Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Sublime to the Ridiculous

If you're a Nottingham Forest fan, or indeed if you just live in Nottingham, it's highly likely that you'll be aware of I Believe in Miracles; Johnny Owen's recent film. Charting the rise of Forest under Brian Clough - later joined by Peter Taylor - from second-tier mid-table obscurity to Champions of Europe, the film recently enjoyed its World Premiere at the City Ground and, since general release, has been garnering positive reviews.

Having finally been able to see IBIM my first feeling, after the film-long smile had vanished from my face, was envy. Being born in 1973 I was just a bit too young to fully appreciate what that Forest team accomplished. Indeed my first memory of them was being taken to one of the European Cup parades - the second one I think - by an auntie and uncle. My first taste of watching Forest play live wouldn't come until a few years later. I realise that compared to some, younger, Forest fans I've still been quite lucky with what I've seen the Reds do first hand: winning Wembley cup finals, a third-place Premier League finish and an unlikely UEFA Cup run are not to be sniffed at. But you're talking about winning arguably the world's pre-eminent club football competition here. Twice. In a row.

After the envy came the wonder. I hadn't really realised just how good a player John Robertson became, but the film really brought this to life. Watching him jink past opponent after opponent, whip in inviting crosses and score the odd goal was an absolute joy, and I can only imagine the buzz that must've gone round the crowd witnessing it in person.

Nor had I truly appreciated the quality of football that Forest team played. Obviously they were good - the trophies and 42 game unbeaten league run bear that out - but the results weren't at the price of style or entertainment. The common conception is that football now is much faster, and indeed it may be. However, unless my viewing of IBIM was in fast-forward it still looked pretty rapid to me. Attacking football back then was also hampered by pretty-much uncensored defending and pitches that you wouldn't be surprised to see some previous evolution of humankind dug up from, perfectly preserved in the gloop. Think Jake Buxton, but slightly more intellectually advanced. Yet the team in red (and sometimes yellow) overcame this, and the footage in IBIM was filled with intricate triangles, pinpoint passing, galloping runs and clinical finishes.

I'm pretty sure most Forest fans will have seen I Believe in Miracles by now. If not, and if you can, please do. If you can't; get the DVD pre-ordered. If you haven't got a DVD player then buy one. You really won't regret it.

By now you may be wondering where the 'ridiculous' part of this blog comes in. Well, foolishly (but luckily), I booked my trip to the cinema on the night that the current incarnation of Nottingham Forest were playing a live televised match away at bottom-of-the-Championship Bristol City. There's not really much more I need to say.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Nottingham Forest 1 - 2 Middlesbrough

It's been a fair few years since anything that could be termed as hair has covered the majority of my cranium. Usually I lament this fact. However, following Nottingham Forest's home defeat to Middlesbrough, it was probably for the best; because any lustrous locks I had left would have been lost, strewn over the concrete of the Trent End having been yanked out in pure frustration. You see, for all Middlesbrough's attacking play and created chances, their two goals both came from Forest mistakes. Forest themselves passed up two gilt-edged scoring chances. On such margins are matches decided.

Once again I was surprised by Dougie Freedman's team selection, though this time it was the attacking nature of the line-up which was the shock. Forest gave home debuts to Chris O'Grady, Ryan Mendes and Nelson Oliveira, kept the same back five that started against Birmingham City and dropped Jamie Ward to the bench, with Henri Lansbury, David Vaughan and Ben Osborn completing the midfield. The visitors included their big-money summer captures Stewart Downing and David Nugent, enhancing an already strong team containing the likes of George Friend, Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton.

Barely three minutes had passed before one of these recruits - Nugent - had given Boro the lead. An underhit Matt Mills backpass allowed Albert Adomah a clear run on goal. The winger's shot was saved by Dorus de Vries but Forest never properly cleared, and eventually Friend's cross found the former Foxes frontman who steered the ball home.

Minutes later Mills had atoned for his mistake by hauling the Reds level. Lansbury's corner found the centre-half in space and his neatly volleyed finish gave visiting keeper Dimitri Konstantopoulos ('Dimi' on his shirt - and for the rest of this review) no chance. Phew - what a start!

It wasn't long before the visitors troubled de Vries again, this time following another Forest corner. After Boro's defence had cleared the danger Downing raced clear, only for the sprawling Reds stopper to repel the attempt with an outstretched leg. The breathless beginning to the match saw a momentary pause as Mills slumped to the ground with an injury and was replaced by Jack Hobbs. One hopes it was just a precaution rather than anything serious, as Mills and Wilson were beginning to look like a formidable partnership.

Unfortunately there was little formidable about Forest's defending through the remainder of the first half. De Vries continued to earn his corn with a double save from Nugent and Adomah before Boro were awarded another corner which they played short. The resulting cross found the head of Wilson whose back-header only picked out ex-Forest loanee Daniel Ayala. De Vries rushed out but could do nothing to stop Ayala nodding home to restore the visitors' lead. Neither side was to trouble the scorers again before the interval so it was Boro who ended the first half with their noses in front.

Their noses nearly Pinocchioed further ahead after the restart as de Vries saved yet again from Adomah, but Forest themselves should've been level moments later. Willianesque winger Mendes found himself clear through but his shot was smothered by the spreadeagled Dimi. The better option would've been to square the ball to the unmarked Oliveira, but that's easy to say with hindsight.

The match was really open now. Forest cranked up the pressure but Boro continued to play through them at will. Oliveira and Jamie Ward - who had replaced Osborn at half time - both went close with long-range efforts before the moment which ultimately decided the match. A long ball from the Reds defence could only find visiting defender Ben Gibson. His attempted chest trap rolled down his arm and the handball was spotted by the linesman who flagged for a penalty (well, he actually pointed his flag towards the corner rather than putting his flag across his chest, but the spot-kick was still given).

Up stepped Lansbury to drill his penalty down the middle as he had the week before against QPR. However, unlike Rangers goalie Alex Smithies who obligingly dived out of the way, Dimi hung out a leg and deflected the ball away. Not only that, but he was quick enough to get up and tip Ward's header from the rebound wide of the post. Forest continued to press, making Jonathan Williams the fourth new Tricky of the day, but they were unable to find the equaliser and, in a reverse of last year's result, Boro claimed the spoils 2-1.

It's hard to be too critical of the effort that Forest showed. Had the two mistakes which led to Boro's goals been avoided, and the penalty and Mendes chance been taken, they could easily have won this game. If they attack with the vigour they showed against Boro they'll win more than they lose. Though, if they defend like they did at times then....well.....

De Vries could do nothing about either goal and made some excellent saves. Mills, Wilson and Hobbs all had uncomfortable moments in defence but Eric Lichaj and Daniel Pinillos were solid at full back - against quality opposition. O'Grady was muscular up front and Oliveira showed real quality at times. Mendes could be a real find if he can sort out his decision making but the pick of the bunch was Lansbury. Once again he played deeper, protecting the back four, and once again he was outstanding - penalty miss aside. A real captain's performance.

Taking this game in isolation it was disappointing to lose. However, I'd have taken a win and two draws from the three matches against QPR, Birmingham and Boro, so two wins and a defeat is by no means a bad return. The team is certainly playing better than earlier in the season. Sort out the defensive mistakes and be a bit more clinical at the other end and we'll be OK. If the Boro game is anything to go by, we'll certainly be entertained.








Sunday, 13 September 2015

A Co'g in the Machine

The day before transfer deadline day, I asked someone - who would've known - if there was any likelihood of any incoming players at Nottingham Forest before the window closed. This person confirmed that manager Dougie Freedman was hoping to bring a striker (and an attacking midfielder) to the club. When I enquired about the chances of this deal being completed, I was told that Forest were confident, as nobody else was likely to want him. Hardly a ringing endorsement. 

When the name of this striker was revealed as Chris O'Grady, I wasn't as disappointed as some, as I remembered him having a decent game and scoring against us for Barnsley a couple of seasons before. It's fair to say that his career had stalled though, following a £2m move to Brighton and Hove Albion. 

As the deal was completed on deadline day, the entirely ridiculous but entirely predictable Twitter backlash was in full swing. Some observers were guaranteeing our relegation, as we were bringing in O'Grady to replace Michail Antonio - whose move to West Ham United was edging ever closer. If you looked at the numbers you could see what they meant: Antonio had scored 15 goals in the previous season and assisted almost the same amount - from wide midfield; while O'Grady's return was 1 solitary goal. Numbers, however, don't tell the full story. 

Anyone who had seen Forest play this season would have realised that asking a still-maturing 18 year old Tyler Walker, or a worn-and-torn, twice-long-term-injured Dexter Blackstock to play up front alone against strong, rugged, experienced Championship defenders was expecting too much. They needed help and, working within our well-publicised restrictions, O'Grady was the man. 

I won't lie; first impressions against Queen's Park Rangers were not too favourable. Good hold-up play was spoiled by poor layoffs which failed to find their targets, and a neat turn was rendered pointless by lacking the pace to escape a defender. Gradually though, O'Grady grew into the game. A couple of neat, chipped passes from Matt Mills were controlled and given smartly to more gifted teammates; and a lovely ball through the legs of a defender set Eric Lichaj through on goal. 

Then, after Forest had fallen behind in the second half, came the moment which turned the game. O'Grady chased down an awkward-looking back-pass and pilfered the ball from Rangers' keeper Rob Green, who had failed to control it. Green hauled him down and the referee was left with no option but to give the penalty and dismiss the hapless goalie. Henri Lansbury dispatched the spot-kick and Forest were back in the game. 

The best was yet to come though. A flicked headed pass from O'Grady found fellow debutant Ryan Mendes. The Cape Verdian (yup) scampered away and his threaded pass released the third of Forest's deadline day acquisitions, striker Nelson Oliveira. His low drive eluded the Rangers' substitute goalkeeper and gave Forest an unlikely but welcome victory. Cue one Man of the Match award and a pleasingly emotional interview for O'Grady, and a thoroughly satisfying debut was at an end. 

It would be foolish to get too carried away after one game, just as it was foolish to write O'Grady off before he'd kicked a ball in the Garibaldi. I don't see him being a prolific scorer; indeed I'd be surprised if he reached double figures this season. However, he seems to know how to play in Freedman's preferred system, and if he can continue to show the strength and effort he did against Rangers, and chip in with the odd goal as well, then he'll prove a few Forest fans wrong. For the team's sake, let's hope he does. 

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Street Food

Blink and you'd miss Pollen Street. It's an unobtrusive little thoroughfare just a few minutes walk from London's bustling Oxford Circus, and is also the home of Pollen Street Social; the flagship restaurant of Skegness-born chef Jason Atherton - a former Great British Menu winner and occasional TV presenter. Since it opened in 2011, Pollen Street Social has been doing pretty well, gaining a Michelin star and a number of other awards; so we were pretty excited to finally be paying our first visit.

After a cocktail each at the impressive bar attached to the restaurant, we were shown to our seats, despite having arrived over half an hour before our booking time. There was a little confusion before our meal began; with our amuse bouche (just called 'snacks') being served before we'd actually ordered or chosen our wines. When we did order, it was the eight-course tasting menu with venison main course. Rather than a bottle of wine, we wanted glass of white wine for the earlier courses and a red for the mains and desserts. The restaurant was happy to do this and the excellent sommelier's selections were both nicely matched to the food. The aforementioned snacks included a memorable parmesan foam mixed with mushroom tea and a miniature sweetcorn muffin topped with cold cucumber and broccoli, which was far nicer than it sounds.

The wait between snacks and course one of the menu proper was a little long, and it took a couple of prompts before the opening course finally arrived. It was worth the wait though, taking the form of a cold pea and langoustine broth poured over a pea sorbet and langoustine tail. The sweetness of the shellfish and peas were nicely balanced by a smoky garlic flower and it was a fine start to our meal.

Our second course blew it out of the water (or chilled broth) however. This was a salad of crab meat with coriander and tiny apple chunks. Accompanying the crab were zingy globules of lemon puree and a delightful dome of brown-bread foam. Mixing the foam and meat tasted like the nicest crab sandwich you could ever hope for, while the apple added a satisfying crunch to the overall softness.




Next up was 'Haggis, Neeps and Tatties.' Not the traditional Scottish dish perhaps, but very nice nonetheless. The tatties were, in fact, spaghetti-like strands of potato, which were smothered with a rich lamb ragout and sauce. The dish was more like a spaghetti bolognese, but that was no bad thing.

The first of the mains was a meaty slab of halibut, which seated a couple of cockles and covered a smattering of spring onions. Perfectly cooked fish and almost-sweet onion made for a winning combination, though the thin potato slices didn't add much to the dish for me.




There were no such passengers in the second main though; everything on the plate contributed to the other real standout dish of the evening. Two perfectly pink ovals of venison were ably assisted by honey-spiced beetroot, smears of red cabbage purée, tiny cubes of pickled apple and a pair of sharp blackberries. Not physically sharp, obviously. That would've been weird - not to mention dangerous. Every combination of flavours on this plate was a delight, with the venison and beetroot mixed together being particularly memorable.

Following the venison was the crossover (here called transition) dish of goats cheese ice-cream on a malted biscuit and drizzled with sweet syrup. I'm not a huge fan of goats cheese and the sourness of the ice-cream would've been a bit much for me, had it not been tempered by the sweet and crunchy biscuit. The dish as a whole worked, but I'm not sure I'd want too much of it.

Pre-dessert was a cloud-like vanilla foam, smothering some pumpkin granite (curse my spellcheck for not adding the accent to the 'e') like low-flying cumulonimbus over a bright orange field. Very tasty it was too, with crunch provided by caramelised sesame seeds.

And then to the dessert. The blackcurrant Eton Mess contained all the components of the traditional favourite but was presented with a twist - this being that the meringue was on the outside. So, breaking the crispy exterior of what looked like a white ice-hockey puck was rewarded with sour blackcurrant sorbet, a crunchy biscuit base and some delicious cream which might have had a subtle hint of cheese flavouring, though I might have imagined it.

We'd noticed our fellow diners receiving some interesting-looking petit fours, so to finish the night we ordered a cappuccino each to make sure we wouldn't miss out. These were a great way to round off a very accomplished meal and could've been a course in their own right. Atop a mini ice-cream cone sat a white-chocolate covered sphere of apple sorbet, while the cone itself contained a blackcurrant sorbet. This was served with a pot of rich chocolate and bergamot sauce and - nicest of all - a warm Bakewell pudding which had the almond and cherry flavour and a hint of egg custard about it. Mr. Kipling certainly never made them like that.

While the meal was pretty much faultless we had a couple of gripes with the service. Our main waiting staff and the sommelier were all great, but the wait for our first course was - as mentioned before - longer than it should've been. We were also left twiddling our thumbs before paying, and indeed we had to ask a passing waiter for the bill. This was slightly irritating as another member of staff had previously removed the rack which held the mini cones and could clearly see that we'd finished, but didn't think to ask whether we wanted anything else or were ready to pay.

These are small complaints though and certainly didn't spoil the overall experience. The food throughout was wonderful; I don't think I've ever had better venison and the brown-bread foam with the crab dish was inspired. Perhaps a couple of tweaks to the service are needed to take Pollen Street Social to the next level, but I certainly wouldn't hesitate to come back.


Now is the Window of our Discontent

Actually, it might not be. It's hard to know for sure until we've seen all our new arrivals play. But, in terms of numbers in and out and wages saved, and considering the restrictions that we've been working to, I think we've done a pretty good job.

Let's look at the outgoings first. It was always likely that we'd lose one of our 'crown jewels' and so it proved, with Michail Antonio sealing his £7m move to West Ham United on transfer deadline day. We'll miss his pace, power and spectacular goals, of that there's no doubt. However, we have at times been over-reliant on him and it'll be interesting to see how the team's style of play changes now he's not here. The profit made from his sale should hopefully see us clear of the transfer embargo next summer - and that had to be the club's highest priority.

After being kept out of the squad by a 17 year old Academy player against Cardiff; Jamie Paterson's days always appeared to be numbered. Whether he will rekindle his early Forest form at Huddersfield, or instead fade away in a similar style to Radoslaw Majewski after his loan there last season, remains to be seen.

It made sense to allow Stephen McLaughlin to move on, as it did to release Danny Collins, Dan Harding and Greg Halford. And - though it may have cost the club something in terms of payoffs - getting Jamie Mackie, Djamel Abdoun and Majewski off the wage bill just had to be done.

Given the interest shown in Henri Lansbury and Michael Mancienne during the transfer window, I think we got off pretty lightly in terms of the players who left the club.

So, how about our new acquisitions? Matt Mills has made a pretty solid start to the season, as had Jamie Ward, until he was struck down by an unfortunate but predictable hamstring injury. Hopefully it won't keep him out for long or reoccur, as his energy and tenacity was plain to see in his early matches.

It's a bit early to judge Daniel Pinillos and Kyle Ebecilio yet, though based on the Cardiff match, the former could be a decent signing. He looked composed on the ball and got forward well in support of Antonio (who mostly ignored him).

I remember Chris O'Grady looking lively against us for Barnsley a couple of seasons ago, though by all accounts he's gone off the boil somewhat since he joined Brighton. Hopefully a return to his home city can rekindle his previous form. With our paucity of options at front at the moment, he was certainly a signing we needed.

Ryan Mendes is a total mystery to me, so how good a replacement for Antonio he'll turn out to be remains to be seen. I don't think it's likely that he'll chip in with 15 goals and nearly as many assists though. Nelson Oliveira could be quite a coup, as he was reportedly lined up for a deadline day move to La Liga side Valencia before Forest stepped in. He didn't set the Premier League alight with Swansea, but anyone who's in double figures of international caps for Portugal must surely have something about them.

And finally - and presuming his loan is also approved - Jonny Williams is a skilful midfielder who Dougie Freedman knows well, having managed him at Crystal Palace. A younger lookalike of David Vaughan, he plays a similar style of game too. Indeed his ability to carry the ball led some Ipswich Town fans to dub him 'Jonnyesta' during his loan spell there.

These players all come with some risk. After all, there are reasons they've all been released or loaned out - be it loss of form or injury. That's the reality of the market we're currently shopping in. Breaking our transfer record three times or paying a £2m loan fee just wasn't an option this close season. Bearing that in mind, the list of players we've brought to the club is - at face value anyway - pretty impressive.

Of course, it wouldn't be a transfer window at Forest without some kind of foul-up. This time it came in the form of the successful, then failed loan signing of Ben Hamer. The long and public courting of Michael Frey was also mildly embarrassing, though one can understand the reasons behind us ultimately pulling the plug on the deal. The on and off pursuit of Burnley's Lukas Jutkiewicz was fruitless, but as this meant that Henri Lansbury remained at the club then this wasn't too much of a loss. The final two (hopefully three) loan signings were incredibly drawn out too, with two of them confirmed nearly a full three days after the transfer deadline and one of them still to be rubber stamped. Presumably that was due to the club being extra cautious not to jump the gun, which is probably no bad thing.

The proof of the pudding will be in the football, there's no doubt about that. There's also no doubt that falling foul of the League's FFP embargo in the first place is firmly the club's fault. One can only hope that Fawaz will have learnt from the difficulties of this transfer market and that he'll ensure we never end up in this position again. But, on the whole, I'd say we've made the best of the situation we were in. Hopefully the players we've brought in will settle quickly and we'll push on from here.


Saturday, 29 August 2015

Nottingham Forest 1 - 2 Cardiff City

This time last year, with Nottingham Forest sitting proudly atop the Championship, the first international break of the season was as welcome as a wasp in a spacesuit; upsetting, as it did, our early season momentum. This season however it could prove to be a blessing; allowing the tired and injured to recover and - in an ideal world - Dougie Freedman to strengthen the squad before the transfer window SLAMS SHUT at 18:00 on September 1st. The world is not ideal though, and one suspects that as much of Dougie's time between now and then will be spent dealing with bids for our own players as trying to bring in new ones.

Two of the players attracting aforementioned bids - Michail Antonio and Michael Mancienne - took their places in a Forest team which was missing Henri Lansbury, who himself has been subject to significant interest in this transfer window. Presumably though, after the Fawaz/Henri/Hat/Celebrations picture, that interest will come to nought and Lansbury will remain at the club. This is Forest though so who knows...?

Daniel Pinillos and Kyle Ebecilio made their home debuts and David Vaughan played, despite the family reasons which meant he withdrew from the Wales squad. Tyler Walker continued to plough the lone furrow up front and another Academy graduate Gerry McDonagh earned a place on the substitutes' bench - meaning there were six home-grown youngsters in the matchday eighteen.

The visitors Cardiff City fielded a strong-looking team including ex-Manchester United full back Fabio and the gargantuan Kenwyne Jones, who's the kind of player Forest always struggle against. His inclusion may be why Freedman started with the more physical centre back partnership of Jack Hobbs and captain-for-the-day Matt Mills.

The early exchanges were pretty even, with neither side looking particularly threatening. The Bluebirds were looking dangerous on the break though, as Anthony Pilkington troubled Pinillos down the left and Joe Mason drove a shot straight at Dorus de Vries. Forest failed to heed the warning signs and Eric Lichaj's poor header fell to the feet of Peter (yes, him) Whittingham. His pinged cross picked out Jones who powered a header past the helpless Forest keeper to give Cardiff the lead.

Referee Oliver Langford's general ineptitude was about the only other thing of note in the remainder of the half, apart from a lovely turn and shot from Walker which forced the first of many decent saves from Cardiff goalie David Marshall. A few half-hearted boos greeted the half-time whistle, likely aimed at both the ref and the lacklustre Reds.

Ben Osborn replaced Ebecilio at half time and had an immediate impact, dragging a shot wide soon after the restart. Things were to get worse for Forest though as a Pilkington corner wasn't cleared, and Mason picked up the loose ball, turned smartly and curled an excellent shot beyond de Vries's grasp to double the visitors' advantage.

A period of possession for Cardiff followed, before Freedman introduced Dexter Blackstock in place of the largely ineffectual Chris Burke, moved Walker out to the right and Antonio more central. This meant Forest played more directly but did at least start to create chances. Antonio rattled the stanchion with an ambitious long-range effort then drew a smart, low save from Marshall with another attempt. Walker also tested Marshall with a couple of shots before making way for McDonagh to take his Forest bow.

The increased pressure finally told as Blackstock glanced on a ball through to Antonio, who withstood a meaty Cardiff challenge before slotting coolly past Marshall to give Forest a lifeline. It was one that the Reds couldn't cling on to though, even with the six minutes of stoppage time added after some blatant Bluebird timewasting. The visitors weren't seriously troubled again and secured their third consecutive 2-1 win against Forest.

It's not easy to pick many positives out of that performance. I will though, as that's the kind of guy I am. David Vaughan again looked impressive in midfield, and is starting to get back to something like his best. Tyler Walker continues to defy his age and experience and the role he's being asked to play by putting in another great shift. He really does have a bright future but is in desperate need of some support up top.

On the flipside, Jack Hobbs had one of the worst games I can ever recall him having. Kyle Ebecilio offered little and Eric Lichaj looked a bit shaky. Michael Mancienne again looked worse in midfield than he does at centre back (or left back for that matter) and Michail Antonio was his typical self. Strong runs and a well-taken goal mixed with poor passing and questionable decisions. If, as looks increasingly possible, this was his last game for the club, at least he signed off by rippling the onion bag.

What Forest's squad will look like at 18:01 on Tuesday 1st September is anybody's guess. The almost-inevitable wheeling and dealing will go a long way to shaping the season. Dougie and Fawaz are going to have some hard decisions to make. Let's hope they make good ones.





Saturday, 15 August 2015

Nottingham Forest 2 - 1 Rotherham United

So here I am once more, in the playground of the broken hearts. 

As well as being the opening line to one of my favourite albums (and I'll be impressed if anyone knows which album and by whom without Googling), it also nicely summed up my feelings when I was taking my seat in the Lower Trent End this afternoon. The beginning of another league season at home, the place where so many hopes had been dashed before. 

Not that there were as many hopes this afternoon. Happenings on and off the pitch certainly hadn't built any up. But I suppose there's always some hope, and it felt good to be back at the City Ground once again. 

I was a little surprised at Dougie Freedman's starting line up. Not that Danny Fox was dropped, but that Michael Mancienne took his place at left back, and not the just-internationally-cleared Daniel Pinillos. Also that Kelvin Wilson kept his place ahead of Jack Hobbs. Some may have been surprised that Henri Lansbury started and was captain, but with our paucity of options in midfield, I don't think Freedman had much choice. The visitors included three ex-Reds in their XI, with the recently released duo of Greg Halford and Danny Collins joining Matt Derbyshire. 

Forest started well, with Jamie Ward winning an early interception and firing in a shot which was comfrotably saved by Millers keeper Kelle Roos. After that though, the visitors started to dominate. Derbyshire flashed in a header which forced Dorus De Vries to palm round, but the Dutchman undid his good work not long after. A Rotherham corner was lofted into the box and De Vries tried unsuccessfully to claim it, allowing the returning Collins to nod into the empty net. 

The game got scrappy after this. Forest relied far too much on trying to hit Michail Antonio and so, it seemed, did Rotherham. The muscular winger seemed to be hauled back and pushed over in the Millers area but no spot-kicks were given. A Forest equaliser was ruled out for offside, which I couldn't judge as it happened at the other end of the pitch, and the Reds started to exert a bit more pressure. This eventually told just before half time as, following a corner, Ward lofted a high cross to the back post and fellow home-league-debutante Matt Mills rose highest to thump a header past Roos and level the scores. The teams trooped off level at the interval and Forest were spared a Scottish tongue-lashing. Just. 

They were almost due one just into the second half though, as Jordan Bowery's shot was just cleared off the line and Rotherham forced a series of corners. Forest gradually picked things up though. Tyler Walker - making his first league start - drew a save from Roos with a low shot from the left, before Chris Burke did the same from the right following a driving run. Burke probably should have done better when well placed, but he did play a part when Forest finally edged in front. 

His cross from the wing deflected off a Millers defender and caused Roos to tip onto the crossbar. In the scramble that followed, the ball sat up kindly for Antonio who sidefooted home. His celebrations were more muted than usual, but hopefully that was just due to his tiredness after removing Rotherham defenders from his shoulders all afternoon, rather than anything more sinister. 

After taking the lead Forest were forced into a change as Jamie Ward rather bizarrely fell to the ground with nobody near him. He was able to walk off the pitch - to be replaced by Dexter Blackstock - and one hopes we isn't seriously injured as his drive and energy was valuable. Mancienne had a great shot well saved by Roos and Oliver Burke - who replaced Walker - also tested the visitors keeper; but neither team was to score again and Forest held on for their first league points and win of the season. Hurrah. 

This wasn't vintage Forest by any means but there were certainly some positives. Ward and Antonio were dangerous down the flanks and Walker certainly didn't look out of place in the Championship. Henri Lansbury appeared not to let the Burnley speculation bother him and David Vaughan had the best game I can remember him having for a while. Eric Lichaj looked more like the player who finished last season and Mancienne looked better at left back than defensive midfield (though still not as good as he looks at centre half).

Kelvin Wilson continues to frustrate though, looking just too casual for my liking. Casual is fine if you're a lavishly gifted attacker like Dimitar Berbatov, but for a centre half? Nuh-uh. Perhaps we should try Pinillos at left back next time out and move Mancienne to the heart of the defence? Maybe? Well, we'll see. 

Anyway, at least our season feels like its started now.  Charlton are next up and another three points would be most welcome. A better performance would be nice too but hey, one step at a time. 

Friday, 14 August 2015

Making a Statement

Yesterday (Thursday 13th August 2015) saw two statements issued regarding Nottingham Forest. One of them official from the club. The other one....not so much.

The official statement was regarding international clearance for Spanish defender Daniel Pinillos which - as I'm typing this - has still not been received. As supporters we probably need to take this at face value and accept that the club has done and is doing everything they can to hurry the Spanish FA along. Hopefully it will be resolved soon so we can see what the player is capable of.

The second statement was made via Twitter by owner/chairman Fawaz al Hasawi. I won't copy the text word-for-word, but the gist of it was:

- He feels that we, as fans, have been focussing too much on the negatives lately
- That, as loyal fans, we should support the team whether they win or lose
- That we're only at the beginning of a long journey and that we're working hard to achieve our goals

If we've been focussing on negatives, it's because there's been too many of them to focus on. We've (rightly) praised the positives of the signings we've made and the long-term contracts for Tyler Walker and Oliver Burke, but when issues like the botched capture of Ben Hamer arise, then of course we're going to discuss them. If Fawaz doesn't want us to focus on negatives then he needs to minimise the number of them.

Loyal fans. Hmm. Fawaz is treading on very dangerous ground with comments like that. By and large the fanbase has stuck with Fawaz; possibly more than should be reasonably expected considering the number of high-profile gaffes the club has made since his tenure began. However, the one sure-fire way he's going to turn fans against him is by lecturing them on how they should support the club.

No, we haven't pumped £millions into the club like he has. However, we do inject money in the form of tickets and merchandise. We're not all multi-millionaires like he is and the cash and time investments that fans give to the club are massive in some cases. We're bound to be disappointed when the team loses, but we care about the club as a whole and, at the moment, there are clearly huge issues around the wider club.

As for the final point; we all have to admit that, sometimes, on journeys, we get lost and need to ask for help from people who know the way. This is, in my opinion, the one biggest failing of Fawaz's ownership: the total and utter lack of experienced people at the heart of the club.

Who do we have? Much of the day-to-day running of the club seems to fall between two men: Hassan Saef and Lalou Tifrit. One of these isn't mentioned anywhere on the club website's Who's Who page and the other one is Head of Finance and Owner's Representative. What does that mean exactly? Whilst he might be experienced in finance and business, has he ever worked in football? Football is like no other business and the same rules don't apply. How can the club run effectively with such inexperienced people at the helm?

Fawaz says that we're working hard to achieve our goals, but where is the evidence of that? Our ultimate goal has to be promotion back to the Premier League. Yet, at this moment in time, that seems further away than ever. Credit where it's due, the Academy seems in good health and we're tying down good, young players to long-term contracts. But I can't see too much else to enthuse about.

The playing squad still has holes in (though one can't blame the club for the rotten injury luck we continually seem to have) and, under the embargo, those holes are not easy to fill. Commercially we seem as inept as we always were during the Nigel Doughty days, if not worse. At least we always had external shirt sponsorship then. There are massive opportunities for a club with a renowned - yes, even now - name such as ours to generate revenue, but there seems to be nobody at the club with the nous and wherewithal to grasp them. Simple things like paying bills on time aren't being done. That is just plain not acceptable.

Obviously not every Forest fan is on Twitter. There are doubtless thousands of fans who support the club oblivious to the turmoil that those of us who follow it closely online see regularly. But people with an online presence will talk to their friends without. If Fawaz continues to run the club unprofessionally and agitate the fans by questioning their loyalty then....well. It doesn't take a genius to see where things could end up.

I'm not calling this post an open letter. We've had enough of those over the last few months. But, in a way it kind of is one.

Fawaz - if you or any of your close friends are reading this then please, please stop making social media statements like last night's. Employ people who know what they're doing and let them do it. Your passion, enthusiasm and financial backing could make Nottingham Forest great again - but not while you try to run it with your heart and not your head.




Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Definition of Insanity...

...is, apparently, continuing to do the same thing over and over but expecting different results. I guess that makes me insane then, as I continue to watch Nottingham Forest lurch from one shambles to another, but expect (well, hope) that things will get better.

In February, just after Stuart Pearce had been sacked as manager, I wrote this. In it I bemoaned the unprofessional way in which Fawaz al Hasawi had been running the club, highlighted at the time by a high-profile (virtual) tongue-lashing by Peterborough United chairman Daragh MacAnthony over our late payment of an instalment for Britt Assombalonga.

So, has anything changed since then? Regrettably, it seems not. Until a couple of weeks ago it was looking like, on the field, things this close-season were going well (I'll come to off the field later). Three good free signings had been made, in the form of Matt Mills, Jamie Ward and Daniel Pinillos, and the season-long loan of goalkeeper Ben Hamer had also been wrapped up. A number of huge drains on the playing wage bill had been removed. Bids for our prize assets of Michail Antonio and Henri Lansbury had been rebuffed and two of our brightest young prospects - Tyler Walker and Oliver Burke - had been signed up to long-term contracts. But since then...

The Hamer deal has fallen through, due to the club trying to be a bit too cute in their attempts to bypass the FFP regulations and falling foul of the Football League. Pinillos still hasn't been cleared to play (though the club may not be at fault for this) and a bid for Lansbury was apparently accepted, only for the club to backtrack later in the day and deny it. It now seems almost inevitable that Lansbury will join one of our divisional rivals before the transfer window closes, and if the rumoured fee of £4m turns out to be correct it'll mean that, although we'll have made a profit on the player, we won't be able to spend a penny of it. Oh, and we've lost both our opening matches too.

Off the field.....well, where to start? With the further winding up orders perhaps? Or the fact that - once again - the club seems to have failed to secure an external shirt sponsor. The length of time that the club shop and online store updates took, the inability to make the away shirt available for sale before the start of the season and the relative lateness of season tickets being available to collect may not all be huge issues. However they probably should have been handled better and they're symptomatic of the general backroom chaos which seems to be prevalent at the club.

We've now appointed former Club England managing director Adrian Bevington as a part-time advisor to the owner, which seems a wise move. But it's a pointless exercise if his advice isn't heeded - and there's currently no indications to suggest that it will be. What advice can he give that hasn't been suggested a number of times already anyway? That Fawaz should employ experienced and competent football people - NOT his personal friends and assistants - and let them get on with their jobs.

It's now got to the point that I just assume things are going to go wrong. As I'm typing this, Swiss striker Michael Frey is edging closer to finalising a season-long loan from Lille. Dougie really wants Frey. Frey wants to come and Lille are happy for him to do so. But I just can't shake the feeling that somehow we'll manage to screw things up. I collected my season tickets yesterday. It was actually a pretty painless process, and that surprised me. I shouldn't be surprised at that - I should expect it.

Many observers have suggested that Fawaz wants to be popular and wants to be loved. Of course he does - we all do to some degree. As the owner of a football club with a rich and (at times) glittering history, the best way to be popular is to run the club professionally and successfully. We're not asking for a third European Cup. We're asking for competence, a plan, a strategy and some hope. At the moment we don't have the first three and we're rapidly losing the fourth. Fawaz has the power to change all that. Will the penny ever drop?


Tuesday, 7 April 2015

A Venetian Blinder

I like to think I've got a reasonable way with words, and if you read some of my rambling reviews on here you'll probably agree that I'm not often short for them, but occasionally something will come along or happen which will leave me somewhat dumbstruck. Our trip to Venice was one of those things. From our first Vaporetto ride to our last gelato, Venice was an absolute delight.

When Clare first suggested visiting the city for her birthday (well, just afterwards) my first thought was the default 'Arrrghhh, that means flying.' However it wasn't a long flight, shorter, in fact, than our usual annual holiday, and it would mean visiting a fascinating, historic and beautiful city, so the misgivings were put aside and the trip was booked.

The flight out was fine, offering spectacular views over the Alps and, despite a slightly wobbly final approach, a mostly smooth journey. Around an hour's transfer and a slight confusion over the Vaporetto later, we were making our way from the Rialto Bridge to our hotel for the weekend, the Lanterna di Marco Polo.

The Alps

As a base for exploring the main tourist areas of Venice, the Lanterna is pretty hard to beat, situated as it is only a couple of minutes walk from the Rialto area, and about five minutes from St. Mark's Square. The hotel's spice-named rooms (we were staying in Vanilla) are quaint but comfortable. Ours had exposed beams in the ceiling, a comfortable bed and enough room to relax when we weren't enjoying the city. They also had free wi-fi, an unexpected and welcome bonus.

The proprietors were fantastic. Friendly and helpful with a few useful tips on how to get the most out of our stay. They also, very kindly, allowed us to leave our luggage in the hotel after we'd checked out; which, as our return flight wasn't until late at night, was a massive help and made our final day far more enjoyable than it would've been if we'd had to lug our cases around. Breakfast was continental style and very pleasant and we really couldn't fault our stay there at all.

Anyway, on to the city itself. On the Friday night, after having checked in and got changed, we decided to visit St. Mark's and also locate the restaurant we'd booked into for the Saturday. An enjoyable stroll through the narrow streets - filled with Trattorias and tat shops - and over bridges brought us to the square. It also brought us to a wonderful bar selling the local drink of Spritz (Prosecco, soda water and Aperol). After gulping back one of these and finding the restaurant we promptly got lost.

A pleasant meal (though I'm not sure I'd have cuttlefish again) and a couple of drinks later and we were en route back to Rialto, after stopping at the rather excellent Bacaro Jazz jazz bar first, then devouring our first gelato of the weekend. After a stroll over the Rialto Bridge (watch out for the pushy rose 'sellers') and another cocktail each it was back to the hotel to rest up for the next day.

At breakfast, Guido advised us to visit the palace and told us where the entrance was (which was good as we'd have missed it otherwise). He also suggested the best Vaporetto stop from which to visit Murano - the island famed for its glass - which would cut at least half an hour off the journey. With this knowledge in mind we headed off back to St. Mark's.

A lift ride to the top of the Campanile (bell tower) provided some fantastic panoramas of the city, but we decided to skip the Basilica as the queues - even at this early hour - were enormous. The wait for the Palazzo Ducale was nowhere near as long however, and it was worth every minute. The palace was crammed full of artwork, architecture and elaborately-decorated ceilings. It also had a fascinating prison section which gave one a real sense of what it might have been like to have been incarcerated there many years ago.

A view from the Campanile

After a quick detour to Harry's Bar - the home of the Bellini - we returned to Rialto for lunch and to a wonderful little cafe bar named All' Arco. Slightly away from the main tourist track, it was absolutely full of locals, all sampling a wonderful range of sandwiches and wine at bargain prices. Following a bit of shopping and a nap it was time to head off for our evening meal at Il Ridotto.

As we'd not been to Venice before, we decided to push the boat out (groan) and book into the Michelin-starred Il Ridotto for a meal on the Saturday night. Located just a moment's walk from St. Mark's Square, blink and you'd miss the unassuming exterior. The interior was equally understated, with beige seats and walls, though a splash of colour was provided by the Murano glass tumblers on each table.

With our meal being on Easter Saturday, the restaurant was offering an Easter tasting menu, with the only choice being between meat and fish for the main course. We'd read great things about the Tiramisu so we asked our waiter if we could substitute the dessert course for one of those instead.

Ahead of the first course proper was an amuse bouche of a delicious roll of sardine served in a light, subtle cheese veloute. After this was polished off, along with some warm, crusty bread and wonderfully spicy chilli oil, it was time for the main meal to begin.

Our opening course was an odd but pleasant concoction of a warm, slow-poached egg, asparagus and what was essentially scrambled egg mixed with Parmesan cheese. Next up was probably the best dish of the meal; two huge, succulent, perfectly cooked scallops served with a beetroot crisp, carrot puree, spiced mayonnaise and covered in a light, black tea crust. The scallops retained a nice hint of squishiness and the accompaniments complemented them perfectly.

Scallops!

The herb tortellini that followed was nice but not as spectacular. It was served with a couple of meaty langoustine tails and a pleasingly salty shrimp bisque though, which helped things along nicely. The main course was next. We'd both chosen the meat option, which consisted of a small lamb burger, partnered with a huge globe of tender lamb shank meat. This was joined by a crispy potato terrine, spring onion and some tangled strands of green cabbage. I'm glad this was the penultimate course as the sheer size of the lamb shank was a little overwhelming. Fortunately the Tiramisu dessert was wonderfully light and creamy without being too sweet.

Overall this was an excellent and not prohibitively priced meal which really enhanced an already brilliant weekend. The drizzly rain and our over-full tummies meant we went straight back to the hotel to sleep before embarking on our final day.

Sunday dawned brighter and warmer than Saturday had been, so we decided to make the Vaporetto trip to Murano. Following Guido's advice we wandered through the labyrinthine streets, convinced we were heading the wrong way. Thankfully though the frequent street signs kept us on track and we arrived at the correct boarding point before hopping on board. A couple of stops later and we disembarked at Murano.

With no better plan, we followed some of our fellow passengers around the edge of the island until we reached a glass factory and could walk no further. They were offering free demonstrations of glass blowing so we decided to wait in line and see what this would be like.

I have to admit I was cynical about the 'touristiness' of the whole experience but it was actually really good. While it was clearly aimed at the many visitors, it was still fascinating to see a craftsman at work and to understand more of the process. The sales staff weren't too pushy either. We were invited to donate to the glass-blowers coffee and beer fund and the prices in the factory shop compared favourably to those on the main island. With a few souvenirs in tow, we stopped for a coffee before heading back to St. Mark's. We took the longer trip back which gave us the chance to see the square from the lagoon.

Approaching St. Mark's from the Vaporetto

The sunshine had the crowds out in force so we enjoyed another Spritz from the same bar we'd visited on Friday before stopping for lunch. After that we found time for one final gelato (a Tiramisu one - the best one yet) and one last drink before making our way back to the bus stop, the airport, and then home.

I can't speak highly enough of Venice. My unfounded view that everyone would be strutting around in sharp Armani suits and sunglasses couldn't have been more wrong. The puffa jacket was the garment of choice and the whole atmosphere was pleasantly relaxed. So much so that, as we'd made a bit more of an effort for our visit to Il Ridotto on the Saturday night, we actually felt massively overdressed.

The city itself is a wonderful warren of streets and bridges, with something new to see round every corner and up every alleyway. Yes, it's full of tourists but it's surprisingly easy to venture off and lose the crowds and there are real rewards to be had by doing so. I can definitely say that I'd go back to Venice without a second thought. The city of romance certainly stole our hearts.






Thursday, 19 March 2015

Nottingham Forest 2 - 0 Rotherham United

Thirty five minutes into what was, up to that point, a somewhat turgid encounter, my mind started to wander from the uninspiring fare in front of me to my Half Time Tweet. How would I sum up the match so far? I'd just about settled on "Well, that was 45 minutes (plus 2 minutes stoppage time) of my life I'll never get back," when two great goals in as many minutes had consigned the tweet to remain forever in drafts, and Rotherham United to defeat. How quickly things can change!

One thing that didn't change was Nottingham Forest's starting lineup however. Matt Fryatt's troublesome Achilles wasn't risked, so Dexter Blackstock remained the lone striker ahead of the usual five-man midfield. Eric Lichaj and Michael Mancienne continued as round pegs, er, full backs and, on the bench, new signing Modou Barrow took Lars Veldwijk's substitute berth. Rotherham included ex-Reds Jack Hunt and Matt Derbyshire, the latter of whom was partnered in attack by the lumpen former Derby goal-machine....., hmm, no. Striker? Barely. Former Derby player Conor Sammon. 

The opening exchanges were as pedestrian as a smart, inner-city square surrounded by bars and restaurants. Rotherham kept possession well without testing Karl Darlow, though they did cause some bother down their right flank where Hunt and Sammon were often 2-on-1 against Lichaj, due to Michail Antonio deciding that tracking back was something other people did. Going the other way though, Antonio sent an early shot wide and produced a typically muscular run which ended in him crumpling in a heap in the penalty area. As this was at the other end of the pitch from me I couldn't tell either way, but the Lower Bridgford seemed miffed that a spot kick hadn't been awarded. Another Antonio rampage was halted, this time outside the area, and Henri Lansbury sent the resultant free kick over the bar. It looked as though the first half would end frustratingly goalless, until the two moments that changed and decided the contest. 

I have to admit, I missed seeing the first goal live as I was mid-Twitter rant about the ineptitude of the unlikely-looking referee. Having seen the replays though, I can assure you that Antonio lofted a ball down the left which bounced nicely into Blackstock's path. The rejuvenated striker in turn lobbed a shot over Miller's keeper Adam Collin, whose despairing dive could only tip the ball onto the underside of the crossbar and in. 

One became two barely a minute later when Antonio picked up the ball in his own half, from about the same position where he'd set up Blackstock's goal. This time though he just got his head down and ran, brushing aside three (admittedly unconvincing) challenges and thumping a low drive past the helpless Collin from just outside the box. Had this been a Saturday match it would've been another sure-fire winner of Sky Sports' Goal of the Day, but instead it just made the score 2-0 and Dougie Freedman's half time team talk a far more pleasant experience. 

The second half followed a similar theme to the first, with spells of largely ineffectual Rotherham possession punctuated by somewhat more dangerous looking Forest attacks. The visitors did come closer to scoring than in the first 45 minutes though, with Lee Frecklington hitting the post and Sammon forcing Darlow into a good save. 

At the other end, Forest just couldn't quite extend their lead. Another couple of Antonio runs ended respectively in a blocked shot and a dangerous cross which was whipped off the toes of Chris Burke. I say "runs" but that barely does them justice. You know when Super Mario eats the flower thing that makes him invincible and then just squashes anything in his path? That's the kind of run. 

Anyway, Gary Gardner curled an effort just wide and a long period of passing saw Barrow - who looked quick and lively on his debut - find Burke with a decent cross, only for the Scotsman's shot to be deflected wide. Despite the blond, flowing-locked promptings of Ben Pringle, Rotherham never looked like scoring and, just before full time, Tyler Walker - son of Forest legend Des - made his Reds bow. He only got two touches, but they were good ones, chesting down a high ball before laying it off to a teammate. Full time whistle. Job done. Three more points. 

Forest weren't at their best but did enough to just about keep pace with the top six. The defence was solid enough and Gardner was again impressive in midfield. What a loss he'll be when he presumably returns to Villa Park next season. Blackstock again ran his socks off and was rewarded and, as for Antonio, well...

Imagine a slightly stronger but a bit more clumsy version of Stan Collymore who plays wide midfield and you'll begin to get the picture of what he's like. At times he can look dreadful, conceding possession easily before standing in disgust at his own profligacy. But at other times, as with his goal, he's totally unplayable. His pace and strength must make him a nightmare to defend against. Indeed there's a great picture doing the rounds of him hunched over the ball, surrounded by five Rotherham defenders. Strength of numbers is sometimes the only way to stop him. 

So, next up are the three matches which will probably shape the rest of our season. Norwich may be too far ahead to catch (though a win would put us only seven points behind them with as many matches to play), and a draw at Carrow Road would be a fine result. Then, over Easter, we host Wolves and visit Brentford. The outcomes of these matches could see us firmly in the playoff mix, or wondering why we even thought about reaching them at all. As Dougie said in his post-match interview, there's often one team that comes from nowhere to snatch a top six place. All we can do is keep on winning, and you never know, it just might be us. 

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

How We're Playing, We Don't Need Rhodes

When I logged onto Twitter this morning and checked the #NFFC hashtag, I was greeted by the unlikely sight of a report from The Sun claiming that Nottingham Forest were readying a club-record £8m bid for Blackburn Rovers striker Jordan Rhodes. As Forest are currently under a well-publicised transfer embargo, it was easy to dismiss this report as nonsense; agent-talk to drum up interest in Blackburn’s prize asset. However, the report openly mentioned Forest’s embargo and it was penned by the reasonably well-respected Alan Nixon (who broke the Lascelles and Darlow to Newcastle story in the summer). So, could there be any truth in it? And if there was, would it be a good thing?

Unlikely as it seems, I suppose there is some small chance of this deal happening. Rovers, like Forest, are also currently under a transfer embargo. With the current form of Rudy Gestede, Rhodes’ importance to the Lancashire club is not as great as it was, despite his exceptional goal-scoring record. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that – with little left to play for this season – they could be persuaded to loan him out and get at least some part of his wages off their bill. By the terms of Forest’s embargo however, the most they could contribute to Rhodes’ wages would be £10k per week. With Derby and Norwich also allegedly keen on securing his services, surely both he and Rovers would be better off moving to one of those clubs, no?

Forest may have offered a greater amount for a permanent signing fee than the other interested clubs, but to agree to that would take a massive amount of faith on Rovers’ part, as it hinges totally on Forest being in the Premier League – which is a remote chance at best. No promotion, no permanent deal. Would Rovers really sign up to that?

And if they did, and by some miracle this deal happened, what would it mean for the rest of Forest’s season? In Rhodes, Forest would be acquiring a striker with a great goalscoring record, there’s no doubt about that. But the team are playing really well at the moment with the resources they already have. Dougie Freedman’s 4-5-1/4-3-3 is working brilliantly, with both Dexter Blackstock and Matt Fryatt contributing a lot, if not necessarily in terms of goals, then certainly in effort, defending from the front and bringing the midfield into play. How would Rhodes change that dynamic?

The more worrying part for me would be the increased expectation that Rhodes’ arrival would bring. Sure, Forest still have a chance of reaching the playoffs but, with nine points to make up in only ten matches, it’s a slim one. Securing the services of Rhodes might make Fawaz al Hasawi think he’s bought a guaranteed ticket to the end-of-season carnival, which would definitely not be the case. If we did sign Rhodes, and failed to make the playoffs, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Fawaz would sack Freedman for his ‘failure.’ And that would be bad. We’d be back to square one (again) and would have lost a manager who’s had a fantastic impact in his brief time here.

Would I like to see a striker of Jordan Rhodes’ quality in the Garibaldi? Of course I would. But in this case I won’t be too disappointed if the paper-talk turns out to be just that.

Unless he goes to Derby.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Nottingham Forest 2 - 1 Middlesbrough

I believe it was Arnold Palmer who is reported to have said "The more I practice, the luckier I get." It would be rather unfair - and totally inaccurate - to label the impact that Dougie Freedman has had since he took over as Nottingham Forest manager as luck. However, things seem to have fallen into place for Freedman more than they did for Stuart Pearce. Opposition shots are missing rather than flying in, passes are going astray, defenders are slipping, that kind of thing. It's hard to imagine Pearce's Forest pulling off the gritty rearguard actions that Freedman's Reds managed against Bournemouth and Middlesbrough, but these two very similar victories were secured by solid resolve, hard work and taking chances. Certainly not luck.

Following Freedman's first defeat as Forest manager he was forced into more changes than he's had to make in any of his matches so far. Both Matt Fryatt and Danny Fox suffered minor knocks; so Dexter Blackstock started up front and Eric Lichaj returned to the familiarly unfamiliar left back berth. Kelvin Wilson returned in place of Danny Collins, while Michael Mancienne lined up in midfield, replacing Ben Osborn. One suspects that Collins and Osborn were feeling the pace after the recent run of matches, rather than anything more sinister.

There was a distinctly Forest flavour to the visitors' team too, as Patrick Bamford and goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos made their City Ground returns. Boro also fielded Grant Leadbitter, Albert Adomah and George Friend, all of whom had been linked with moves to Forest at one time or another,

The opening exchanges were somewhat scrappy, possibly due to the strong wind which was blasting across the ground. Michail Antonio's deflected shot forced Dimi (I'm not typing Konstantopoulos out every time I mention him) into a good save. Gradually though, Boro started to turn the screw, finding space down the left and keeping Lichaj very busy. One of these forays won them a corner, which was taken short (we never learn) and found Leadbitter. His attempted cross looped over Karl Darlow, hit the far post, rebounded off Mancienne and into the net to give the Teesside team the lead. After having lost against Charlton, this looked like a big test for Forest.

It was a test which the players were equal to. Blackstock flashed a header wide from a Gary Gardner cross, before Gardner himself levelled things up with a wonderful curling shot from outside the penalty area. Boro were forced to replace the dangerous Ryan Fredericks due to injury - which made Lichaj's afternoon a lot easier - and the first half ended with honours even.

The second half started even more scrappily than the first, scrappier than a scrap metal merchant impersonating Scrappy Doo in fact. Simple passes were misplaced, longer ones were misjudged and neither side could keep possession. Antonio in particular was having one of those afternoons, when balls which usually stuck to him ended up bouncing off at angles as yet undiscovered by science.

But then, as he has done so often this season, he clicked. A rampaging run forced Tomas Kalas to concede a corner, though much of the Trent End thought it should've been a penalty; then, barely minutes later, another gallop down the left saw Antonio find Blackstock in the box. The ball seemed to be stuck under the striker's feet but he somehow dug out a shot with enough power to find the top corner and give Forest the lead. It was a really good finish which topped off his 150th appearance in the Garibaldi very nicely indeed.

From then on in, the Reds sat deep and Boro dominated possession. The rest of the second half went something like: pass pass shot blocked pass cross cleared pass shot blocked cross cleared shot hit the post goal kick. For all the visitors' efforts though, I can only remember Darlow making one real save. Forest didn't offer much more themselves but in the end they didn't need to, and the Charlton defeat was well and truly forgotten as another hard-won victory was secured.

I won't lie, the second half was difficult to watch at times as Forest defended very deep and let Boro dictate the play, but it's hard to question Freedman's tactics as the visitors couldn't find a way through, with their only goal coming courtesy of a fluke. It would be easy to say that better teams might have punished Forest, but there aren't many better teams in the division; and the one team who probably are better - Bournemouth - suffered the same fate.

The top of the Championship is ridiculously close, with one point separating the top five teams and five points separating the top seven. Of Forest's remaining ten matches, five of them are against teams currently above us. Our fate may not be in our own hands, but results like this one ensures there's enough to play for to keep things interesting. It always is with us. It always is.



Thursday, 26 February 2015

Nottingham Forest 2 - 1 AFC Bournemouth

As I was walking to the City Ground to watch Nottingham Forest's match against AFC Bournemouth, the strangest thing happened. A black cat walked past me, then, a moment later, so did another. Was it the same cat? Possibly, I don't know. Then, seemingly from nowhere two figures appeared, clad from head to toe in clothes of obsidian hue. A man there was, and a woman. They spoke to me: "Deja vu," the man proclaimed. "It's a glitch in the Matrix." "It happens when they change something," added the woman. And with that they were gone, bounding effortlessly over a nearby house. After the match, after Forest had held out for a thrilling but frankly unlikely 2-1 victory, having come back from a goal behind, another surge of deja vu washed over me, because a few months earlier they'd done exactly the same thing. Then I realised what had changed. The manager.

The match against Bournemouth presented Dougie Freedman with his sternest test as Forest manager to date, as it previously had for Stuart Pearce. Forest conceded first against a confident team which dominated possession, as they had before; but then got a foothold in the match, clawed their way in front and hung on for dear life. The parallels were there. Even more so when you compare the records for both managers' first five matches in charge: four wins and a draw. Hopefully after match ten the similarities will end though, and our form won't dive off a cliff like an over-enthusiastic lemming.

Unsurprisingly, Freedman picked the same XI - and indeed substitutes - that put his former club Bolton to the sword last time out. A welcome luxury this season. The visitors influential midfielder Matt Ritchie was declared fit to play, but striker Yann Kermogant missed out, and ex-Reds Lee Camp and Elliot Ward could only make the bench.

As in the previous match, there was to be no gentle start to the game. This time however it was the visitors who tore into Forest before the pea in referee Nigel Miller's whistle had finished vibrating from him blowing to start proceedings. An early corner was played short and a Simon Francis header forced Karl Darlow to tip over. The resultant corner was played short again, laid off to Andrew Surman, and curled wonderfully past Darlow's despairing grasp. Now we'd see what Dougie's men were made of.

If the next ten minutes were anything to go by, the answer was jelly. Bournemouth attacked Forest with gusto, speed and variety. Spells of short-passing possession punctuated by raking crossfield passes and lightning fast set pieces. The diminutive but dastardly Ritchie, and his clone on the other flank Ryan Fraser, were particularly threatening. Corners were won and shots blocked. Callum Wilson - whose pace was matched only by his annoyingness - blocked a Darlow clearance and fired into the side netting.

The knockout punch of a second goal didn't come though and gradually Forest dragged themselves off the ropes and started fighting back. Michail Antonio scuffed a decent chance wide before the Reds won a succession of corners. The last of these found its way to Jamaal Lascelles who drove home the equaliser from just inside the area. Twenty minutes in and we were level pegging.

The remainder of the first half was more even. Bournemouth continued to look dangerous and Eric Lichaj had his hands full; firstly being nutmegged by the slippery Fraser and seemingly bringing him down (though nothing was given), then sending Adam Smith into orbit and becoming the first Forest player to be booked since Freedman took over. Forest had chances too though, with a flowing move ending in Henri Lansbury forcing a save from Cherries' keeper Artur Boruc, and Antonio stinging Boruc's palms with a rasping drive.

Just before half time Antonio was hauled down by Francis to win a free kick just outside the area. As the visitors lined up their wall, I remarked to those sitting nearby that there was a nice gap which was only partially blocked by one of their pocket-sized wingers. Up stepped Lansbury to obligingly make me look like a football oracle by curling a precise shot into said gap to give Forest the lead. A perfect finish to a fantastic half of football.

The second half lacked the intensity of the first but still produced excitement. Lascelles nearly extended Forest's lead, but his header from another Ben Osborn corner was cleared off the line. Lansbury twice went close to repeating his free kick heroics and an Osborn stinger was smartly held by Boruc. Bournemouth once again enjoyed the lion's share of possession (though I'm not sure why a lion would want a football), but didn't truly test Darlow, apart from making him kick his clearances past Wilson who insisted on trying to block each one. Wilson further endeared himself to the home fans by tumbling in the area but no penalty was given.

Michael Mancienne was eased back into the action in place of Chris Burke, and Matt Fryatt and Lars Veldwijk replaced Dexter Blackstock and Antonio, both of whom had run themselves insensible. The Dutchman saw a late shot blocked as Bournemouth pressed forward and left spaces behind. There was to be no further scoring however as Forest held out for a victory which had looked unbelievable when they'd fallen behind.

This was every bit as satisfying as the rout of Bolton, albeit for different reasons. Despite Bournemouth's possession - and they certainly did dominate it - the Reds' back line stayed disciplined and solid. Lichaj eventually saw off Fraser who was substituted in the second half. The midfield and Blackstock were chasing the ball for most of the match but they stuck with it, and eventually the Cherries' passing got more and more ragged as control gave way to desperation.

The gap to the top six still looks too large to be bridged, but that the playoffs are even being discussed at all is testament to the impact that Dougie Freedman has had since being appointed. History says that one team often makes a late dash into the end-of-season shenanigans. Even if we can't claim an unlikely playoff place, the last few performances have been a pleasure to watch. Let's hope there's more to come.






Saturday, 21 February 2015

Nottingham Forest 4 - 1 Bolton Wanderers

"Never a dull moment" is a sentence which has been used to describe events at Nottingham Forest all-too-frequently over the last few months. This time, for once, it summed up events on the pitch, and if anything, didn't do them justice.

Five goals, two penalties, two serious injuries resulting in a total of sixteen minutes of stoppage time, one red card (which could have been three), an ex-England striker playing at centre half and, happily for Reds fans, three points. I think that's the lot.

Following the ridiculous 4-4 draw away at Blackpool, Dougie Freedman was forced into shuffling his Forest pack for the visit of his former club Bolton Wanderers, due to the injury suffered by Jack Hobbs. Presumably he felt the game had come too soon for Michael Mancienne and Kelvin Wilson, as it was Jamaal Lascelles who lined up alongside Danny Collins in the centre of defence, with the other two starting on the substitutes' bench. Dexter Blackstock got the nod up-front ahead of Matt Fryatt and the rest of the team was as you were. The visitors, alas, left their veteran striking partnership of Emile Heskey and Eider Gudjohnsen on their bench, with the dangerous Adam Le Fondre and promising Zach Clough spearheading their attack.

Normally I'd start these reviews with "both teams passed it around nicely without looking dangerous," but that wasn't the case this time as Forest fairly flew out of the blocks. Two minutes had elapsed when Henri Lansbury forced a save from Bolton keeper Andy Lonergan with a free kick. Five minutes later Lansbury knocked a decent chance over the bar, and two minutes after that Forest were ahead. Lansbury's diagonal ball sought out Chris Burke and, when the Trotters left back slipped, Burke was clean through. Lonergan blocked his first attempt but the rebound popped up nicely for the reinvigorated Scotsman to volley home.

Almost straight from the restart Burke saw another shot blocked and Lascelles headed wide from the resultant corner. Then we were lucky enough to witness one of the best individual goals I've ever seen at the City Ground. Michail Antonio picked the ball up in midfield, muscled his way past about four Bolton defenders and smashed his shot past the helpless Lonergan to double Forest's lead.

For the next ten minutes or so, Antonio was totally unplayable. Two rampaging runs and crosses created chances for Burke (blocked) and Lansbury (tipped wide). Antonio himself headed over from the second corner and it seemed just a matter of time before Forest netted again. It wasn't to be though - at least not yet.

A nasty looking injury to Wanderers' defender Tim Ream saw a lengthy stoppage and Ream being replaced. The Reds switched off a little and Bolton gained in confidence. A goalmouth scramble was eventually cleared before, deep into stoppage time, Danny Fox upended Zach Clough in the penalty area. No arguments from where I was sitting and Adam Le Fondre calmly rolled the spot kick past Karl Darlow to get Bolton back into the match. A 2-1 half time lead for Forest was scant reward  for their excellent play and one wondered how they'd react to conceding just before the break.

One needn't have worried though. The second half had scarcely begun before Bolton's Matt Mills had received his second yellow card for a foul on the rampant Antonio. The visitors' subsequent central defensive crisis treated us to the unlikely spectacle of Emile Heskey - a half-time substitute - lining up in the heart of their defence. Not, I imagine, what he expected when he took the field.

Ten minutes later and the match was effectively over as a contest. A woefully short back header, possibly by Heskey, was intercepted by Blackstock who appeared to be flattened by Lonergan as he skipped round him. The referee pointed to the penalty spot but the predictable - and probably justified - howls for a red card were halted when it became apparent that Lonergan was seriously hurt. Eventually he was stretched off - sans red card - and replaced by Ben Amos. His first task was to pick Lansbury's penalty out of the net after the Forest man had thumped it past him.

Moments afterwards it was four for Forest as Heskey went all WWE on Blackstock just outside the penalty area. The ball ran free for Burke to sweep home his second and cap an excellent display. Maybe he understands Dougie's Scottish brogue better than Stuart Pearce's Cockney promptings; but whatever the reason Burke has looked a different player since Freedman took the reins.

The bedlam calmed down pretty much after that. Heskey's every touch was cheered and indeed, as Lonergan was receiving his treatment, the Forest fans implored him to go in nets. Le Fondre was lucky to escape with just a yellow card after a horrendous foul on Gary Gardner and Lars Veldwijk reappeared but alas couldn't break his Forest duck. Some one hundred and six minutes after the match kicked off, it ended as a comfortable victory for the Reds.

Bolton were probably the stiffest opposition Forest had faced since Freedman arrived as manager so the manner in which they were brushed aside is very encouraging. It was particularly satisfying to have made such a good start and to have forced our opponents to chase the game early on, rather than the other way round. As I mentioned earlier, Chris Burke seems a different player at the moment and Henry Lansbury's return to form has also proved very welcome. For a manager who is supposed to play dour football, a return of fourteen goals in four games is impressive to say the least.

Sterner tests await of course, starting on Wednesday night with the visit of Bournemouth. A run at the playoffs might be asking a bit much but if this current run of form continues we'll enjoy a good finish to the season. And hopefully the on-the-field action can continue to be the focus. As it should be.









Thursday, 12 February 2015

Nottingham Forest 3 - 0 Wigan Athletic

Those thoroughly decent chaps at Seat Pitch are hosting this match review, so get yourself over there and check it out.

It's here. No, not there, here

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Wonderful Windows

It was the marshmallows. They were what did it. They looked so innocent and enticing; pastel-coloured cubes of sweetness sitting in their jar. The lightness of the desserts had revived me after I was flagging at the end of the main course. But the marshmallows - and I only had two of them - they made me feel as if I were going to explode. I can't stay mad at them though. They, along with everything else at Galvin at Windows, were served up to please us. And, like everything else, they succeeded.

We'd first heard of Galvin at Windows a few years ago, courtesy of an excellent BBC 2 series called 'Service.' Fronted by Michel Roux Jr., Service followed the journey of a number of young people looking to make their mark in the service industry. I wrote about it not long after it finished in fact. Anyway, assisting Roux in mentoring the youngsters was a French front-of-house expert called Fred Siriex who headed up - and indeed still heads up - the serving team at Galvin at Windows. So, we'd known about the restaurant for some time but had never got round to visiting. Was it worth the wait...? You could say that.

From the moment we stepped out of the lift on the 28th floor of the Hilton on Park Lane, we were treated to a memorable experience. As its name suggests, Windows offers spectacular views of London from almost every seat, and ours didn't disappoint, looking out over Park Lane and Baker Street. Right from the start, the atmosphere seemed relaxed and warm. Upon reaching our table we were presented with two postcards which we could address to anywhere in the world, and the restaurant would send them on our behalves.



Even more impressively, we were presented with a complementary glass of Champagne each, courtesy of the aforementioned Monsieur Siriex. I'd tweeted him earlier in the week to say we were visiting and ask if he'd be working that night. Though he wasn't, he still arranged for us to receive the drinks (I checked the bill afterwards and they were indeed complementary). It was an amazing touch, which I can't imagine would be replicated at many restaurants. We'd already decided to go for the Menu Degustation - the tasting menu with accompanying wines - some time before, so it wasn't long before our bread was delivered and the meal could begin.

The amuse bouche was a velvet-smooth artichoke veloute which coated a cluster of potato, truffle shavings and ham. This was served up with a small crispbread covered in chicken liver parfait and it would've made a great 'proper' course. The first course proper was even better however. Seared Scottish scallops sensationally submerged in shellfish bisque with sea vegetables. The scallops were cooked perfectly, still slightly springy with an expertly seared exterior. The greens added further crunch and the bisque was so intensely flavoured I wouldn't have been surprised if a lobster had popped out.

Next up was a ballotine of foie gras, served up with prunes, orange purée, crumbled gingerbread and a slab of sweet brioche. Again, this was a perfectly balanced dish, with the richness of the foie gras nicely offset by the sweet prunes and bread and finished with the merest of heat from the crunchy gingerbread. What a start to the meal.

The fish course consisted of a flaky hunk of halibut surrounded by a rich ragout of mushrooms. Think Birds Eye Cod in Mushroom sauce, but elevated to food heaven. The fish was coated by another deeply flavoured shellfish emulsion and the whole dish was another delight.

Onto the main course, which was, unusually, pork. To be precise, a medallion of Iberico pork, served pink with cavolo nero, cubes of pork cheek, a smooth carrot and cumin purée and a spiced sauce. This was finished off with a mini crispy spring roll, which contained another helping of the pork cheek. Salty, sweet, spongy and spicy; this main was another excellent dish, though the richness and the generosity of the portion size had me considering loosening my belt.

Thankfully both the pre-dessert and dessert itself were light and not overly sweet, perfect for settling my seriously strained stomach. The former was a sharp rhubarb compote enveloping a fluffy chocolate mousse and orange foam. This delightful goo was sprinkled with some spheres of popping candy to add flavour and texture. The latter was a floaty-light nougat parfait coated with crunchy Muscavado meringues. Persimmon purée added sharpness while a quenelle of unusual black pepper ice cream provided both coolness and heat.



We chose to finish our meal with a coffee each (served with pleasant petit fours), though we chickened out of the offer of a digestif spirit, having had wine with each course. The marshmallows I mentioned earlier - cherry and apple flavoured - were served up with the bill.

Our meal was brilliant but what really made the whole evening was the service. Warm and informal throughout and a marked contrast to the slight stuffiness of Dinner, where we'd eaten a couple of weeks previously. The pacing was great throughout, with no overly-long waits but also no sense of being rushed. The waiting staff and sommelier explained each course and wine in detail and answered any questions we threw at them. The gift of the Champagne was the icing on the most wonderful of cakes.

I have no idea what criteria the Michelin inspectors use to award their stars but I'm baffled that Galvin at Windows has only one. This was easily one of the best meals, and indeed evenings, we've ever had, and we'd definitely visit again. 


  



Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Enough is Enough

As the rest of the footballing world went into a Sky-induced tizzy over Transfer Deadline Day, Nottingham Forest fans were watching the proceedings from between their fingers, horror film behind the sofa style, while simultaneously trying to make some sense of the happenings of the previous day. Indeed, from a Forest perspective, the best thing about Deadline Day was making it through without selling any of our better players. Unfortunately, we also didn't sell any of those who, quite frankly, need selling. But hey - be thankful for small mercies.

Where to start picking apart this madness? Loved and revered as Stuart Pearce was (and still is), results and performances had got to the point where, when Forest issued the statement saying he had left the club, it was almost a merciful release. No sooner had the virtual ink dried on this before the club made a further proclamation, announcing Dougie Freedman as the new manager. We were without a boss for somewhere around 45 minutes. Hmm. So THAT hadn't been arranged in advance then...

The fallout of this questionable process was felt early Monday morning, when news broke that CEO Paul Faulkner - who had been in the role barely months - had tendered his resignation and been put on gardening leave. It's a bit frosty for tending the petunias at the moment, so one can only assume his decision was based on how the sacking and hiring had been carried out.

Then, to round things off nicely, the Monday evening saw a Twitter-based rant from Darragh MacAnthony - the owner and chairman of Peterborough United - aimed at an unnamed Championship club. The gist of it was that the Posh couldn't make any late signings because said club had left Peterborough waiting for payments due for the purchase of a player, and not, allegedly, for the first time. Though no names were mentioned, it doesn't take a genius to guess who the target of MacAnthony's ire probably is: Nottingham Forest and Fawaz al Hasawi.

The sacking of Pearce, though heart-rending, was probably justified. Results and performances just weren't good enough. If one were being generous, one could just about paint the hasty appointment of Freedman in a positive light. No long wait; no period of uncertainty; quick transition; Freedman started well at Palace; used to working within financial constraints; yada yada yada. But the resignation of Faulkner and - if true - the issues with Peterborough...? Both are unforgivable.

I've been 100% behind Fawaz since he acquired the club nearly three years ago. But, after yesterday, as the title of this post says: enough is enough. The club cannot go on being run like this. I'm not for one second questioning Fawaz's financial contribution, nor his commitment and desire to make Forest successful. I'm questioning his ability to do it.

No plan; no strategy; late payments; winding up orders; inexperienced advisors in senior roles; not standing back and letting those who ARE experienced get on with their jobs. All of these things are avoidable. Mistakes like the shambolic appointments of McLeish and Davies are forgiveable for someone finding their feet in English football. But the other issues are not.

If I was pumping massive amounts of money into a business would I want to be close to it, to know what was going on? Of course I would. But I'd want it to be successful and respected a hell of a lot more. And if I was aware that I needed help to make it successful and respected then I'd get that help - the best help I could afford and attract. Yes, MacAnthony's diatribe may not have been professional. Yes, he himself might have behaved questionably in the past. That's not the point though. Episodes like this not only damage the club's reputation, but they could quite conceivably make other clubs not want to deal with us. And as we're now stuck in the stinking bog of FFP we need all the allies we can get.

Yet, having said all this, I don't really want Fawaz to leave the club. I've seen his passion, his reactions in good times and bad. Getting Forest promoted would make him as happy as it would make us all. What I want is for him to put aside his pride, admit that he needs experienced help in running the club, get that help, then let them get on with it. Keep his friends as just that, rather than, as it appears, giving them key positions in the club. If used properly, his financial backing could do amazing things for Nottingham Forest. The problem is though, none of this looks likely. If it hasn't happened in the two-and-a-half years he's been here, it's not likely to happen any time soon.

Anyway, back on the field the season continues on Saturday with Dougie Freedman's first game in charge, away at Brighton and Hove Albion. He's inherited a squad brimming with potential and talent. Can he get the best out of it? We'll have to wait and see. Either way, I wish him all the very best of luck. Recent history suggests he's going to need it.