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.

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