Saturday, 31 January 2015

Nottingham Forest 0 - 1 Millwall

It's my own fault I suppose. I should have foreseen it. The portents were there after all. It was, as the build up to Super Sunday proclaims every week ''Written in the Stars." Bogey team, bogey manager, bogey discounted tickets promotion. A Kids for a Quid game against a Millwall team we "should beat," managed by Ian Holloway. A perfect storm of shitness. And the cherry turd on top of the whole faecal cake was that the goal was softer than a piglet eating a marshmallow, and was scored by veteran uber-lummox Ricardo Fuller. Football doesn't get shitter than this.

Where to begin? The team news? Yes, ok then. A sickness bug meant that Gary Gardner had to drop out of the squad this time round, and the game was perhaps too soon for Matt Fryatt to start, though he did take a place on the substitutes' bench. As did Eric Lichaj, meaning that Stephen McLaughlin started at left back with Todd Kane on the right. Millwall named a team of giants, with left back Shaun Williams, centre half Jos Hooiveld and forward Stefan Maierhofer particularly enormous.

It became clear soon after kick-off that we were lining up with Michail Antonio playing up front alongside Britt Assombalonga, and indeed it was Antonio who was to have the first half-chance, as he broke clear down the left, only for his cross to find a Millwall defender. This was to become a recurring theme. A bungled free kick from the visitors gave Antonio another chance, but his low shot hit the leg of Lions' keeper David Forde and ricocheted to safety. After this bright start though, Millwall gained in confidence and started to get a foothold in the game. A few long-range efforts flew wide, before a Mark Beevers header forced an excellent save from Dorus de Vries. The first half ended goalless which was probably a fair scoreline. We weren't playing well but at least we weren't 1-0 down. Or 3-0 down for that matter.

The second half started a bit more brightly but it was hardly batten-down-the-hatches stuff. A Robert Tesche curler from outside the box hit the crossbar, as did an Assombalonga header from an Antonio cross. Henri Lansbury also pinged an effort from range which narrowly missed the top corner and may have hit the crossbar. It looked for all the world like one of those "play until midnight and nobody will score" matches. Or, if anyone was to score it'd be the Reds. Wrrrroooonnnnnngggggg.

An aimless Millwall free kick found the head of McLaughlin, who tried to cushion it back to De Vries but left his header short. In nipped substitute Ricardo Fuller to pilfer the ball ahead of the Forest keeper and roll it into the empty net. Joy for the away fans, and the home crowd all started shouting for booze. Or at least that's what it sounded like. The Reds never looked like netting an equaliser and that was that. The Derby away match was consigned even further to the memory banks.

I can't really single out any Forest players for praise today. Neither can I fathom how a team who played so well in the second half away against Derby could manage to produce such an indifferent display against Millwall. Nobody was obviously dreadful either, though in my opinion it was Michail Antonio's worse game since he joined the club. Almost every cross seemed to hit a defender and his decision making was questionable. It's a bit harsh to single him out however.

Stuart Pearce was a hero as a Nottingham Forest player. I, and I'm sure the massive majority of Forest fans, desperately want him to succeed as a manager, to take us back to the top flight where he used to represent our club with such commitment and vigour. But I don't think he will. And I'm not sure he even can. And that makes me sad.

Is it Pearce's fault that we hit the bar twice? That we gave away such a horrifically bad goal? No, of course not. But our football has been shockingly poor at times. We're on a wretched run and it seems hard to see where the next win will come from, even against poor opposition. And, much as it pains me to say it, the buck for that has to stop with Pearce.

The players are not performing as well as they can - of that there can be no doubt. They've shown us they can play better, but they've not done it anywhere near enough. The number of times they've dominated matches this season is far, far too small. Yes, any team would suffer from losing the likes of Chris Cohen and Andy Reid for the length of time that we have, but it's not like the rest of the squad is full of callow youths. In fact it's ironic that the callowest of our youths - Ben Osborn - has probably been the one bright spark during this current excruciating run. His late, great goal at the iPro looked like it would kickstart our season, but since then we've lapsed back into rubbishness. And if such a dramatic win can't motivate us for the rest of the campaign then I'm not sure what will.

It's not my job to work this out though - it's currently Stuart Pearce's. If the team plays like they did against Millwall however, it might not be for much longer. Pearce being sacked would bring me no joy whatsoever - it would be heartbreaking. But it's getting to the point where it might be for the best.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Dinner's a winner, but it won't make you thinner

January is, by any measure, a pretty depressing month. Going back to work after a few days off, likely with a few extra pounds to shift after festive overindulgences and in miserable weather, there's not much to recommend the first 31 days of the year. So, to break up the gloom of the month, Clare and I have got into the habit of arranging something special to look forward to. Previous Januaries have seen visits to Hibiscus and Hawksmoor for delicious meals: in 2015 we decided to go to dinner. No, I mean dinner. At Dinner.

Since it opened in the January of 2015, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the world of gastronomy, as a Michelin star was garnered very quickly, followed by a second. It's also (at the time of writing) rated a heady 5th in the World's 50 Best Restaurants. Impressive stuff from such a new establishment. Busy since its opening, Dinner operates a rolling 90 day booking window which we watched like hawks until the day for booking for our preferred visit arrived. We were delighted to secure a table for two.

Unlike Blumenthal's other restaurant The Fat Duck, Dinner's concept is, well, dinner. Or, more precisely, the menus are based around historic British dishes with enticing names like Rice and Flesh, Savoury Porridge and the rather more mysterious Frumenty. Each dish's listing contains a year which, apparently, is roughly when the dish was first conceived. Indeed some of the offerings date back as far as the 14th century. Also unlike The Fat Duck, and many fine dining restaurants, Dinner has no tasting menu, just an a la carte.

Following an extravagant cocktail each at the Mandarin Hotel's (where the restaurant is based) cocktail bar, we were ushered into the dining room and to our seats. The main room is large and spacious and a glass wall allows viewing of the actual kitchen, where the myriad chefs can be seen scurrying around their stations. We selected our wine, water and menu choices, polished off our bread and waited for the feast to begin.

After a wait which was on the long side of acceptable (we didn't quite get to the 'tutting' phase), our starters were presented. Clare chose the Roast Scallops, which were accompanied with roasted and ketchuped (if that's a word) cucumber, while I opted for one of the restaurant's signature dishes - Meat Fruit. Allegedly hailing from around the year 1500, Meat Fruit looks like a small orange. Contained within the orangey coating however is the smoothest and lightest of chicken liver and foie gras parfaits. The outer casing is in fact a mandarin gel, which adds some much appreciated sharpness to the dish, as the parfait itself is very rich. The Freat (or Muit) is presented with some crunchy olive oil toast to round off a simple, but very effective starter.

For our mains, I plumped for the Spiced Pigeon and Clare went for the Hereford Ribeye steak. If I'm honest, I didn't detect much spice on the pigeon. The meat though was perfectly cooked, very pink but springy and delicious. The ale and artichokes which joined the bird on the plate provided a pleasantly sour kick and the sauce was rich and glossy. Clare's steak was also pleasingly pink with a nicely chargrilled carapace. The mushroom ketchup which was part of the dish was tremendous but the triple-cooked chips - whilst perfectly enjoyable - didn't quite hit the Hawksmoor standard. That is a very high bar mind you.

The two extra sides we ordered - mashed potatoes and butter sprout hearts - were both wonderful however. Mash so light and fluffy it wouldn't have looked out of place in the sky of a lightly-clouded spring day, and crunchy, salty sprouts, both complemented the mains nicely. Clare found the sprouts a little salty whereas I - who has been known to drink the soy sauce in the little plastic fish that you get with Boots sushi - thought they were perfect.

And so, to dessert. Ah......the desserts. If the first two courses hadn't blown us away then the desserts more than made up for them. As soon as our booking had been confirmed I'd had my eye on the Brown Bread Ice Cream and it didn't disappoint. The quenelle of silky ice cream really did taste like a slice of Warburton's finest. Our excellent waitress Sarah advised me to try some on its own first - which I duly did - and then to scoop a spoonful along with the cubed pear and sticky malted yeast syrup which made up the rest of the dish. It was a heavenly, gooey and sticky delight.

If I'd been making eyes at the Brown Bread Ice Cream for a while, Clare was equally enamoured by the Tipsy Cake, which took a while to prepare and needed to be ordered at the same time as the starters and mains. The reason for the preparation time became apparent as it was served; as it was a freshly-made fluffy brioche which housed a rum and vanilla laced custard. Sweetness and texture came in the form of a slice of spit-roast pineapple, and Clare certainly seemed to enjoy her pudding as much as I did mine.

A little bonus dish came in the form of an Earl Grey tea infused chocolate ganache served with a crunchy lemony snicket. I mean biscuit. There was also the option of having ice cream freshly made at our table - by a chef pouring liquid nitrogen into an egg custard and adding various crunchy toppings. The theatre of this was wonderful, but full stomachs meant we passed on eating it and settled for observing other tables having it made.

Service throughout was very good, and our waitress was clearly an old hand at taking photographs of satisfied diners. Our wine was reasonably priced for such an establishment, as was the whole bill to be honest. Overall this was a thoroughly enjoyable meal and experience. We've not eaten in any of the other restaurants in the top 10 of the aforementioned World's 50 Best list so we can't compare, but our feeling was that 5th place for Dinner was perhaps a little generous. However, the concept of Dinner is first class and it should certainly be on any fine-dining restaurant fan's bucket list.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Benny: King

Some passages of football commentary are so good, so well judged, so emotive that they end up transcending the action they describe and lodge themselves in the very folklore of the sport itself. Probably the most famous example of these is Kenneth Wolstenholme's unforgettable "He's got...some people are on the pitch, they think it's all over. It is now," as Sir Geoff Hurst crashed home his hattrick goal to seal England's World Cup victory in 1966. In more recent times, we've enjoyed Martin Tyler's wonderfully elongated "Agueroooooooooooooo" which perfectly encapsulated the most dramatic finish to a Premier League season, as the Argentine forward netted the ultimately League-winning goal for Manchester City against QPR.

At around 14:00 on Saturday 17th January 2015, another phrase was added to the annals of commentary history. It may not have had the worldwide, or even nationwide resonance of the two examples above, but to fans of Nottingham Forest it was every bit as enjoyable as the other two were to followers of England and Manchester City. The commentator was Bill Leslie. The words were: "Osborn...DOESN'T NEED HIM." The event: a stoppage-time winner from a Derby-born player at the home of Forest's local rivals Derby County in the Sky Bet Championship. 

It might seem like hyperbole to compare Osborn's goal to those of Hurst and Aguero, but its importance to Nottingham Forest cannot be underestimated. It may have been the goal that saved Stuart Pearce's job. It could turn out to be the goal which reignited Forest's season. It may yet turn out to be neither. But it did, at least, restore the fans' pride in their team and club and give them a sweet, sweet moment to celebrate in a season which has had more than its share of disappointment. 

In the days building up to the match there was little to suggest it would end this way. The majority of Forest's supporters feared the worst, their Derby counterparts expected the victory. However, at either end of the A52 there were pockets of fans who had a suspicion it might not turn out like that. The stock local derby cliché of form going out of the window was trotted out as, here and there, a few people thought that the unlikely could just happen. 

Forest's starting lineup contained, thankfully, leading scorer Britt Assombalonga, who had shaken off the muscle injury sustained against Sheffield Wednesday. Matt Fryatt and Michael Mancienne were less fortunate though, so Kelvin Wilson partnered Jack Hobbs at the centre of defence while the returning Henri Lansbury was the most advanced of Forest's midfielders. Loanees Todd Kane and Gary Gardner both started the game. Derby were without Jordan Ibe, recalled by parent club Liverpool, and the suspended John Eustace, but could still call upon the likes of Chris Martin, Johnny Russell and Jamie Ward, with the latter two having been thorns in Forest's side before. 

The opening exchanges were typical local derby stuff, high on intensity but low on quality. Forest were holding their own and indeed should have been awarded a penalty as museum-piece lookalike Jake Buxton grappeled Michail Antonio to the floor in Derby's 18 yard box. Predictably, nothing was given, and even more predictably soon afterwards Forest fell behind. Russell's flat corner evaded the head of Martin but Henri Lansbury, who was guarding the near post, could only divert it past Dorus de Vries to give the hosts the lead. 

For the next ten minutes the game seemed to be following a well established pattern as Derby looked to press their advantage. A Hobbs blunder nearly led to a second goal and de Vries had to be alert to tip a deflected shot over the bar, but the expected Forest collapse didn't happen. Indeed the Reds finished the half well, with Assombalonga's shot skimming narrowly over Lee Grant's crossbar. With the half time score at just 1-0 this wasn't over, not by a long way. 

The visitors' cause was further helped as Jeff Hendrick replaced the injured Will Hughes at the start of the second half and, slowly, inexorably, the Reds started to wrest control of the game from their opponents. Penalty box scrambles gave half-chances to Antonio and Wilson, both of which were blocked. It looked - yet again - like being "one of those games" until Forest won a free kick wide on the left. Osborn's delivery wasn't cleared by Richard Keogh (see file for Zamora, B) and ended up at the feet of Assombalonga who, despite the uncouth attentions of Buxton, steered the ball under Lee Grant to give Forest a fully deserved equaliser. 

There was no telling how the match would finish now. Cyrus Christie sent a shot just wide for Derby and Chris Martin somehow stayed upright long enough to loft a late lob over the bar. It looked like a creditable draw would be the outcome until Wilson won a strong header which Robert Tesche helped into the path of Osborn. The young midfielder scampered forward and, as the home defence stood off, drove a left-footed rocket past the dive of Grant and into the net for his first senior Forest goal. Pandemonium. Or, as the youngsters would say: "scenes."

Seldom can a manager, or, for that matter, an owner/chairman, have celebrated a goal so much. Stuart Pearce knows the importance of this fixture and just how much was riding on this game so it's hardly surprising there was such an outpouring of emotion when the winner flew in. It wasn't quite 1996 penalty against Spain, but it wasn't far off. 

The important thing for Forest now is to use this boost as a springboard for the rest of the season. Satisfying though it was (and it REALLY was), it'll mean nothing if the team lapses into previous poor performances. They've shown they can play well, now they need to show they can play well consistently. 

But this isn't a time to dwell on previous disappointments. Nor is it a time to give too much coverage to the unpleasant incidents after the match. It's time to enjoy a dramatic, surprising yet thoroughly deserved victory. And for that, Ben Osborn, Nottingham thanks you.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Nottingham Forest 0 - 2 Sheffield Wednesday

Apparently, one of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. If that's the case, then there are a number of crazy, crazy people in and around the City Ground at the moment.

The fans, for example, have largely been turning up week in, week out, home and away, hoping and praying for an upturn in fortune. In the main they've stuck with the team and manager too, but the pattern and outcome of recent matches has been horribly predictable. The match against Sheffield Wednesday was another example of this. However, it might also have been the match where things do start to change, and not necessarily for the better. Because, the nature of the performance against the Owls has, in my opinion, caused some of the many fans who are staunchly behind Stuart Pearce to finally begin to doubt that he can turn things around. More of that later.

Injuries and suspensions meant that, yet again, Pearce was forced to shuffle his pack. Dorus de Vries kept his place between the sticks behind a back four of Eric Lichaj, Jack Hobbs, Jamaal Lascelles and débutante Chelsea loanee Todd Kane. The out-of-form Danny Fox joined the ill Kelvin Wilson and the injured Michael Mancienne in missing out.

Further injuries, to Matt Fryatt and Dexter Blackstock, caused Pearce to name Britt Assombalonga as a lone striker in front of the five-man midfield of Michail Antonio, Robert Tesche, Ben Osborn, David Vaughan and Chris Burke. Forest's other recent loan signing - midfielder Gary Gardner - took his place on the bench, The visitors lined up with one of the largest - and hairiest - striking partnerships I've ever seen, in the form of Stevie May and Atdhe Nuhui.

The windy conditions made good football difficult, with players from both sides misjudging bounces and high balls. As has been the case recently, Forest kept the ball without really looking threatening. A good Tesche run and pass found Assombalonga but the striker's shot was half-blocked and didn't trouble Owls' keeper Kieran Westwood. An Osborn corner caused a scramble but ultimately led to nothing. Hardly seat-of-the-pants stuff. At the other end both Lascelles and Kane were forced into good tackles to head off dangerous attacks. De Vries, like Westwood, had little to do. In fact the first thing I remember him doing is picking the ball out of the net.

Another Forest corner was cleared by the visitors and Vaughan - who did not have a good game - dived into a tackle and let May get past. The attacker's centre found Nuhui, whose header was blocked, before the ball fell for Kieran Lee to bundle over the line. Coming just before half-time as it did, the goal was a real sickener. And, after Gary Gardner had replaced Chris Burke following the interval, it got worse. Another cross into the Forest area was only half cleared by Lascelles and Chris Maguire beat Lichaj to the loose ball to steer it home to double the visitors' lead.

Far from spurring the home team on, this second goal seemed to further galvanise the visitors. De Vries produced a brilliant double save to deny May and Maguire. Nuhui had a header blocked again and then hit another chance wide. Forest mustered little. A free-kick found the head of Antonio but Westwood tipped over well. Both Antonio and Assombalonga were denied reasonable penalty shouts - the latter's was probably more than reasonable to be honest - but referee Andy D'Urso wasn't interested. A good Osborn run and cross was missed at the far post by Lars Veldwijk, who had replaced the injured Assombalonga. And that was pretty much it. Defeat came with barely a whimper against a team who, with all due respect to them, have had a dreadful record against Forest in recent times.

So, where do we go from here? I'm lucky enough to sit with a bunch of sensible and reasonable fans but the prevalent feeling seems to be 'we love Pearce but it's just not working.' What's worse at the moment is it doesn't look like working. Defeats are easier to stomach if the performances are good, but they're not. The Wednesday match was as bad a showing as I've seen all season, and when you consider the Brentford and Birmingham matches......well, that says it all. Given the absences, you can't really argue with Pearce's team selection against the Owls but, once again, the players just didn't deliver.

There were a couple of bright spots amid the gloom. Jamaal Lascelles had probably his best match of the season. He looks a different player when paired with Jack Hobbs, who got another 90 minutes under his belt. Todd Kane had a solid début and Ben Osborn, after floundering in the first half, looked a lot better when moved out wide in the second. Perhaps he should start there against Derby as Henri Lansbury will be eligible again and Gary Gardner will presumably be pushing for a start.

It's hard to foresee anything but a defeat against Derby County next time out, especially if Assombalonga misses out. Without him in the side it's difficult to see where goals will come from. Fryatt returning would help, but he's hardly been prolific this season. Veldwijk looks out of his depth and, as striking options currently go, that's about our lot. Could the match at the iPro result in another Forest manager losing his job? It's not too hard to imagine.

As I wrote in my piece for the Nottingham Post this week, I really hope that Fawaz al Hasawi doesn't have to sack yet another manager, particularly one idolised by Forest fans as much as Pearce. However, if we fall to yet another defeat then his position would be nigh-on untenable. I totally appreciate what he's done off the field since his return, and I acknowledge that we can't just keep on sacking managers, but how long can we go on for if we keep losing and playing poorly?

In my heart of hearts I desperately want Pearce to turn it round, see out the season and hopefully build from there. But, after the Wednesday match, a small part of me thinks he just can't turn it round and that something needs to change. It'd be devastating for a defeat to Derby to be the reason for Pearce's sacking. That's assuming he's still in charge when we play them. The ball's in Fawaz's court now and only he knows what the following week will bring.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Nottingham Forest 1 - 3 Birmingham City

Let me start by wishing everybody who reads my blog a very Merry Christmas. I hope you've enjoyed my irreverent take on (mainly) the trials and tribulations of Nottingham Forest in 2014. 

Forest themselves decided to be a bit different this Christmas. Rather than treating their supporters to a feast of festive football, they instead chose to give the gift of goals to their opponents: six of them in fact, in two Yuletide matches. 

The human mind has the ability to block out unpleasent memories, therefore I can't recall the minutiae of the Reds' most recent capitulation to report on it properly. In summary though, it went something like this:

- We started badly
- We got a bit better
- We made some chances
- We missed them
- We gave away a shit goal
- We gave away an even shitter goal
- We gave away another goal, but should not have been penalised for the free kick that led to it
- We got booed off at half time
- We started the second half quite well
- We made some chances
- We missed them
- The referee made some shit decisions
- The linesman near me didn't make *any* decisions
- We scored an irrelevant consolation goal

Until David Cotterill's dreadful (from our perspective) brace, I didn't think we were playing too badly. Certainly the team selection made sense this time and we (mostly) seemed to be trying to play it on the deck, but the double blow of conceding two really, really poor goals was too much to recover from. So, where do we go from here? Let's start from the top:

I feel some sympathy for Fawaz al Hasawi at the moment. I get the impression (and it is just an impression and not based on any inside knowledge) that he really wants Stuart Pearce to succeed here. With John McGovern and Paul Faulkner to advise him, he may decide to be more patient with Pearce than he has with his previous managers. 

However, in a way he's painted himself into a corner with Pearce. If he were to sack Stuart then it could prove difficult to attract any decent replacement, as prospective candidates will see how quickly he dispensed with the services of Cotterill, O' Driscoll, McLeish and Davies and would understandably be wary. Not to mention the embargo. Sacking Pearce would also mean another compensation payment and another period of instability and upheval, as the backroom staff would likely go too, and that's the last thing the club needs right now. For all the current poor run of results, for the first time since al Hasawi took over the structure of the club is starting to fall into shape, and a lot of credit for that has to go to Pearce. 

For his part though, Pearce just has to get results to improve. In his defence, the triple injury blows of losing Chris Cohen, Andy Reid and Jack Hobbs were always going to hurt, but the squad at Pearce's disposal is good enough to be performing better than it currently is. So why isn't it?

The constant changes in personnel and formation can't be helping, nor can some frankly baffling team selections. It may not be the football hipsters' setup of choice, but the players we've got are suited to 4-4-2, so, in my opinion, we should play to their strengths, pick a formation and stick with it - injuries permitting of course. 

Still, no matter what team the manager chooses or how he sends them out, he can't do much about some of the awful individual errors or shocking derelictions of duty we've seen from various players this season. Short back-passes, backing off too much, aimless diagonal balls, stupid fouls and fluffed chances; we've seen them all. 

As for the players, there's no doubt that, in the majority of cases, they're underperforming. Simple as that. Starting at the back, Karl Darlow has fluctuated between great and gormless. He's pulled off some great saves and is generally strong at claiming crosses, but in a few cases he's been beaten by shots that have seemed eminently saveable. 

Eric Lichaj looks shaky and Jack Hunt's early promise has fizzled away, not that it looks like we'll be seeing him in the Garibaldi again anyway. At left back I'm not sure what's happened to Dan Harding but surely he deserves a chance ahead of Danny Fox now. I can't recall Harding having done too much wrong when picked this season, whereas Fox has looked as shaky as Lichaj, with the added annoyance of the Aimless Diagonal Ball. Neither Lichaj nor Fox has looked comfortable when playing as one of the back three in Pearce's occassional flirtation with 3-5-2. 

Michael Mancienne looks a shadow of the player who started the season so imperiously. Having to play alongside the inconsistent duo of Kelvin Wilson and Jamaal Lascelles may be to blame for this. Mancienne needs to stay at centre half though; he's looked a fish out of water in the matches he's played in midfield. The sooner Jack Hobbs is fit the better. Maybe Louis Laing should get a run-out against Rochdale?

In central midfield, Henri Lansbury has yet to achieve the heights of early last season, apart from in his number of yellow cards, which is truly spectacular. Ben Osborn, Robert Tesche and David Vaughan have all looked encouraging in certain matches, just not for enough of them. I'd certainly tie Tesche down to a longer contract if possible though, as a free transfer he's proved a shrewd acquisition. 

On the flanks we have the one major success story of the season so far: Michail Antonio. At times the former Sheffield Wednesday wide man has been unplayable. Pace, strength, a good cross and a strong finish - Antonio has them all. Just not always. Though if he did, he'd be Cristiano Ronaldo and he wouldn't be playing for Forest. His goals, assists and performances more than make up for his occassional klutz moments and there's never a dull moment when he gets the ball. 

The other wing hasn't been so good though. Chris Burke has yet to consistently show the form which always seemed to torment Forest when he played against us. Tom Ince just didn't work out and, in the matches he's started, Jamie Paterson has failed to justify the almost embarrassing clamour for him to play. 

In attack, Britt Assombalonga started like a train but seems to be short of confidence and a yard of pace at the moment. His goal tally is still impressive though and, considering he's playing at a level higher than he's ever played before, he's doing pretty well. I really like Matt Fryatt's industry and commitment and he's chipped in with a few goals too. As with Tesche, as a free transfer he was a smart signing. 

Dexter Blackstock will probably never recapture the form of a few seasons ago and, if his latest knee injury is serious, one has to fear for his future. Lars Veldwijk's not played enough to show us what he can do yet, and he may be one for seasons to come anyway. It'd be asking a lot of him to drag us out of our current hole. 

How the rest of this season will pan out is anybody's guess. It's only December. There's plenty of points to play for yet. A run of form could see us back into the playoffs, but one has to be honest a say it doesn't look likely at the moment. Will Fawaz stick or twist? Who knows? Probably not even him. Personally I'm torn. I desperately want Pearce to succeed at Forest and, for all the work he's doing in rebuilding the club, I think he deserves a little patience. Results have to improve though or Fawaz will have a big decision to make, and we all know he's not shy of making them. 

Whatever happens, I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous 2015. Come on you Reds!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Nottingham Forest 1 - 1 Leeds United

When they weren't boring us senseless with their almost endless renditions of 'Marching on Together,' Leeds United's fans were tunelessly informing us that 'now you're gonna believe us, the Football League's corrupt.' Presumably, this was in reference to the League's rather clunky handling of Leeds' owner Massimo Cellino. The Football League may not be corrupt. They are, however, totally remiss in their commitment and obligation to provide a decent set of match officials each week. Yes, you've guessed it, once again Nottingham Forest were denied victory due to appalling refereeing decisions.

Following the 0-0 draw away at Rotherham United - in which Dexter Blackstock had a perfectly fair looking goal chalked off - it was back to the City Ground for the visit of the aforementioned Leeds. They, as Forest, are enduring an inconsistent run of form at the moment, beating Derby County one week before being thumped by Ipswich Town the next. Thus the omens for a wonderful match of free-flowing football weren't good.

As I was later to the ground than usual my first glimpse of the team selection was on the giant scoreboards and, to be honest, I was immediately baffled by it. It took until the second half for me to figure it out, and I'd be lying if I said I liked it. As it transpires, it was a five man defence with Michail Antonio (!) and the returning Jack Hunt as wing-backs. Kelvin Wilson, Danny Fox and Eric Lichaj were the centre-backs and Michael Mancienne was just ahead of them as the spare man (because THAT worked last time we tried it). Robert Tesche and Henri Lansbury completed the midfield with Dexter Blackstock and Matt Fryatt up front, meaning that leading scorer Britt Assombalonga was surprisingly left on the bench.

The first twenty minutes were as poor as I can remember at the City Ground all season. Forest seemed unable to string any passes together and the visitors were only marginally better. Then, out of the blue, it seemed that Forest had made the breakthrough, as an Antonio cross-shot was turned in by the knee of Fryatt. The assistant referee thought otherwise however and raised his flag for offside. From my lower Trent End vantage point I didn't have the angle to see if this was correct, but people in the stand soon said - presumably having been told by others watching at home - that the goal should have stood. Looking at Twitter in the half time interval confirmed that.

Things didn't improve for the Reds as Blackstock leapt to challenge for a high ball, landed, and immediately clutched his knee. Despite struggling on for a few minutes the luckless striker was replaced before half time. If he's suffered another knee injury then you have to worry about the rest of his season, and Forest's, as his absence would leave us very short of options up front.

There was one high point before half time though, as a little Christmas miracle arrived in the form of a Forest goal. Lansbury's corner from the right was headed on by Mancienne and Fryatt was able to put his previous disappointment behind him by turning it in at the far post. A proper poacher's goal this, and one that sent the Reds into the interval ahead.

Alas, parity was restored soon after the break as a Sam Byram run was unceremoniously halted in the area by the yellow-bearded Danny Fox. There was no disputing this decision - it was definitely a foul - and ex-Forest loanee Billy Sharp stepped up and smashed the ball straight down the middle. No subdued celebration from Sharp returning to a former club, though as he was only here for a (somewhat difficult) season, there was no real reason for him to be muted.

The equaliser spurred Forest on and Leeds keeper Marco Silvestri was forced into a couple of saves in quick succession; first from Hunt's rather scuffed effort and then from Antonio's excellent curler. Barely minutes later and the second moment of controversy arose as Fryatt had an effort disallowed for offside for the second time in the match. Perhaps foolishly, the replay was shown on the big screens and, once again, this suggested that Fryatt was level when he tucked the ball home. Cue righteous indignation from the home fans and chants of 'you don't know what you're doing' directed at referee Kevin Friend and his assistants. Cue fourth official informing the referee of his mistake...? Fat chance.

Silvestri was called into action a couple more times, repelling efforts from Tesche and Lansbury, and Karl Darlow was forced to bundle a Billy Sharp volley wide of the post, but the life seemed to have gone out of the game and it was no real surprise that it finished 1-1.

Where to begin analysing this one? After the debacle at home to Brentford I hoped that Stuart Pearce would never pick a five man defence again, and this performance didn't change my mind one bit. Antonio was wasted in having to track back, but still looked our most dangerous player, and Hunt never seemed to get to grips with the role, even though it should be suited to his style of play. Mancienne is a shadow of his centre-half persona in midfield and Lichaj and Fox both looked nervy, with the latter resorting far too often to aimless diagonal punts.

Lansbury wasn't bad and, for once, avoided a booking, whilst Tesche was industrious and found his man more often than not. He was our best player in my opinion. Blackstock offered little, though I feel really bad for him if his injury does turn out to be a serious one. Fryatt was impressive and deserved more than his solitary goal, but Assombalonga seemed out of sorts. Perhaps he was carrying a minor knock, which would have explained his original omission.

However, and as happens far too often, the last word goes to the officials. Yes it must be hard to keep track of things but there are elementary mistakes being made seemingly every game. The linesman nearest my seat seemed incapable of making any decisions for himself, looking to Friend for guidance even when an incident happened right in front of him - apart from when he wrongly disallowed Fryatt's 'goal' in the first half of course.

What's most frustrating is that there seems to be no accountability or responsibility taken after mistakes are made. Managers and players are expected to explain their decisions to the media, but the officials just slink off quietly and are back ruining another match the following week. I realise this sounds like sour grapes and if I'm honest it is, but mistakes like this don't just influence single moments or matches, they can shape whole seasons. Of course in an ideal world Forest would be playing so well that refereeing cock-ups wouldn't matter, but at the moment that's not the case. Inconsistency and ineptitude infuriates the fans but, in the Championship at least, we see it match after match. Is it going to take a drunken fan thumping an official before anything changes? It's certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.

Anyway, the busy Christmas period continues with a difficult looking trip to Middlesbrough on Boxing Day, followed quickly after by the visit of resurgent Birmingham City two days later. If Forest want to have any involvement at the top end of the table then they need to start winning again - and fast. The season isn't over yet of course, but every dropped point makes the gap to the playoffs harder to bridge. Many more games without victory and it could become insurmountable.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Nottingham Forest 1 - 1 Charlton Athletic

Nottingham Forest's draw against Charlton Athletic was, as they say in the business, a contest of more than one but less than three equal portions of 50%. To be honest. Forest's performance in the first of these portions was poor; poor enough that the second half improvement wasn't, in my opinion, enough to say that Forest deserved to win. A draw was probably the fair result, but it still feels like a disappointing one. 

Following the controversial loss to Birmingham City, the Reds were forced into one change due to Britt Assombalonga's suspension. Thomas Ince was recalled to the starting lineup to replace him. Stuart Pearce also chose to make another alteration in the form of Chris Burke dropping to the bench, with Jamie Paterson stepping up.

Sluggish starts seem to have become an unwelcome recurring theme of Forest's season and, with less than ten minutes on the clock, so it proved again. A lovely crossfield ball picked out Jordan Cousins, who in turn found Callum Harriot. His long-range shot crept past Karl Darlow - apparently with the aid of a deflection - to give the Addicks the lead. 

Forest's response came in the form of missed chances from Michail Antonio and Paterson, the latter of which followed a wonderful piece of skill. Ben Osborn saw an effort deflected wide as Forest tried to crank up the pressure, but without ever troubling tangerine-attired visiting stopper Nick Pope. At the other end, the dangerous Igor Vetokele turned sharply and ran at the retreating Forest rearguard before finding Lawrie Wilson out wide. Wilson's cross was met firmly by Vetokele but parried away well by Darlow and the rebound blocked by Eric Lichaj. This save proved important. A two goal deficit may have proved insurmountable. 

Shortly before half time, a foul on Henri Lansbury saw him poleaxed and clutching his back. Though he carried on playing, he seemed to be troubled again after taking a weak shot at goal and it looked like his afternoon was over. This proved to be the case as he was replaced right after the interval by Robert Tesche. 

The new half saw new impetus from Forest as Antonio rampaged down the flank a couple of times and sent over dangerous crosses which narrowly evaded Matt Fryatt. Thomas Ince blazed a great opportunity over the bar and Paterson appeared to be pulled back in the penalty area. However, nothing was given and, unsurprisingly, there was no benevolent fourth official to be seen. The sense of injustice which hung in the air was soon dissipated though. 

A Paterson cross was half-cleared and fell to Tesche outside the penalty area. The German midfielder took a touch to control the ball and slammed an unstoppable shot past the despairing dive of Pope. The subsequent extravagant cartwheel celebration nearly matched the quality of the strike - it really was a corker. 

Unfortunately, before Forest could build up a head of steam, the visitors had a spell of possession which took the sting out of the home side's efforts. Indeed, Darlow was forced into another good stop to deny Harriot a second. Dexter Blackstock replaced Ince and won a great header to find Fryatt, who couldn't quite bring the ball under control. Then Blackstock himself aimed a header toward goal but Pope saved it easily. Tesche had another shot blocked and Fryatt looped another header over and that turned out to be that. 

The second half improvement was impressive and meant we deserved a point, but we need to be starting matches better. In fact I can't remember the last time we scored in the first half. As numerous people said on Twitter, Pearce needs to deliver his half time team talk before we kick off each contest. But, for all the inconsistency we're still just three points off the playoffs. If we can begin to start matches in the manner that we end them, we'll soon start turning these draws into wins. We certainly need to.