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. 

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Nottingham Forest 2 - 1 Norwich City

As the fourth official held up his board with the red number four brightly proclaiming the number of minutes of stoppage time to the leaden Trentside sky; I sat mulling over what to write about what seemed like another match without a victory. It would be hard, I thought, to criticise the team for their efforts today, even if we'd only managed a draw. Two minutes, one goal and a maniacal celebration later however, and it was a moot point. The long wait was over. Three points were in the bag.

Having started Wednesday's defeat against Brentford with no recognised strikers, Stuart Pearce this time named two, with Matt Fryatt recovering from a tweaked groin (ooer, matron) to partner Britt Assombalonga up front. The team was set up as a conventional 4-4-2, with Jack Hunt recovering from his midweek injury to start at right back, but Daniel Fox not, and being replaced by Dan Harding at left back. Jamaal Lascelles partnered Michael Mancienne at centre half. The midfield quartet consisted of Michail Antonio, Robert Tesche, Ben Osborn and Tom Ince.

Norwich could afford to leave the likes of Nathan Redmond and Gary Hooper on the bench and still name a lineup that looked, frankly, rather worrying. The striking partnership of Lewis Grabban and Cameron Jerome in particular looked like it would cause the Reds defence some bother.

Considering both teams must have been pretty low on confidence, the opening exchanges were rather exciting, with ambitious attacks at either end. A driving Antonio run saw Russell Martin take a fancy to his shirt and try to remove it, earning a very early booking. At the other end Norwich looked to hit Jerome with long passes behind the Reds defence. An Antonio cross found Ince at the back post, and his fizzing shot, er, fizzed narrowly over the bar. Forest had shown more gumption in the first 15 minutes than they'd managed all match against Brentford, but then got hit by a sucker punch.

Some neat interplay between Martin and Jonny Howson found the Canaries midfielder in space in the penalty area. With no defender around to close him down he had the time and space to plant a low shot past Karl Darlow and give the visitors the lead. The early confidence almost visibly drained from the players, and Norwich proceeded to take a grip on the game, though without really troubling Darlow again. Assombalonga's speculative long-range free kick which flew over the crossbar was as close as Forest came to drawing level and the teams trooped off at half time with the score still 1-0.

The interval saw another Forest fan win the 60" TV on offer in the Golden Goal Challenge, and Jamie Paterson go through the kind of vigorous warmup routine which suggested he'd be starting the second half. And indeed he did, replacing Tom Ince.

Early Norwich pressure in the second half thankfully came to nothing, though Darlow was forced into a decent save to palm Grabban's stinging effort round the post. Forest then started to wrest back control of the game, Fryatt and Osborn in particular buzzing round and harassing their opponents, something that was sorely missing against Brentford. Consequently, Norwich started to look shaky and sit deeper, which further encouraged the home team.

Just after the hour mark, Pearce rolled his last two substitute-shaped dice, replacing Hunt with Eric Lichaj and Harding with Henri Lansbury. The first change seemed logical, as Hunt appeared still appeared to be struggling, but the second was rather baffling and a bit harsh on Harding. I wasn't sure if the plan was to play three at the back - and I'm still not sure now. Lansbury lined up on the left at any rate, with Paterson moving infield.

Chances came and went but still a goal wasn't forthcoming. Both Antonio and Assombalonga headed wide from excellent crosses. City keeper John Ruddy stuck his hand in Lascelles face but wasn't punished, and Lansbury shot over from Ruddy's misplaced kick. Norwich sub Kyle Lafferty got booked for hacking down Mancienne and it looked for a while as if the Reds would again have to finish a match with ten men, but the Reds defender recovered and, soon after, the breakthrough came.

A long ball forward was chased down by the industrious Fryatt, and his low cross was swept home by Assombalonga for his tenth goal of the season. At first glance it looked like a slight miss-hit but the replay made it appear a calm finish. To be honest nobody cared - the relief was palpable.

Norwich immediately won a corner from which nothing came, a Forest counterattack saw Assombalonga hesitate when seemingly clean through and end up having his shot blocked, Tesche was forced to concede a foul as City broke down the other end and Bradley Johnson fired over following a scramble after the resultant free kick. This was breathless stuff and either side looked like they could win.

Lansbury did well to track back and concede a corner and, when it was cleared, Forest broke again. Paterson's pass found Assombalonga just in the Norwich half and instead of bearing down on goal, he picked out Antonio with a super through-ball. The Reds winger surged into the box and, with fantastic composure, slid the ball under Ruddy to give Forest the lead. The ground erupted, and following celebrations which, in my case resembled a kangaroo on acid, whistles began immediately as the home fans implored the referee to end the match. Frantic Norwich pressure saw Alex Tettey line up a last-gasp shot which Lichaj flung himself at to block, and that proved a fitting end to a much, much-needed victory, Wowzers.

This was a vastly improved performance - which admittedly isn't saying much. The defence looked better but still let Norwich play through us a bit too much for my liking. Fortune favoured the brave with Pearce's substitutions today though, and the extra midfield impetus that Paterson and Lansbury supplied ended up making the difference. Osborn had probably his best game for the Reds and Fryatt's constant harrying and running got the reward it deserved with the assist for the first goal. Assombalonga tucked away his chance nicely and his pass to find the again-impressive Antonio was the juiciest of peaches. That Wednesday we signed those two players is looking more and more important every week.

The slightly more seasoned Forest fan may remember Pearce's first game as caretaker manager all those years ago, in which a late Alf-Inge Haaland winner saw the Reds come back to defeat Arsenal. This match reminded me a lot of that one. Now follows another international break and a chance to rest and take stock. I might even watch the Leicester City Appreciation Football League Show tonight.

Nah - probably not.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Nottingham Forest 1 - 3 Brentford

The rather spiffing Seat Pitch are hosting my match review of the Brentford debacle. Though it could just as happily have been hosted in a wheelie bin,

Anyway, if you wish to relive the agony again, knock yourself out here:

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Brent Cross

Anyone foolish enough to be writing off Nottingham Forest's season already should take a look at the League table this morning and note who's top. It's Bournemouth. The same Bournemouth who Forest beat 2-1 on their own turf. The same Bournemouth who, after a great start to the season, hit some patchy form and plummeted down the table. They've now strung together six wins in a row, so if they can do it, why can't we?

Admittedly, at the moment we don't look anything like being capable of that but I'm sure Bournemouth's fans felt the same after slumping to a 3-1 home defeat to Leeds United. My point is, things can change very quickly in the Championship. We've found that out to our cost recently; but if we could manage a few good consecutive results we'd soon be back on the rise.

Our first opportunity to do this comes with the visit of Brentford. Now I'll have to be honest and confess I don't know much about Brentford other than they play at Griffin Park and their nickname is the Bees. I'm guessing that's more to do with the first letter of their name than any resemblance to the insects, as I've never seen any red-and-white-striped bees.

Anyway, they'll be another team that we cannot take lightly. After all, their last result was a comeback victory against already crowned champions and League Cup winners former League leaders Derby; and while I may be being flippant, I grudgingly admit that the sheep won't lose too many this season. Therefore any team that does beat them has to be treated with respect. It also has to be said that Brentford are on the same points as us, so we've absolutely no right to treat this as a guaranteed win.

Quite how Forest will line up against the Bees is anyone's guess. Matt Fryatt (groin) and Kelvin Wilson (family bereavement) could both be back in contention and the 3-0 reverse against Huddersfield would suggest that improvement is needed at both ends of the pitch. The presence of Tom Ince allows more flexibility up front and in midfield as we could, for example, push Michail Antonio further forward to partner Britt Assombalonga and have Ince and Chris Burke on the wings. Or have Ince just behind a front one (or two), That's for Stuart Pearce to decide.

His biggest job however may not be selecting the XI to start, but rather to instil some confidence in those he does deem best for the job. Back-to-back defeats and first-minute goal concessions are never good for the psyche (or the Psycho!), so Pearce and his coaching staff need to build the team back up and remind them that, when they were proudly perched on the top of the table just a few weeks ago, they were there on merit.

This is a test for Pearce, there's no doubt about it. However, in my opinion anyone questioning his suitability for the job needs to have a long, hard think about things. This isn't just sentimentality speaking, it's practicality too. We've all seen first hand that constantly chopping and changing managers is not a recipe for success. We need to pick one man, stick with him, and let him build the team, and indeed the whole club, to get where we want to be. Nobody will be more driven and committed to do that than Pearce. When Forest were first relegated from the Premier League he stuck with us, and ultimately reaped the rewards. As an England player and former captain he could've moved to many clubs, but he showed patience and loyalty. As fans and as a club, we owe him the same.

Friday, 31 October 2014

An Udder Brick In the Wall

These pun-related titles are becoming harder to come up with...

Forest embark on the latest phase of 'Operation Winagame' bolstered by the addition of Tom Ince on loan from Hull City until the end of December. Ince, no stranger to Nottingham after a previous spell on loan at Notts County, has agreed a two month switch and should play some part against Huddersfield Town on Saturday.

The Reds have already travelled to the John Smith's Stadium this season, returning with a 2-0 win in the Coca Cola Cup. However, the Town side that lines up against Forest on Saturday will be a different prospect to the one which was easily overcome that evening. New(ish) manager Chris Powell has inspired something of a turnaround in fortunes and his charges are currently enjoying a six match unbeaten run which includes a notable win away at Wolves. Last time out they came back from two goals away at Ipswich Town - another respectable result.

There are a few familiar faces in the Huddersfield ranks as ex Forest defender Joel Lynch was joined by Radoslaw Majewski on loan in the summer, and more recently by Grant Holt. Though Majewski won't be eligible to play (even if he were getting picked - which he isn't at the moment), the Reds are likely to come up against the not-inconsiderable form of Holt in partnership with Nakhi Wells. A real little and large duo. In width, anyway.

Forest have no new injury worries so the main choices facing Stuart Pearce will be whether to throw Tom Ince straight into the starting line-up, whether Henri Lansbury deserves recalling to the first XI and whether Matt Fryatt should partner Britt Assombalonga up front. The addition of Ince adds some extra flexibility to the midfield and forward ranks and, if he can recapture his Blackpool form for the Reds, this deal could be a great one for both parties.

The respective form of both teams means a repeat of the comfortable Cup cruise is unlikely to be repeated; but hopefully the boost of a new signing and a verbal backside-kicking from Pearce will spur the boys on to a better performance than last time out. Forest have a decent record at Huddersfield; let's hope it continues.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Nottingham Forest 1 - 3 Blackburn Rovers

I try not to use too many clich├ęs when writing these reviews, but this really was the stereotypical game of two halves. From 1-0 up and comfortable to 3-1 down and soundly beaten in 45 minutes, the second half was painful to watch. Frustratingly, yet again Forest weren't undone by any wonderful football. Some sustained pressure led to an equalising goal then everything went to pot. 

After the defeat at Cardiff City, the battling draw against Watford offered some promising signs. The return to the City Ground saw the return of two up front, with Matt Fryatt replacing Ben Osborn. Despite being available following his suspension ending, Henri Lansbury could only claim a place on the bench, as did Eric Lichaj, who was replaced at left-back by Dan Harding. The visitors went with just Jordan Rhodes in attack. Well, they obviously had ten other players too but, you know what I mean. 

The game started with the obligatory dodgy Championship refereeing decisions, as Forest were called offside a couple of times and Ryan Tunnicliffe cleaned out Dan Harding without censure. For the most part, the first half was a scrappy affair, with blocked shots and misplaced passes. Jack Hunt's excellent run was finished with a poor cross straight into Rovers' keeper Jason Steele's hands. Then, following a fast break, Michail Antonio's cross went right behind Britt Assombalonga.

Not long afterwards the breakthrough came. The lively Assombalonga ran and hit a lovely curling shot with the outside of his right foot. It beat Steele and rebounded off the post, hit Fryatt on the knee and flew in. Proper striker's goal. The lead could've been doubled before the interval as Assombalonga went close a couple more times following good runs and shots. There was to be no further scoring though and the teams left the field with Forest ahead and no hint of what was to come. 

The second half saw an early interruption in play as Markus Olsson indulged in a comedy pratfall while chasing a through ball and required a few minutes' treatment. Rovers started to dominate possession and, perhaps in respose, Stuart Pearce replaced Fryatt with Henri Lansbury. This change failed to stem the tide though and, after the Reds failed to clear a corner, the ball fell to Alex Baptiste who lashed home the leveller. 

Lansbury then went close twice, first seeing his shot blocked by the feet of Steele, then seeing a curling effort cannon back off an upright. The game still seemed there for the taking until David Vaughan - who had hitherto been impressive - gave away the ball. Rovers broke down the right and a pinpoint centre found the noggin of substitute Rudy Gestede who firmly headed the visitors into the lead. Less than two minutes later things got worse. A long punt upfield got the usually exemplary Michael Mancienne into bother and he misjudged the bounce. Jordan Rhodes didn't though and he picked it up, cut wide and steered it into the corner for 3-1. And that was that. 

Well, pretty much. Jamie Paterson's introduction as sub didn't really help as he got into good positions but failed to pick out red shirts, which was pretty much the story of the match. Forest got into lots of threatening situations but the final ball was mostly lacking. In contrast, Blackburn's crossing caused problems that Forest ultimately couldn't answer. Chris Burke's wild slash wide when well placed was a fitting end to proceedings. 

I'm not sure how to sum this match up, just as I'm not sure where it went wrong. We certainly didn't make the best of good situations and probably sat too deep when ahead. We seemed to lack a bit of urgency until Rovers drew level and, as a result, the momentum swung so far that we couldn't wrest it back. 

Ending on a positive note, as I always try to, David Vaughan produced a polished performance and despite this lamentable run of form we're still only four points off the top and it's not November yet. A loan signing or two would boost the numbers and perhaps the morale and hopefully there'll be some movement on that front before the next match. All things, good or bad, have to come to an end. This run will be no exception.