boost if he could get back to form. If he can't do that then he should be sold while he'd still command a fee.

Dexter Blackstock: After his own injury problems has come back and contributed a lot. Is never going to be prolific enough to be our main striker but his style of play suits the 4-5-1 formation well and he deserves some good luck and as much game time as he can manage.

David Vaughan: Has enjoyed a prolonged run of games but hasn't hit the form he's capable of. I'd persevere with him personally, as the quality is definitely there.

Jack Hobbs: Our best centre-half without a doubt. If only he could stay fit consistently. Our defence should be built around him next season, with Mancienne alongside him in the middle. Solid and dependable.

Dimitar Evtimov: As Dougie's after another keeper it's likely that Dimi will be sent out on loan again. Highly rated at the club and one for the future.

Chris Burke: Came to Forest with a good reputation and showed flashes of that, but not consistently. Improved towards the end of the season and can be a big player next time round.

Dorus De Vries: Played steadily when he replaced Darlow in Pearce's last few matches. Presumably will be our first choice keeper next season and is solid and experienced enough to not let anyone down.

Roger Riera: Been getting rave reviews in the U21s and made the bench for the last game of the season. If you captain Barcelona's youth team you've clearly got something about you. One to watch for the future.

Tyler Walker: Showed his potential with an outstanding goal against Brentford, after having shown his inexperience with a bad miss earlier in the same game. Should be a regular in the squad next season, but shouldn't be given the burden of being expected to be the main source of goals.

Oliver Burke: Another one to watch for next season. Raw and pacey and, depending on pre-season, should hopefully be in and around the squad. May also benefit from another loan spell though.

Jorge Grant: After the joy of his goal away at Spurs in the Capital One Cup he's barely figured in the squad. As with Walker and Burke (O). a loan spell away might do him the world of good.

Ben Osborn: Firmly establish himself in the first team squad with a series of energetic performances and, excitingly, there's still room for improvement. Will forever have a place in the heart of Forest fans after that goal against Derby.

Stephen McLaughlin: His one appearance that I can remember was that fateful match against Millwall where, after a reasonable performance out of position at left-back, his error gifted the Lions their winner. Could he forge a new career in defence? If not then chances are he'll be leaving the City Ground.

Loanees in:

Karl Darlow: Great saves and uncertain moments sums up Darlow's season. There's no doubting his ability to stop shots (though he has seemed at fault for some goals) but his command of the penalty area needs work. Very young though as goalkeepers go. Don't envy him going to the turmoil of Newcastle and wouldn't be surprised if he's sent out on loan again, though I wouldn't have him back at Forest as I think our loan spots will have more important uses.

Jamaal Lascelles: Apart from the odd game he's looked a shadow of the player that flourished alongside Jack Hobbs last season. He's still young and has the makings of a good centre-half though and I hope he does well at Newcastle.

Todd Kane: Has looked solid at right-back since joining from Chelsea. If we're forced to play Lichaj on the left (which hopefully we won't be) then I'd take Kane again next season as he'd probably be available and fit within our constraints.

Tom Ince: Didn't show us anywhere near the level of performance that he has done for those lot down the road. Though in his mind he did.

Gary Gardner: By far our best loan signing of this season, and most recent ones too. His energy and commitment in front of the back four allowed Lansbury and Osborn to flourish and he chipped in with some spectacular goals too. Also seemed to genuinely enjoy his time at Forest - which is very refreshing. Likely to be given a chance at Villa next season and thoroughly deserves it. He'll be a massive loss from our midfield.

Chuba Akpom: Continued his dubious record of scoring no goals whilst out on loan, but is highly regarded at Arsenal so must have something about him. I don't think the team was set up to his strengths in fairness to him.

Jack Hunt: Looked great going forward at the start of the season, though not so strong defensively, before injury curtailed his loan spell with us. In the end, the resurgence of Lichaj meant that not securing Hunt's services on a permanent deal wasn't too much of a loss. Glad he helped Rotherham stay up.

Modou Barrow: Injury restricted his appearances for Forest and, after by all accounts a decent performance away at Blackburn, his parent club recalled him. As with Kane his return next year might not be a bad thing and he should be within our wages range.

Loanees out:

Dan Harding: Defensively probably our best left-back though limited going forward. Started the season reasonably well before being cast aside. As Millwall went down one can assume he didn't have a huge impact there and unlikely to have his contract extended.

Greg Halford: Barely in our squad at all this season and I'm not aware of him setting Brighton alight so, as with Harding, he'll likely be released.

Jamie Mackie: Reading fans seem happy with his performances this season but from what I've seen he's been typical Mackie. Lots of endeavour and effort but an inconsistent end product. Rumoured to be on high wages so if we can get a fee for him while his stock is reasonably high, then we should.

Radoslaw Majewski: Unable to break into Huddersfield's team and it seems his best days in England are behind him. At least one team in Poland is rumoured to be interested in him and a move back to his homeland would probably be for the best. We'll always have our memories of his goals against Derby and West Brom though.

Louis Laing: Earned rave reviews during his loan spell at Notts County. I'll be honest and say I don't know how he's done at Motherwell. With Lascelles leaving and Hobbs and Wilson somewhat injury prone it'd probably be useful to keep Laing around the squad. We may well need him.

Robert Tesche: Looked a class act during Pearce's tenure but failed to shine under Freedman, hence his loan move to Birmingham, where he's been performing well. Another rumoured to be on high wages so could be sacrificed (not literally). But if he can re-find his early form with us then he's definitely a useful player to have around.

Managers and Owner:

Stuart Pearce: It's unlikely we'll ever know what went wrong, whether the rumours of unpopularity amongst the players were true or not. Our early season form masked some below-par performances and the mantra of 'just wait until we start playing well' never really came to fruition. Whether he should have been given more or less time depends entirely on who you ask, but in my opinion the timing of his sacking was fair. Will always be a club legend to those of us who saw him play, and his ultimately unsuccessful time as our manager will never change that.

Dougie Freedman: Came in at short notice and gave structure and confidence to a team bereft of either. Looked for a while as if he might just get us back into the playoffs but ultimately came up short. Could perhaps have blooded more youth after the season was effectively over, but might have been wanting to keep parent clubs sweet by playing their loan players. Will have a massive job both rebuilding the squad over the summer and also fighting to retain our best players. A strong start to next season is imperative or one can imagine what will happen.

Fawaz al Hasawi: Just a typical season in Fawaz-World to be honest. Pearce's appointment - whilst largely popular - probably wasn't the smartest move in hindsight. I can't fault the sales of Lascelles and Darlow, which enabled the purchases of Assombalonga and Antonio though. Is now paying the price for the lack of a long-term strategy and the possibly-over-frivolous backing of previous managers. It pains me to say it but probably sacked Pearce at the right time, but at least was decisive in the swift appointment of Freedman. Desperately needs to get experienced football administrators around him at the club, rather than just his mates, and then to let them get on with their jobs. Will that happen though?

EDIT: I just realised I forgot Djamel Abdoun. That's probably for the best.






Tuesday, 7 April 2015

A Venetian Blinder

I like to think I've got a reasonable way with words, and if you read some of my rambling reviews on here you'll probably agree that I'm not often short for them, but occasionally something will come along or happen which will leave me somewhat dumbstruck. Our trip to Venice was one of those things. From our first Vaporetto ride to our last gelato, Venice was an absolute delight.

When Clare first suggested visiting the city for her birthday (well, just afterwards) my first thought was the default 'Arrrghhh, that means flying.' However it wasn't a long flight, shorter, in fact, than our usual annual holiday, and it would mean visiting a fascinating, historic and beautiful city, so the misgivings were put aside and the trip was booked.

The flight out was fine, offering spectacular views over the Alps and, despite a slightly wobbly final approach, a mostly smooth journey. Around an hour's transfer and a slight confusion over the Vaporetto later, we were making our way from the Rialto Bridge to our hotel for the weekend, the Lanterna di Marco Polo.

The Alps

As a base for exploring the main tourist areas of Venice, the Lanterna is pretty hard to beat, situated as it is only a couple of minutes walk from the Rialto area, and about five minutes from St. Mark's Square. The hotel's spice-named rooms (we were staying in Vanilla) are quaint but comfortable. Ours had exposed beams in the ceiling, a comfortable bed and enough room to relax when we weren't enjoying the city. They also had free wi-fi, an unexpected and welcome bonus.

The proprietors were fantastic. Friendly and helpful with a few useful tips on how to get the most out of our stay. They also, very kindly, allowed us to leave our luggage in the hotel after we'd checked out; which, as our return flight wasn't until late at night, was a massive help and made our final day far more enjoyable than it would've been if we'd had to lug our cases around. Breakfast was continental style and very pleasant and we really couldn't fault our stay there at all.

Anyway, on to the city itself. On the Friday night, after having checked in and got changed, we decided to visit St. Mark's and also locate the restaurant we'd booked into for the Saturday. An enjoyable stroll through the narrow streets - filled with Trattorias and tat shops - and over bridges brought us to the square. It also brought us to a wonderful bar selling the local drink of Spritz (Prosecco, soda water and Aperol). After gulping back one of these and finding the restaurant we promptly got lost.

A pleasant meal (though I'm not sure I'd have cuttlefish again) and a couple of drinks later and we were en route back to Rialto, after stopping at the rather excellent Bacaro Jazz jazz bar first, then devouring our first gelato of the weekend. After a stroll over the Rialto Bridge (watch out for the pushy rose 'sellers') and another cocktail each it was back to the hotel to rest up for the next day.

At breakfast, Guido advised us to visit the palace and told us where the entrance was (which was good as we'd have missed it otherwise). He also suggested the best Vaporetto stop from which to visit Murano - the island famed for its glass - which would cut at least half an hour off the journey. With this knowledge in mind we headed off back to St. Mark's.

A lift ride to the top of the Campanile (bell tower) provided some fantastic panoramas of the city, but we decided to skip the Basilica as the queues - even at this early hour - were enormous. The wait for the Palazzo Ducale was nowhere near as long however, and it was worth every minute. The palace was crammed full of artwork, architecture and elaborately-decorated ceilings. It also had a fascinating prison section which gave one a real sense of what it might have been like to have been incarcerated there many years ago.

A view from the Campanile

After a quick detour to Harry's Bar - the home of the Bellini - we returned to Rialto for lunch and to a wonderful little cafe bar named All' Arco. Slightly away from the main tourist track, it was absolutely full of locals, all sampling a wonderful range of sandwiches and wine at bargain prices. Following a bit of shopping and a nap it was time to head off for our evening meal at Il Ridotto.

As we'd not been to Venice before, we decided to push the boat out (groan) and book into the Michelin-starred Il Ridotto for a meal on the Saturday night. Located just a moment's walk from St. Mark's Square, blink and you'd miss the unassuming exterior. The interior was equally understated, with beige seats and walls, though a splash of colour was provided by the Murano glass tumblers on each table.

With our meal being on Easter Saturday, the restaurant was offering an Easter tasting menu, with the only choice being between meat and fish for the main course. We'd read great things about the Tiramisu so we asked our waiter if we could substitute the dessert course for one of those instead.

Ahead of the first course proper was an amuse bouche of a delicious roll of sardine served in a light, subtle cheese veloute. After this was polished off, along with some warm, crusty bread and wonderfully spicy chilli oil, it was time for the main meal to begin.

Our opening course was an odd but pleasant concoction of a warm, slow-poached egg, asparagus and what was essentially scrambled egg mixed with Parmesan cheese. Next up was probably the best dish of the meal; two huge, succulent, perfectly cooked scallops served with a beetroot crisp, carrot puree, spiced mayonnaise and covered in a light, black tea crust. The scallops retained a nice hint of squishiness and the accompaniments complemented them perfectly.

Scallops!

The herb tortellini that followed was nice but not as spectacular. It was served with a couple of meaty langoustine tails and a pleasingly salty shrimp bisque though, which helped things along nicely. The main course was next. We'd both chosen the meat option, which consisted of a small lamb burger, partnered with a huge globe of tender lamb shank meat. This was joined by a crispy potato terrine, spring onion and some tangled strands of green cabbage. I'm glad this was the penultimate course as the sheer size of the lamb shank was a little overwhelming. Fortunately the Tiramisu dessert was wonderfully light and creamy without being too sweet.

Overall this was an excellent and not prohibitively priced meal which really enhanced an already brilliant weekend. The drizzly rain and our over-full tummies meant we went straight back to the hotel to sleep before embarking on our final day.

Sunday dawned brighter and warmer than Saturday had been, so we decided to make the Vaporetto trip to Murano. Following Guido's advice we wandered through the labyrinthine streets, convinced we were heading the wrong way. Thankfully though the frequent street signs kept us on track and we arrived at the correct boarding point before hopping on board. A couple of stops later and we disembarked at Murano.

With no better plan, we followed some of our fellow passengers around the edge of the island until we reached a glass factory and could walk no further. They were offering free demonstrations of glass blowing so we decided to wait in line and see what this would be like.

I have to admit I was cynical about the 'touristiness' of the whole experience but it was actually really good. While it was clearly aimed at the many visitors, it was still fascinating to see a craftsman at work and to understand more of the process. The sales staff weren't too pushy either. We were invited to donate to the glass-blowers coffee and beer fund and the prices in the factory shop compared favourably to those on the main island. With a few souvenirs in tow, we stopped for a coffee before heading back to St. Mark's. We took the longer trip back which gave us the chance to see the square from the lagoon.

Approaching St. Mark's from the Vaporetto

The sunshine had the crowds out in force so we enjoyed another Spritz from the same bar we'd visited on Friday before stopping for lunch. After that we found time for one final gelato (a Tiramisu one - the best one yet) and one last drink before making our way back to the bus stop, the airport, and then home.

I can't speak highly enough of Venice. My unfounded view that everyone would be strutting around in sharp Armani suits and sunglasses couldn't have been more wrong. The puffa jacket was the garment of choice and the whole atmosphere was pleasantly relaxed. So much so that, as we'd made a bit more of an effort for our visit to Il Ridotto on the Saturday night, we actually felt massively overdressed.

The city itself is a wonderful warren of streets and bridges, with something new to see round every corner and up every alleyway. Yes, it's full of tourists but it's surprisingly easy to venture off and lose the crowds and there are real rewards to be had by doing so. I can definitely say that I'd go back to Venice without a second thought. The city of romance certainly stole our hearts.






Thursday, 19 March 2015

Nottingham Forest 2 - 0 Rotherham United

Thirty five minutes into what was, up to that point, a somewhat turgid encounter, my mind started to wander from the uninspiring fare in front of me to my Half Time Tweet. How would I sum up the match so far? I'd just about settled on "Well, that was 45 minutes (plus 2 minutes stoppage time) of my life I'll never get back," when two great goals in as many minutes had consigned the tweet to remain forever in drafts, and Rotherham United to defeat. How quickly things can change!

One thing that didn't change was Nottingham Forest's starting lineup however. Matt Fryatt's troublesome Achilles wasn't risked, so Dexter Blackstock remained the lone striker ahead of the usual five-man midfield. Eric Lichaj and Michael Mancienne continued as round pegs, er, full backs and, on the bench, new signing Modou Barrow took Lars Veldwijk's substitute berth. Rotherham included ex-Reds Jack Hunt and Matt Derbyshire, the latter of whom was partnered in attack by the lumpen former Derby goal-machine....., hmm, no. Striker? Barely. Former Derby player Conor Sammon. 

The opening exchanges were as pedestrian as a smart, inner-city square surrounded by bars and restaurants. Rotherham kept possession well without testing Karl Darlow, though they did cause some bother down their right flank where Hunt and Sammon were often 2-on-1 against Lichaj, due to Michail Antonio deciding that tracking back was something other people did. Going the other way though, Antonio sent an early shot wide and produced a typically muscular run which ended in him crumpling in a heap in the penalty area. As this was at the other end of the pitch from me I couldn't tell either way, but the Lower Bridgford seemed miffed that a spot kick hadn't been awarded. Another Antonio rampage was halted, this time outside the area, and Henri Lansbury sent the resultant free kick over the bar. It looked as though the first half would end frustratingly goalless, until the two moments that changed and decided the contest. 

I have to admit, I missed seeing the first goal live as I was mid-Twitter rant about the ineptitude of the unlikely-looking referee. Having seen the replays though, I can assure you that Antonio lofted a ball down the left which bounced nicely into Blackstock's path. The rejuvenated striker in turn lobbed a shot over Miller's keeper Adam Collin, whose despairing dive could only tip the ball onto the underside of the crossbar and in. 

One became two barely a minute later when Antonio picked up the ball in his own half, from about the same position where he'd set up Blackstock's goal. This time though he just got his head down and ran, brushing aside three (admittedly unconvincing) challenges and thumping a low drive past the helpless Collin from just outside the box. Had this been a Saturday match it would've been another sure-fire winner of Sky Sports' Goal of the Day, but instead it just made the score 2-0 and Dougie Freedman's half time team talk a far more pleasant experience. 

The second half followed a similar theme to the first, with spells of largely ineffectual Rotherham possession punctuated by somewhat more dangerous looking Forest attacks. The visitors did come closer to scoring than in the first 45 minutes though, with Lee Frecklington hitting the post and Sammon forcing Darlow into a good save. 

At the other end, Forest just couldn't quite extend their lead. Another couple of Antonio runs ended respectively in a blocked shot and a dangerous cross which was whipped off the toes of Chris Burke. I say "runs" but that barely does them justice. You know when Super Mario eats the flower thing that makes him invincible and then just squashes anything in his path? That's the kind of run. 

Anyway, Gary Gardner curled an effort just wide and a long period of passing saw Barrow - who looked quick and lively on his debut - find Burke with a decent cross, only for the Scotsman's shot to be deflected wide. Despite the blond, flowing-locked promptings of Ben Pringle, Rotherham never looked like scoring and, just before full time, Tyler Walker - son of Forest legend Des - made his Reds bow. He only got two touches, but they were good ones, chesting down a high ball before laying it off to a teammate. Full time whistle. Job done. Three more points. 

Forest weren't at their best but did enough to just about keep pace with the top six. The defence was solid enough and Gardner was again impressive in midfield. What a loss he'll be when he presumably returns to Villa Park next season. Blackstock again ran his socks off and was rewarded and, as for Antonio, well...

Imagine a slightly stronger but a bit more clumsy version of Stan Collymore who plays wide midfield and you'll begin to get the picture of what he's like. At times he can look dreadful, conceding possession easily before standing in disgust at his own profligacy. But at other times, as with his goal, he's totally unplayable. His pace and strength must make him a nightmare to defend against. Indeed there's a great picture doing the rounds of him hunched over the ball, surrounded by five Rotherham defenders. Strength of numbers is sometimes the only way to stop him. 

So, next up are the three matches which will probably shape the rest of our season. Norwich may be too far ahead to catch (though a win would put us only seven points behind them with as many matches to play), and a draw at Carrow Road would be a fine result. Then, over Easter, we host Wolves and visit Brentford. The outcomes of these matches could see us firmly in the playoff mix, or wondering why we even thought about reaching them at all. As Dougie said in his post-match interview, there's often one team that comes from nowhere to snatch a top six place. All we can do is keep on winning, and you never know, it just might be us. 

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

How We're Playing, We Don't Need Rhodes

When I logged onto Twitter this morning and checked the #NFFC hashtag, I was greeted by the unlikely sight of a report from The Sun claiming that Nottingham Forest were readying a club-record £8m bid for Blackburn Rovers striker Jordan Rhodes. As Forest are currently under a well-publicised transfer embargo, it was easy to dismiss this report as nonsense; agent-talk to drum up interest in Blackburn’s prize asset. However, the report openly mentioned Forest’s embargo and it was penned by the reasonably well-respected Alan Nixon (who broke the Lascelles and Darlow to Newcastle story in the summer). So, could there be any truth in it? And if there was, would it be a good thing?

Unlikely as it seems, I suppose there is some small chance of this deal happening. Rovers, like Forest, are also currently under a transfer embargo. With the current form of Rudy Gestede, Rhodes’ importance to the Lancashire club is not as great as it was, despite his exceptional goal-scoring record. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that – with little left to play for this season – they could be persuaded to loan him out and get at least some part of his wages off their bill. By the terms of Forest’s embargo however, the most they could contribute to Rhodes’ wages would be £10k per week. With Derby and Norwich also allegedly keen on securing his services, surely both he and Rovers would be better off moving to one of those clubs, no?

Forest may have offered a greater amount for a permanent signing fee than the other interested clubs, but to agree to that would take a massive amount of faith on Rovers’ part, as it hinges totally on Forest being in the Premier League – which is a remote chance at best. No promotion, no permanent deal. Would Rovers really sign up to that?

And if they did, and by some miracle this deal happened, what would it mean for the rest of Forest’s season? In Rhodes, Forest would be acquiring a striker with a great goalscoring record, there’s no doubt about that. But the team are playing really well at the moment with the resources they already have. Dougie Freedman’s 4-5-1/4-3-3 is working brilliantly, with both Dexter Blackstock and Matt Fryatt contributing a lot, if not necessarily in terms of goals, then certainly in effort, defending from the front and bringing the midfield into play. How would Rhodes change that dynamic?

The more worrying part for me would be the increased expectation that Rhodes’ arrival would bring. Sure, Forest still have a chance of reaching the playoffs but, with nine points to make up in only ten matches, it’s a slim one. Securing the services of Rhodes might make Fawaz al Hasawi think he’s bought a guaranteed ticket to the end-of-season carnival, which would definitely not be the case. If we did sign Rhodes, and failed to make the playoffs, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Fawaz would sack Freedman for his ‘failure.’ And that would be bad. We’d be back to square one (again) and would have lost a manager who’s had a fantastic impact in his brief time here.

Would I like to see a striker of Jordan Rhodes’ quality in the Garibaldi? Of course I would. But in this case I won’t be too disappointed if the paper-talk turns out to be just that.

Unless he goes to Derby.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Nottingham Forest 2 - 1 Middlesbrough

I believe it was Arnold Palmer who is reported to have said "The more I practice, the luckier I get." It would be rather unfair - and totally inaccurate - to label the impact that Dougie Freedman has had since he took over as Nottingham Forest manager as luck. However, things seem to have fallen into place for Freedman more than they did for Stuart Pearce. Opposition shots are missing rather than flying in, passes are going astray, defenders are slipping, that kind of thing. It's hard to imagine Pearce's Forest pulling off the gritty rearguard actions that Freedman's Reds managed against Bournemouth and Middlesbrough, but these two very similar victories were secured by solid resolve, hard work and taking chances. Certainly not luck.

Following Freedman's first defeat as Forest manager he was forced into more changes than he's had to make in any of his matches so far. Both Matt Fryatt and Danny Fox suffered minor knocks; so Dexter Blackstock started up front and Eric Lichaj returned to the familiarly unfamiliar left back berth. Kelvin Wilson returned in place of Danny Collins, while Michael Mancienne lined up in midfield, replacing Ben Osborn. One suspects that Collins and Osborn were feeling the pace after the recent run of matches, rather than anything more sinister.

There was a distinctly Forest flavour to the visitors' team too, as Patrick Bamford and goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos made their City Ground returns. Boro also fielded Grant Leadbitter, Albert Adomah and George Friend, all of whom had been linked with moves to Forest at one time or another,

The opening exchanges were somewhat scrappy, possibly due to the strong wind which was blasting across the ground. Michail Antonio's deflected shot forced Dimi (I'm not typing Konstantopoulos out every time I mention him) into a good save. Gradually though, Boro started to turn the screw, finding space down the left and keeping Lichaj very busy. One of these forays won them a corner, which was taken short (we never learn) and found Leadbitter. His attempted cross looped over Karl Darlow, hit the far post, rebounded off Mancienne and into the net to give the Teesside team the lead. After having lost against Charlton, this looked like a big test for Forest.

It was a test which the players were equal to. Blackstock flashed a header wide from a Gary Gardner cross, before Gardner himself levelled things up with a wonderful curling shot from outside the penalty area. Boro were forced to replace the dangerous Ryan Fredericks due to injury - which made Lichaj's afternoon a lot easier - and the first half ended with honours even.

The second half started even more scrappily than the first, scrappier than a scrap metal merchant impersonating Scrappy Doo in fact. Simple passes were misplaced, longer ones were misjudged and neither side could keep possession. Antonio in particular was having one of those afternoons, when balls which usually stuck to him ended up bouncing off at angles as yet undiscovered by science.

But then, as he has done so often this season, he clicked. A rampaging run forced Tomas Kalas to concede a corner, though much of the Trent End thought it should've been a penalty; then, barely minutes later, another gallop down the left saw Antonio find Blackstock in the box. The ball seemed to be stuck under the striker's feet but he somehow dug out a shot with enough power to find the top corner and give Forest the lead. It was a really good finish which topped off his 150th appearance in the Garibaldi very nicely indeed.

From then on in, the Reds sat deep and Boro dominated possession. The rest of the second half went something like: pass pass shot blocked pass cross cleared pass shot blocked cross cleared shot hit the post goal kick. For all the visitors' efforts though, I can only remember Darlow making one real save. Forest didn't offer much more themselves but in the end they didn't need to, and the Charlton defeat was well and truly forgotten as another hard-won victory was secured.

I won't lie, the second half was difficult to watch at times as Forest defended very deep and let Boro dictate the play, but it's hard to question Freedman's tactics as the visitors couldn't find a way through, with their only goal coming courtesy of a fluke. It would be easy to say that better teams might have punished Forest, but there aren't many better teams in the division; and the one team who probably are better - Bournemouth - suffered the same fate.

The top of the Championship is ridiculously close, with one point separating the top five teams and five points separating the top seven. Of Forest's remaining ten matches, five of them are against teams currently above us. Our fate may not be in our own hands, but results like this one ensures there's enough to play for to keep things interesting. It always is with us. It always is.



Thursday, 26 February 2015

Nottingham Forest 2 - 1 AFC Bournemouth

As I was walking to the City Ground to watch Nottingham Forest's match against AFC Bournemouth, the strangest thing happened. A black cat walked past me, then, a moment later, so did another. Was it the same cat? Possibly, I don't know. Then, seemingly from nowhere two figures appeared, clad from head to toe in clothes of obsidian hue. A man there was, and a woman. They spoke to me: "Deja vu," the man proclaimed. "It's a glitch in the Matrix." "It happens when they change something," added the woman. And with that they were gone, bounding effortlessly over a nearby house. After the match, after Forest had held out for a thrilling but frankly unlikely 2-1 victory, having come back from a goal behind, another surge of deja vu washed over me, because a few months earlier they'd done exactly the same thing. Then I realised what had changed. The manager.

The match against Bournemouth presented Dougie Freedman with his sternest test as Forest manager to date, as it previously had for Stuart Pearce. Forest conceded first against a confident team which dominated possession, as they had before; but then got a foothold in the match, clawed their way in front and hung on for dear life. The parallels were there. Even more so when you compare the records for both managers' first five matches in charge: four wins and a draw. Hopefully after match ten the similarities will end though, and our form won't dive off a cliff like an over-enthusiastic lemming.

Unsurprisingly, Freedman picked the same XI - and indeed substitutes - that put his former club Bolton to the sword last time out. A welcome luxury this season. The visitors influential midfielder Matt Ritchie was declared fit to play, but striker Yann Kermogant missed out, and ex-Reds Lee Camp and Elliot Ward could only make the bench.

As in the previous match, there was to be no gentle start to the game. This time however it was the visitors who tore into Forest before the pea in referee Nigel Miller's whistle had finished vibrating from him blowing to start proceedings. An early corner was played short and a Simon Francis header forced Karl Darlow to tip over. The resultant corner was played short again, laid off to Andrew Surman, and curled wonderfully past Darlow's despairing grasp. Now we'd see what Dougie's men were made of.

If the next ten minutes were anything to go by, the answer was jelly. Bournemouth attacked Forest with gusto, speed and variety. Spells of short-passing possession punctuated by raking crossfield passes and lightning fast set pieces. The diminutive but dastardly Ritchie, and his clone on the other flank Ryan Fraser, were particularly threatening. Corners were won and shots blocked. Callum Wilson - whose pace was matched only by his annoyingness - blocked a Darlow clearance and fired into the side netting.

The knockout punch of a second goal didn't come though and gradually Forest dragged themselves off the ropes and started fighting back. Michail Antonio scuffed a decent chance wide before the Reds won a succession of corners. The last of these found its way to Jamaal Lascelles who drove home the equaliser from just inside the area. Twenty minutes in and we were level pegging.

The remainder of the first half was more even. Bournemouth continued to look dangerous and Eric Lichaj had his hands full; firstly being nutmegged by the slippery Fraser and seemingly bringing him down (though nothing was given), then sending Adam Smith into orbit and becoming the first Forest player to be booked since Freedman took over. Forest had chances too though, with a flowing move ending in Henri Lansbury forcing a save from Cherries' keeper Artur Boruc, and Antonio stinging Boruc's palms with a rasping drive.

Just before half time Antonio was hauled down by Francis to win a free kick just outside the area. As the visitors lined up their wall, I remarked to those sitting nearby that there was a nice gap which was only partially blocked by one of their pocket-sized wingers. Up stepped Lansbury to obligingly make me look like a football oracle by curling a precise shot into said gap to give Forest the lead. A perfect finish to a fantastic half of football.

The second half lacked the intensity of the first but still produced excitement. Lascelles nearly extended Forest's lead, but his header from another Ben Osborn corner was cleared off the line. Lansbury twice went close to repeating his free kick heroics and an Osborn stinger was smartly held by Boruc. Bournemouth once again enjoyed the lion's share of possession (though I'm not sure why a lion would want a football), but didn't truly test Darlow, apart from making him kick his clearances past Wilson who insisted on trying to block each one. Wilson further endeared himself to the home fans by tumbling in the area but no penalty was given.

Michael Mancienne was eased back into the action in place of Chris Burke, and Matt Fryatt and Lars Veldwijk replaced Dexter Blackstock and Antonio, both of whom had run themselves insensible. The Dutchman saw a late shot blocked as Bournemouth pressed forward and left spaces behind. There was to be no further scoring however as Forest held out for a victory which had looked unbelievable when they'd fallen behind.

This was every bit as satisfying as the rout of Bolton, albeit for different reasons. Despite Bournemouth's possession - and they certainly did dominate it - the Reds' back line stayed disciplined and solid. Lichaj eventually saw off Fraser who was substituted in the second half. The midfield and Blackstock were chasing the ball for most of the match but they stuck with it, and eventually the Cherries' passing got more and more ragged as control gave way to desperation.

The gap to the top six still looks too large to be bridged, but that the playoffs are even being discussed at all is testament to the impact that Dougie Freedman has had since being appointed. History says that one team often makes a late dash into the end-of-season shenanigans. Even if we can't claim an unlikely playoff place, the last few performances have been a pleasure to watch. Let's hope there's more to come.






Saturday, 21 February 2015

Nottingham Forest 4 - 1 Bolton Wanderers

"Never a dull moment" is a sentence which has been used to describe events at Nottingham Forest all-too-frequently over the last few months. This time, for once, it summed up events on the pitch, and if anything, didn't do them justice.

Five goals, two penalties, two serious injuries resulting in a total of sixteen minutes of stoppage time, one red card (which could have been three), an ex-England striker playing at centre half and, happily for Reds fans, three points. I think that's the lot.

Following the ridiculous 4-4 draw away at Blackpool, Dougie Freedman was forced into shuffling his Forest pack for the visit of his former club Bolton Wanderers, due to the injury suffered by Jack Hobbs. Presumably he felt the game had come too soon for Michael Mancienne and Kelvin Wilson, as it was Jamaal Lascelles who lined up alongside Danny Collins in the centre of defence, with the other two starting on the substitutes' bench. Dexter Blackstock got the nod up-front ahead of Matt Fryatt and the rest of the team was as you were. The visitors, alas, left their veteran striking partnership of Emile Heskey and Eider Gudjohnsen on their bench, with the dangerous Adam Le Fondre and promising Zach Clough spearheading their attack.

Normally I'd start these reviews with "both teams passed it around nicely without looking dangerous," but that wasn't the case this time as Forest fairly flew out of the blocks. Two minutes had elapsed when Henri Lansbury forced a save from Bolton keeper Andy Lonergan with a free kick. Five minutes later Lansbury knocked a decent chance over the bar, and two minutes after that Forest were ahead. Lansbury's diagonal ball sought out Chris Burke and, when the Trotters left back slipped, Burke was clean through. Lonergan blocked his first attempt but the rebound popped up nicely for the reinvigorated Scotsman to volley home.

Almost straight from the restart Burke saw another shot blocked and Lascelles headed wide from the resultant corner. Then we were lucky enough to witness one of the best individual goals I've ever seen at the City Ground. Michail Antonio picked the ball up in midfield, muscled his way past about four Bolton defenders and smashed his shot past the helpless Lonergan to double Forest's lead.

For the next ten minutes or so, Antonio was totally unplayable. Two rampaging runs and crosses created chances for Burke (blocked) and Lansbury (tipped wide). Antonio himself headed over from the second corner and it seemed just a matter of time before Forest netted again. It wasn't to be though - at least not yet.

A nasty looking injury to Wanderers' defender Tim Ream saw a lengthy stoppage and Ream being replaced. The Reds switched off a little and Bolton gained in confidence. A goalmouth scramble was eventually cleared before, deep into stoppage time, Danny Fox upended Zach Clough in the penalty area. No arguments from where I was sitting and Adam Le Fondre calmly rolled the spot kick past Karl Darlow to get Bolton back into the match. A 2-1 half time lead for Forest was scant reward  for their excellent play and one wondered how they'd react to conceding just before the break.

One needn't have worried though. The second half had scarcely begun before Bolton's Matt Mills had received his second yellow card for a foul on the rampant Antonio. The visitors' subsequent central defensive crisis treated us to the unlikely spectacle of Emile Heskey - a half-time substitute - lining up in the heart of their defence. Not, I imagine, what he expected when he took the field.

Ten minutes later and the match was effectively over as a contest. A woefully short back header, possibly by Heskey, was intercepted by Blackstock who appeared to be flattened by Lonergan as he skipped round him. The referee pointed to the penalty spot but the predictable - and probably justified - howls for a red card were halted when it became apparent that Lonergan was seriously hurt. Eventually he was stretched off - sans red card - and replaced by Ben Amos. His first task was to pick Lansbury's penalty out of the net after the Forest man had thumped it past him.

Moments afterwards it was four for Forest as Heskey went all WWE on Blackstock just outside the penalty area. The ball ran free for Burke to sweep home his second and cap an excellent display. Maybe he understands Dougie's Scottish brogue better than Stuart Pearce's Cockney promptings; but whatever the reason Burke has looked a different player since Freedman took the reins.

The bedlam calmed down pretty much after that. Heskey's every touch was cheered and indeed, as Lonergan was receiving his treatment, the Forest fans implored him to go in nets. Le Fondre was lucky to escape with just a yellow card after a horrendous foul on Gary Gardner and Lars Veldwijk reappeared but alas couldn't break his Forest duck. Some one hundred and six minutes after the match kicked off, it ended as a comfortable victory for the Reds.

Bolton were probably the stiffest opposition Forest had faced since Freedman arrived as manager so the manner in which they were brushed aside is very encouraging. It was particularly satisfying to have made such a good start and to have forced our opponents to chase the game early on, rather than the other way round. As I mentioned earlier, Chris Burke seems a different player at the moment and Henry Lansbury's return to form has also proved very welcome. For a manager who is supposed to play dour football, a return of fourteen goals in four games is impressive to say the least.

Sterner tests await of course, starting on Wednesday night with the visit of Bournemouth. A run at the playoffs might be asking a bit much but if this current run of form continues we'll enjoy a good finish to the season. And hopefully the on-the-field action can continue to be the focus. As it should be.