Monday, 30 September 2013

Nottingham Forest 1 - 0 Derby County

The wait was over. The arguments about ticket allocations had run their course. In glorious sunshine, the latest instalment of the East Midlands Derby kicked off to a thunderous rendition of 'Mull of Kintyre.' After all the hype, was there any chance the game could actually live up to it? Of course not.

Local derbies are never the prettiest affairs, often resulting in overuse of the Big Book of Football Clich├ęs. Form goes out of the window. You have to win the right to play. And so on. This one was no different. Pitting a good home record against an equally impressive away one, somebody's form was likely to go out of the window. Luckily, this time it wasn't ours.

I have to admit though that upon first seeing Forest's starting line-up I wasn't confident. Collins and Moussi? Thinking about it now I guess it made sense, having players who are natural to their positions rather than 'square pegs in round holes.' At the time though it felt like a risky team to have picked.

The first few minutes of the game were nip and tuck, with no real fluidity from either side. Then, Andy Reid threaded a lovely pass through to Radoslaw Majeski whose rasping effort forced the excellent Lee Grant to tip wide. Shortly afterwards Guy Moussi gave the ball away, and was then substituted due to injury, with Dan Harding coming on at left back and Chris Cohen moving into midfield. I remarked at the time that it might be a blessing in disguise. It didn't quite pan out like that though.

For, after the substitution, Derby dominated possession. They did so, however, without ever looking really threatening. Craig Bryson (I think) sent a long-range effort just wide, Jonny Russell failed to connect with a header from a decent cross and Will Hughes fell over a lot, but it was never really seat-of-the-pants stuff for the Forest defence. I vaguely remember an excellent sliding tackle from the colossal Jack Hobbs though.

About five minutes before half time, Henri Lansbury won the ball just outside the Forest penalty area and galloped forward. Following a couple of blocked Jamie Mackie efforts the ball broke to Eric Lichaj who saw a curling drive deflected just over. From the resultant corner, Reid's flat, pacey delivery picked out Jack Hobbs far better than any of Derby's defenders managed, and he emphatically nodded Forest into the lead. Delirium ensued and almost intensified before the break as Reid skinned Derby right-back Adam Smith and crossed for Mackie to shoot. Grant was quickly off his line to block though and the half finished 1-0, a scoreline that was a bit harsh on the visitors.

The second half followed a similar pattern to the first, but with Derby chasing the game it allowed Forest to create more. Another brilliant Reid cross was surprisingly headed wide by Darius Henderson - it seemed the kind of chance that the Forest frontman should have gobbled up. Derby continued to huff and puff but the Forest house never looked in danger of being blown down.

Djamel Abdoun replaced Majewski and immediately gave away a free kick just outside the area after upending a Derby attacker. Hughes' resultant shot was easily grasped by Karl Darlow. I think that was the longest that Hughes managed to stay upright all afternoon.

The next action of note saw Cohen gain possession in the Forest half and run right at the Derby defence, forcing Gollum Richard Keogh to bring him down in the penalty box. Despite Keogh's protestations, which may or may not have included him calling inept referee Simon Hooper a 'tricksy little Hobbit,' a penalty was awarded and Keogh was sent off for his second bookable offence. (The first having been a dangerous bite on Samwise Gamgee foul on Majewski).

Up stepped Big Darius to take the spot kick but his low effort was brilliantly saved by Grant. It wasn't a bad penalty in fairness and one has to applaud the goalkeeper. This turn of events was always likely to spur Derby on and indeed it did, but again the expected siege never really materialised. Derby substitute Conor Sammon's weak effort which was easily saved by Darlow was the closest they came; whilst the once-again-excellent Reid could've capped a great display late on when his shot was repelled by Grant. There would be no further scoring however and, following an inordinately long five minutes of stoppage time, the whistle was blown and the day was won.

Special mention has to go to Collins and Hobbs. Despite my misgivings, the former had an excellent game whilst Hobbs was quite simply imperious, winning everything in the air, almost everything on the ground and, of course, popping up with the goal. Once again I was impressed by Abdoun. In a match that was never made for him he didn't get much chance going forward, but he never shirked his defensive duties and made a couple of decent tackles and clearances.

This wasn't a dominant or free-flowing Forest performance but, this time, it didn't need to be. The result was what we all wanted and that's what we got. And so, to Charlton.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Nottingham Forest 2 - 2 Middlesbrough

Nottingham Forest came from two goals down against Middlesbrough to preserve their unbeaten record at the City Ground, but it was the performance of referee Phil Dowd that somewhat overshadowed an entertaining night's football.

Dowd awarded one penalty and brandished one red card but probably should have done both again, as well as making a string of decisions that incensed the home fans. Blame cannot be laid solely at his door though - his linesmen helped him achieve his level of incompetence with a similarly inept display.

Forest made one change from Saturday's win against Barnsley with Djamel Abdoun getting his first league start at the expense of Guy Moussi, though the 18 man squad remained the same. The visitors included a number of players with various tenuous Forest connections: summer target Grant Leadbitter lined up in midfield alongside Albert Adomah, who had been linked with Forest some years ago. George Friend at left back - in my opinion Boro's best player on the night - had also been linked with Forest a couple of seasons ago, whilst winger Mustapha Carayol - also rumoured to be interesting Forest this summer - was on the bench.

Middlesbrough started brightly and had the better of the early play before Kelvin Wilson was forced off with a back injury. Greg Halford took his place at centre-half but the defence had looked shaky even before that, possibly due to the midfield containing all creative players but no destroyers.

It was Halford that dived into a challenge and allowed Adomah to skip past him and set up Kei Kamara for Boro's first goal. From my position in the Trent End I wasn't able to see if Forest's claims for a penalty seconds before were justified or not: with Jonathan Woodgate suspected of handling the ball at the other end.

There was no doubt about the penalty Forest were awarded however, as Rhys Williams clumsily felled Radoslaw Majewski in the 18 yard box. Reid stepped up to take the spot kick - I was surprised Simon Cox didn't claim it - but Boro goalkeeper Jason Steele defied Forest's number 11 with a great save low to his left. Another brouhaha erupted after this - again I couldn't see why - as Dowd seemed already to have lost control. In the end though Forest went in at the break a goal down.

The Reds started the second half better but were stunned when a quick counter-attack saw Leadbitter feed Friend down the left hand side, and the left-back's unstoppable effort flew past Karl Darlow to give Middlesbrough a two goal lead. At the time they probably deserved it. Their defence was closing down quickly, blocking shots and crosses and denying our creative players time and space; while our back four was doing the opposite, repeatedly allowing their forwards to run at them, possibly due to the lack of protection from midfield.

This second goal forced Billy Davies into quickly and riskily using his last two substitutes, bringing on Darius Henderson and Matt Derbyshire to replace Majewski and Cox. Still, fortune favours the brave and it was Derbyshire who brought Forest back into the game, firmly heading home Reid's centre via a deflection off the post.

Poor refereeing does not favour the brave however. Minutes after Derbyshire's goal, a ricochet fell to Henderson in the penalty area and he appeared to skip past Steele before stumbling with the goal at his mercy. I have to admit that at the time I couldn't tell whether Steele had made contact or not. It seems unlikely that Henderson would have dived with an open goal ahead of him though. Dowd wasn't well placed being slightly behind the play, but his linesman should've been able to advise him. In any event, rather than granting Forest a second penalty and red-carding Steele, Dowd booked Henderson for simulation and gave Boro the free kick.

This injustice seemed to spur Forest on and Middlesbrough's previously solid defence crumbled under the constant pressure. A deep cross into the box wasn't cleared and fell to Eric Lichaj, who drove low across the area for Henderson to crash home the leveller. Thankfully he kept his shirt firmly on this time.

Forest applied more pressure but couldn't find a winner, and there was still time for Dowd to have the last word, sending off Middlesbrough substitute Emmanuel Ledesma for a crude challenge from behind on Henri Lansbury. It was a bad challenge but I don't even think Dowd got that right - a yellow card would probably have sufficed.

The draw was probably a fair result. Boro looked very good for periods of the match but couldn't withstand the late Forest onslaught. As for the Reds: this game highlighted the need for balance in the midfield. With nobody to break up Boro's attacks they were able to run at our back four far too often. The early loss of Wilson and a rare off day for Andy Reid didn't help matters. I'd like to see Gonzalo Jara be given a chance in the defensive midfield role. I'd also like to see Henderson start against Doncaster. His two late goals, link-up play and the mayhem he causes in opposition defences warrants it.

The last word must go to Abdoun though. From the moment an extravagant double-dragback turn left a Boro player in his wake, it was clear that he was up for the game. He proved a constant menace, always wanting the ball and running at defenders. Indeed at times he appeared to be thinking too quickly for his team-mates, with clever flicks and passes going unanticipated by his colleagues. On this showing he could cause havoc for defenders in the Championship.

Davies still has a conundrum to solve in the Forest midfield, and hopefully he'll strike the right balance for the next game at Doncaster away and have the team firing on all cylinders for the small matter of Derby on September 28th.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Nottingham Forest vs. The Press - In Defence of the Club

No Nottingham Forest fan with an internet connection can fail to have seen the current disagreement between the club and certain sections of the press being played out in all its tawdry detail over the last few days.

Forest fans' opinions on this differ wildly; from the 'I only care about results' to the 'This is embarrassing and Jim Price must be burned at the stake.' I intentionally use Price's name in this as the assumption seems to be that he, along with Manager Billy Davies, is behind it all; the premise being that the duo are attempting to isolate any members of the media who reported unfavourably about them during Davies's previous tenure as Manager.

There may be an element of truth in this, but to suggest it's all Price's evil machinations is, in my opinion, foolish. Certainly any decisions will have to be authorised by Forest's Owner and Chairman Fawaz al Hasawi. However, because of Price's association with the collapsed Scottish law firm Ross Harper, he is seen by some as the Devil Incarnate, whose nefarious plotting will drag Forest to the precipice of doom. Again, I believe this is inaccurate.

Let us cast our minds back to January 2013 - arguably the lowest point in Fawaz's ownership so far. Broadly popular Manager Sean O' Driscoll had just been sacked and replaced with, well, the not-quite-so-popular Alex McLeish. Results were inconsistent at best. Then, out of the blue, CEO Mark Arthur, Chief Scout Keith Burt and club Ambassador and former Manager and Chairman Frank Clark were unceremoniously sacked with no official explanation. Finance Director John Pelling followed soon after.

Whilst some fans were happy at Arthur's dismissal as - for them - he had long been a figure of derision, there was general indifference at Burt's sacking and widespread outrage at Clark's. What was going on?

Then the press reports and rumours started. Fawaz didn't know what he was doing. He was ruining this once great club. He was as bad as the Venkys and wanted to pick the team himself. Clark - it was reported - had been banned from attending matches at the City Ground. Disgraceful treatment of one who had given so much to the club.

Certain reporters working for national broadcasting organisations were vocal in their distrust, claiming to have heard all kinds of terrible stories from 'sources' behind the scenes at the club. Yet when asked what these stories were, they could not elaborate. The press, some of whom had been publishing erroneous reports since nearly day one of Fawaz's reign, were having a field day.

It was not long after this that rumours of why the sackings had taken place started to circulate among Forest fans. Rumours that, if ever proved true, would fully vindicate Fawaz's actions. These rumours persist even now. If Forest fans were discussing them then surely the well-connected members of the press must have heard them too? Yet no mention of these rumours was ever made; either officially in the press or unofficially by reporters in a personal capacity. Why was that? Legal reasons perhaps? Quite possibly. In the meantime, Clark had been invited back to attend matches again and, apparently, had received a formal apology. I can't recall that being mentioned in the press.

The re-appointment of Bily Davies, the subsequent upturn in results and performances and the ultimately unsuccessful run at the Playoffs all served to silence the critics for a while. But there was always the feeling that, once results hit a downturn, the knives would be out again.

I'm a Forest fan. I want my club to be talked about in glowing terms all round the country and, I will be honest, this current press empasse makes me uncomfortable. But I'd rather us be praised for our results and performances than anything else. What I'm trying to say is that, while this 'media blackout,' 'selective press exclusion' or whatever you want to call it may seem petty to some, I believe it is not without some justification.

It's not just Billy Davies who was burned by the press before. Fawaz was too and it's understandable that he would at best be wary of them and wish to regain some element of control over what is reported about him and his club. I hope the dispute can be settled amicably but, until such time arises, my support is 100% behind Nottingham Forest Football Club, and all those who are working to make it a success.