Friday, 29 August 2014

Sheffield Steel

The Sheffield Wednesday team that lines up against Nottingham Forest on Saturday will be a far different proposition to the one which Forest defeated 1-0 in last season's equivalent match at Hillsborough. But so, for that matter, will the Forest side.

Both teams have made a strong start to the season and are currently unbeaten in the League and Capital One Cup - which is probably more than either would've expected at this stage. This fixture used to be a staple of the top-flight calendar, a usually entertaining match between two established clubs. However, I mean no disrespect to Wednesday when I say that it's some time since they've been challenging for a return to those lofty heights.

For Forest's part; given that they have a new manager and a very different squad, it was by no means certain that they'd start so well. But the new signings have settled in quickly and the team has definitely hit the ground running, and it'll need to maintain this form to have a chance of matching last season's result in South Yorkshire.

Wednesday striker Atdhe Nuhiu looks to be a real threat, and whichever central defenders line up in red tomorrow, they'll have to be on their mettle. Their recent win at Middlesbrough was as eye-catching a result as Forest's was at Bournemouth. Still, Forest aren't without weapons of their own and, should he be fit, the Owls will need to be wary of their former winger Michail Antonio, who has already netted four times for the Reds since joining earlier in August. Even if Antonio doesn't make the line-up tomorrow, Forest look to have plenty of other attacking options to trouble the home defence.

Reaching the first international break unbeaten - and ideally still top of the League - would represent a fantastic start to the season for Forest. I'm certain that Stuart Pearce will ensure that no complacency or over-confidence sets into the team. If they can perform up to their recent levels then it could be another good day for the Reds.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Spurred to Succeed

That a Capital One Cup 3rd round tie away at Tottenham Hotspur has elicited such interest amongst Nottingham Forest fans shows how long it is since the Reds were dining from English football's top table. After all; it's within the lifetime of many Forest fans - myself included - that Spurs were just another top-flight rival, one who Forest - FA Cup Final aside - enjoyed a pretty good record against. However, as I write this Forest and Spurs are separated by some 20 positions in the footballing ladder, sitting proudly atop the Championship and Premier League respectively.

Some of our more recent matches against Spurs have proved memorable for various reasons, so here's three of the biggest:

FA Cup Final (Wembley Stadium - May 18th 1991): Nottingham Forest 1 - 2 Tottenham Hotspur (AET) 

There's a school of thought to say that, if it weren't for Cup Final referee Roger Milford's lenience toward Spurs maverick Paul Gascoigne, Nottingham Forest might not have endured the wilderness period that they have done. If Milford had sent Gascoigne off for his two horrendous challenges - on first Garry Parker then Gary Charles - Spurs would've been down to 10 men and Forest might have won. Brian Clough, having finally captured the one trophy to elude him, might have retired and left Forest on a high, rather than the devastating, relegated low which he eventually departed to. That's joining a LOT of dots however, and we'll never know what might have happened.

What did happen though was a heartbreaking defeat in extra time, courtesy of an own goal by Des Walker. This after Spurs' midfielder Paul Stewart had equalised a brilliant Stuart Pearce free-kick - awarded after the second of Gascoigne's fouls, the same foul which was to put Gascoigne out of the game for the better part of a year. One can argue that, if Milford had booked Gascoigne for his first challenge, he might have done him a favour as well as Forest. Once again we'll never know.

Premier League (White Hart Lane - September 24th 1994): Tottenham Hotspur 1 - 4 Nottingham Forest

Following the aforementioned relegation, Forest were to spend just one season out of the Premier League before making a triumphant return by finishing 2nd in the Championship. After a strong start to their campaign, Forest were to face a stiff test away to Spurs. Or so it seemed on paper. It didn't quite turn out like that as a Spurs team boasting a forward line of German superstar Jurgen Klinsmann and ex-Forest man Teddy Sheringham were put to the sword by a sensational Forest display, and in particular their own striking partnership of Stan Collymore and new Dutch signing Bryan Roy.

Though Collymore didn't net that day, he set up the first goal for the industrious Steve Stone, who was a constant menace to Spurs throughout the match. Bryan Roy scored twice himself before a wonderfully audacious shot by Norwegian maestro Lars Bohinen put the cherry on top of a delicious cake of a performance near full time. Forest would finish the season in 3rd - still the equal highest finish by a team promoted to the Premier League.

FA Cup Round 5 (City Ground - February 19th 1996): Match Abandoned; rearranged match (City Ground - February 28th 1996): Nottingham Forest 2 - 2 Tottenham Hotspur; replay (White Hart Lane - March 9th 1996): Tottenham Hotspur 1 - 1 Nottingham Forest (AET, Forest won 3-1 on penalties)

In all my years supporting Forest, I have never known weather conditions like those which forced our FA Cup tie against Spurs in 1996 to be abandoned. What started as a light dusting of snow turned into a blizzard so severe that the match didn't even reach half time. The journey home from the City Ground to my mum's house, which usually took around half an hour, took nearly six times as long as my poor brother could only crawl along the snow-clogged roads in his Ford Sierra. We were lucky though, as many abandoned vehicles littered the streets where their drivers had left them, giving up the ghost.

The rearranged match nine days later was a cracker, with two sublime Ian Woan free-kicks cancelling out Tottenham goals by Chris Armstrong. Then the replay saw the spoils shared again; a 1-1 draw this time with Bryan Roy and Teddy Sheringham the Forest and Spurs scorers respectively. This resulted in a penalty shootout which Forest won 3-1, thanks mostly to three of the best penalty saves I've ever seen, by Forest keeper Mark Crossley. Annoyingly and typically though, Forest were to bow out in the next round, beaten 1-0 by Aston Villa with another ex-Red Franz Carr scoring the only goal.

There are many more fascinating historic matches between the teams, such as the bomb-scare League Cup semi-final in 1992, notable for a thumping Roy Keane header in the rain; and the 2-2 League draw at the City Ground which saw Jason Lee turning the game as substitute. Hopefully the forthcoming game will give fans of both clubs another treat. And, even more hopefully, we'll be playing Spurs on a more regular basis in the Premier League again soon. A man can dream...

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Nottingham Forest 4 - 0 Reading

Besides the obvious plus point of the result, there were three real positives that I took out of Nottingham Forest's latest victory - the 4-0 drubbing of Reading. The first was that we still look like we can play a lot better, as despite the result Reading enjoyed a lot of the ball. The second was that the team we fielded still wasn't our strongest by some way. The third.....I'll come to that later.

Following Tuesday's smash-and-grab win away at Bournemouth the Reds were back on Trentside, and forced into a change as a knock to rumoured Reading transfer target Jack Hobbs meant a recall for Dan Harding at left back, with Danny Fox moving to the centre of defence. Jack Hunt was recalled at right back and Michail Antonio once again lined up on the left side of midfield. Despite having played in a training match midweek, none of Henri Lansbury, Jamaal Lascelles, David Vaughan or Kelvin Wilson were deemed ready for a place on the bench, though new signing Robert Tesche was named amongst the substitutes. Reading included Forest old boys Chris Gunter and Simon Cox as expected.

The opening exchanges were quiet to be honest, with both sides passing well enough but not creating any clear chances. Then Forest started to get on top and Reading keeper Adam Federici saved bravely at the feet of first Britt Assombalonga then Andy Reid. The increased pressure eventually told when Assombalonga's great hold-up play found Chris Burke on the right. His pinpoint cross was headed in - via the underside of the crossbar - by Michail Antonio for his second goal of the season. Antonio outjumped Gunter at the far a certain blogger may have suggested would happen earlier in the week...

To Reading's credit however they finished the half strongly, with Simon Cox dragging a decent chance well wide. This was after he'd been subjected to the harsh, but amusing chant of 'He's Simon Cox, he's always offside' by the Lower Bridgford End. Anyway, despite their pressure Reading couldn't muster an equaliser and Forest went into half time a goal to the good, but not looking totally comfortable.

They were a lot more secure just two minutes into the second half though. More good play from Assombalonga found Hunt wide on the right and another great cross was converted by Antonio for his and Forest's second. And it wasn't much longer before they netted again, as Antonio turned provider this time to drop yet another good centre onto the head of the tireless Matt Fryatt who nodded home comfortably.

This settled the match as a contest and there was only ever going to be more goals for the home team. Assombalonga blazed over when well positioned but soon after got the goal that his all-round play had deserved when he prodded home after an old-fashioned goalmouth scramble following a corner. The four goal cushion, and the unseasonal hail-and-rain storm which broke out mid-half, meant Forest somewhat took their foot off the gas, though Eric Lichaj - who had replaced Dan Harding at half time - still forced Federici into another good save. At the other end a Nick Blackman shot, which was well smothered by Karl Darlow, was as good as it got for the visitors, and the game ended in rain and gloom as a comfortable home win.

The aforementioned Darlow save was the only one I can remember him making as he enjoyed another quiet afternoon. Jack Hunt was once again excellent as was Michael Mancienne, and Dan Harding had a strong first half before being replaced, possibly due to injury. Fox was solid though one very casual pass to give away possession in the second half may earn him a Pearce tongue-lashing.

Chris Cohen was more influential in central midfield than Andy Reid and Burke was again impressive down the right. The highest praise must be reserved for the three goalscorers however. Antonio had a really good game, even though he still looks at times like he has no idea what he's doing. His two goals were well taken and his cross for Fryatt's was a proverbial peach. He wins a lot in the air and tracked back well to support his full back today.

Assombalonga and Fryatt look to have the making of a really good partnership. As well as their goals they both work so hard for the team; closing down defenders, getting back to challenge and producing clearing headers. If they both stay fit for most of the season they're both going to get a decent amount of goals. Opposing defences certainly won't relish playing against them.

Remember my third cause for optimism? It's that, although we have the same amount of points as this time last season, in the comparative matches against the same teams we're some nine points better off. Games we lost last time round we've won this season. If we keep that kind of sequence up then we'll be doing OK.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Reading Between the Lines

Well, looking back at my preview of the Bournemouth match, I was near enough spot-on. Both Britt Assombalonga and Callum Wilson found the net, Bournemouth did indeed concede their first goal of the season but also managed to score themselves. Indeed the only thing I got wrong was the result - but from a Forest perspective I'm glad I did.

After the first half pummelling and going behind early on in the second half though, an away win seemed very unlikely. But this Stuart Pearce-built Forest side is showing signs of character and resilience and managed to come back and deliver the kind of smash-and-grab victory that other sides did to us all too often last season. It's also to Pearce's great credit that he recognised where his initial team selection had gone wrong and rectified it with enough time left for his changes to make a difference.

So next up it's back to the City Ground to face Reading, a team containing no less than four ex-Forest players. Presumably Jamie Mackie won't be eligible to line up against the Reds and I believe that Garath McCleary is still recovering from injury, but that will still leave Chris Gunter and Simon Cox to face their former employees on the banks of the Trent.

How should Forest line up? Four of Forest's remaining injured players: Henri Lansbury, Jamaal Lascelles, David Vaughan and Kelvin Wilson, played either part or all of a behind-closed-doors match against the Nike Academy on Thursday. Even so, it's probably too early for any of them to start, though a place on the bench for one or more is not out of the question. It's also unlikely that newest signing Robert Tesche will play any part.

Bearing all that in mind, my preference would be the following line-up:





Subs: (assuming all injured players cannot make the bench) De Vries, Lichaj, Fox, Osborn, Paterson, McLaughlin, Veldwijk

Harding was unlucky to be dropped against Bournemouth and, given Fox's shaky performance, deserves another chance. The extra attacking power of Hunt gives him the edge over Lichaj. Though Antonio was subbed at half-time on Tuesday I'd start him as his pace and aerial power can trouble Gunter, who isn't the best in the air. The rest of the team pretty much picks itself right now.

This won't be an easy match, their just aren't any in the Championship. However, Forest's tails must be up right now and, if they play to the best of their abilities, there's no reason they can't extend their confident start to the season.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Bourne Supremacy?

Make no mistake, tonight's game away at AFC Bournemouth will be Forest's biggest test of the season so far. Eddie Howe's south-coast outfit currently sit proudly atop the Championship table having won both their league matches so far and without yet having conceded a goal. They also have recent history on their side, after they drubbed Forest 4-1 towards the end of last season.

However, the Forest which lined up that day is a very different proposition to the one that drew 2-2 away at Bolton on Saturday to maintain their own unbeaten start to the season, and Bournemouth are likely to face a far stiffer test of their credentials than they did last time out. Indeed it looks likely that - from the team which surrendered so meekly to Bournemouth previously - only left-back Dan Harding will line-up this time round.

This match also pits two of last season's best League One marksmen against each other, with Forest's Britt Assombalonga facing off against the Cherries' Callum Wilson. Both players enjoyed outstanding campaigns last term, performances which ultimately sealed big money moves to Forest and Bournemouth respectively. Each player has already bagged two league goals this season and it'll be fascinating to see who, if either, comes out on top tonight.

The game will also see Forest line up against former keeper Lee Camp, who will no doubt be keen to impress, whilst Bournemouth striker Yann Kermogant is another one to watch out for. The Forest starting XI is likely to be similar to the one which played against Bolton, with the suspended Michael Mancienne's return probably being the only change. He may replace Danny Fox at the centre of defence, or possibly Jack Hobbs if the latter is feeling the pace following his return from a long-term injury.

This should be a cracking match between two of the Championship's better outfits. I can see Forest being the first team to breach Bournemouth's defence this season, but I can also see the home side netting as well so I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up as an entertaining score draw. As a Forest fan, I'd be reasonably happy with that.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Nottingham Forest 2 - 0 Blackpool

A win, a clean sheet, two goals from d├ębutantes, no new injuries, a captain returning as a hero, a hero returning as captain. Yes, there were certainly a lot of positives to take from Stuart Pearce's first match back as Nottingham Forest manager.

It wasn't perfect however, and I'm sure Pearce himself would be the first to acknowledge that there's a lot of work to be done yet. Still, in having six players making their Forest d├ębuts and with a number of key players still returning to fitness, it's clear that Forest are a work in progress. This was an encouraging start though.

I have to admit, Pearce's first competitive Forest team selection took me somewhat by surprise. It was certainly attacking, but the number of 'square pegs in round holes' evoked memories of not-too-distant times, as Danny Fox lined up in the centre of defence and Andy Reid in the centre of midfield. Even the returning Chris Cohen's selection in midfield raised an eyebrow as his most recent matches had been at left back, but with both Henri Lansbury and David Vaughan missing through injury it probably made sense.

As mentioned before, six of Forest's summer acquisitions made their first starts in the Garibaldi: Jack Hunt and Michael Mancienne taking their places in defence, Michael Antonio and Chris Burke in midfield supporting the striking partnership of Matt Fryatt (sorry, I refuse to call him 'Matty') and new club record signing Britt Assombalonga. Karl Darlow and Dan Harding completed the XI.

In a gesture typical of the man, Stuart Pearce took his place on the bench after the strains of Mull of Kintyre had finished reverberating around a packed and sun-drenched City Ground, presumably not wanting to take the focus off the players. The booming chant of 'Psycho' stood the hairs on end and following a clap and salute from the boss, the game was on.

To be quite honest, the opening exchanges were a bit flat. Blackpool were pretty solid for a team who'd been thrown together amid turmoil and at short notice, and Nathan Delfouneso could've easily given them the lead after missing a far post header. An excellent Burke cross was headed over by Antonio and a strong run from Assombalonga led to him being outnumbered by the visitors' defence before Forest finally made the breakthrough.

Andy Reid's long-range shot beat Blackpool keeper Joe Lewis and cannoned off the post before falling nicely for Antonio to sweep home the rebound and put Forest into the lead. A roar of delight and a little relief resounded round the stadium and, five minutes later, it was repeated. A lovely switch pass from Fryatt found Hunt out on the right. He played in Burke who cut inside and curled a wonderful shot past Lewis with his left foot. Forest dominated the rest of the half and coasted to the interval 2-0 up.

Aside from an opening flurry where both Forest strikers went close, the second half was a bit of a damp squib. Blackpool belied their shambolic preparations by enjoying a lot of possession though they never really troubled Darlow. Andrea Orlandi's curling effort which flew just wide was as good as it got. Forest didn't test Lewis either though and the final result of 2-0 was a fair reflection of the match. So, how did this new-look Forest perform?

Darlow put aside what must have been a difficult week and gave an assured performance between the posts, though in truth he could've been reading a Geordie phrasebook in readiness for his move, so little did he have to do. The back four will be tested much more than this in the future but they were very good. Hunt got forward really well down the right and, though Harding still stopped and turned back a few times when advancing, his defensive performance was exemplary. Pearce's influence rubbing off already? Fox didn't quite look like he was born to play centre-half but neither did he look totally out of place, whilst Mancienne was excellent. Not the tallest, he won most things in the air and his pace and positioning will be a great asset this season. Both he and Fox played some effective raking passes from the back too.

Antonio looks raw and exciting and I can imagine he's going to thrill and frustrate in almost equal measure this season, but he took his goal well. As did Burke who showed us all the quality that he used to torment us with before he signed. Though in an unfamiliar role, Reid did OK and Cohen showed us all what we've been missing with an energetic display. Getting another 85 minutes under his belt is a massive bonus.

Fryatt and Assombalonga both looked lively with the latter often dropping deeper to join in with the play. His quality is evident though and the signings of both he and Burke on free transfers could prove to be inspired. Assombalonga looks the type of player we've been crying out for for years. Pacey and direct, he's going to be a handful for defences all season. One turn, run and shot in particular showed what he can do. It was also great to see Eric Lichaj back on the pitch, though with Hunt's performance he may have to wait a while for his chance back in the team.

With the likes of Jack Hobbs, Kelvin Wilson, David Vaughan and - should he reject the Premier League overtures of Burnley - Henri Lansbury all to return, the squad looks strong, deep and varied. If all the players are ever all fit at the same time, Pearce is going to have some serious selection headaches to contend with.

That's all for the future though. This day was about the return of a genuine Forest legend and the team getting off to a strong start. Pearce is back and the team is back winning - we couldn't have asked for much more than that.

Monday, 4 August 2014

To Sell or Not To Sell?

Online and social media is currently abuzz with rumours that promising Nottingham Forest duo Karl Darlow and Jamaal Lascelles are to be sold to Premier League Newcastle United and loaned back to Forest for the season. Coming on the back of Stuart Pearce's recent assertion that Forest don't need to sell and our best assets will be staying with the club, this seems like a real kick in the teeth. But, would it really be the end of the world?

So, let's look at the facts. Actually, we can't do that because we don't currently have any - and that's important to remember. So, instead, let's look at the situation:

- Both Darlow and Lascelles will be sold to Newcastle and loaned back for the season. This looks like it's happening now and, even as I type this, it's being reported that they're in the North East for medicals. So, we get some form of payment now but retain the services of both players for the season. Not too bad.

- But the alleged bid for Lascelles is £3m (not sure about Darlow). Admittedly that isn't a huge amount when you look at Callum Chambers going for £16m. However, like it or not, we're a Championship club and Lascelles is still very inexperienced. I'd want more than £3m for sure. The fees will doubtless be undisclosed anyway.

- We don't need the money, we're getting £500m from Kuwait for selling the naming rights to the City Ground! Any sensible Forest fans will realise that - regardless of what the Kuwaiti journalist said - there's not a chance in Hell that Forest will be getting half a billion pounds for renaming the ground as the Kuwait City Ground Stadium. The renaming might happen and we might still get a decent fee for it - but it won't be that much.

- We shouldn't sell our best assets. No, in an ideal world we shouldn't. But in an ideal world, Forest wouldn't have been out of the Premier League for over 15 years.

- Pearce has said we won't sell. Not strictly true. He's said that we'll only sell if the deal is right for the club. If we receive a decent transfer fee for both players, are allowed to loan them back for the season and can spend the money on strengthening areas of the team where we need strengthening - such as midfield and up front - then it's possible this could work out as right for the club.

We have cover at both goalkeeper and centre half. Dorus De Vries and Dimitar Evtimov can do a job in the Championship in goal and, with Jack Hobbs on his way back to fitness, Michael Mancienne, Louis Laing, Roger Riera, Kelvin Wilson (when fit) and, at a push, Danny Collins, Danny Fox and Greg Halford all able to play centre half, we're not short of options. And as both players will remain with Forest for the season we'll have time to arrange replacements if needed.

Let me be clear: I'd much rather that Forest keep hold of two players who look to have all the potential to go on and have decent careers in the game but, if we don't, it's not the end of the world. Ranting, moaning and tweeting the chairman and players won't change anything, so please don't bother. The club is bigger than any one player so wait and see what this means for the club.