Saturday, 31 January 2015

Nottingham Forest 0 - 1 Millwall

It's my own fault I suppose. I should have foreseen it. The portents were there after all. It was, as the build up to Super Sunday proclaims every week ''Written in the Stars." Bogey team, bogey manager, bogey discounted tickets promotion. A Kids for a Quid game against a Millwall team we "should beat," managed by Ian Holloway. A perfect storm of shitness. And the cherry turd on top of the whole faecal cake was that the goal was softer than a piglet eating a marshmallow, and was scored by veteran uber-lummox Ricardo Fuller. Football doesn't get shitter than this.

Where to begin? The team news? Yes, ok then. A sickness bug meant that Gary Gardner had to drop out of the squad this time round, and the game was perhaps too soon for Matt Fryatt to start, though he did take a place on the substitutes' bench. As did Eric Lichaj, meaning that Stephen McLaughlin started at left back with Todd Kane on the right. Millwall named a team of giants, with left back Shaun Williams, centre half Jos Hooiveld and forward Stefan Maierhofer particularly enormous.

It became clear soon after kick-off that we were lining up with Michail Antonio playing up front alongside Britt Assombalonga, and indeed it was Antonio who was to have the first half-chance, as he broke clear down the left, only for his cross to find a Millwall defender. This was to become a recurring theme. A bungled free kick from the visitors gave Antonio another chance, but his low shot hit the leg of Lions' keeper David Forde and ricocheted to safety. After this bright start though, Millwall gained in confidence and started to get a foothold in the game. A few long-range efforts flew wide, before a Mark Beevers header forced an excellent save from Dorus de Vries. The first half ended goalless which was probably a fair scoreline. We weren't playing well but at least we weren't 1-0 down. Or 3-0 down for that matter.

The second half started a bit more brightly but it was hardly batten-down-the-hatches stuff. A Robert Tesche curler from outside the box hit the crossbar, as did an Assombalonga header from an Antonio cross. Henri Lansbury also pinged an effort from range which narrowly missed the top corner and may have hit the crossbar. It looked for all the world like one of those "play until midnight and nobody will score" matches. Or, if anyone was to score it'd be the Reds. Wrrrroooonnnnnngggggg.

An aimless Millwall free kick found the head of McLaughlin, who tried to cushion it back to De Vries but left his header short. In nipped substitute Ricardo Fuller to pilfer the ball ahead of the Forest keeper and roll it into the empty net. Joy for the away fans, and the home crowd all started shouting for booze. Or at least that's what it sounded like. The Reds never looked like netting an equaliser and that was that. The Derby away match was consigned even further to the memory banks.

I can't really single out any Forest players for praise today. Neither can I fathom how a team who played so well in the second half away against Derby could manage to produce such an indifferent display against Millwall. Nobody was obviously dreadful either, though in my opinion it was Michail Antonio's worse game since he joined the club. Almost every cross seemed to hit a defender and his decision making was questionable. It's a bit harsh to single him out however.

Stuart Pearce was a hero as a Nottingham Forest player. I, and I'm sure the massive majority of Forest fans, desperately want him to succeed as a manager, to take us back to the top flight where he used to represent our club with such commitment and vigour. But I don't think he will. And I'm not sure he even can. And that makes me sad.

Is it Pearce's fault that we hit the bar twice? That we gave away such a horrifically bad goal? No, of course not. But our football has been shockingly poor at times. We're on a wretched run and it seems hard to see where the next win will come from, even against poor opposition. And, much as it pains me to say it, the buck for that has to stop with Pearce.

The players are not performing as well as they can - of that there can be no doubt. They've shown us they can play better, but they've not done it anywhere near enough. The number of times they've dominated matches this season is far, far too small. Yes, any team would suffer from losing the likes of Chris Cohen and Andy Reid for the length of time that we have, but it's not like the rest of the squad is full of callow youths. In fact it's ironic that the callowest of our youths - Ben Osborn - has probably been the one bright spark during this current excruciating run. His late, great goal at the iPro looked like it would kickstart our season, but since then we've lapsed back into rubbishness. And if such a dramatic win can't motivate us for the rest of the campaign then I'm not sure what will.

It's not my job to work this out though - it's currently Stuart Pearce's. If the team plays like they did against Millwall however, it might not be for much longer. Pearce being sacked would bring me no joy whatsoever - it would be heartbreaking. But it's getting to the point where it might be for the best.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Dinner's a winner, but it won't make you thinner

January is, by any measure, a pretty depressing month. Going back to work after a few days off, likely with a few extra pounds to shift after festive overindulgences and in miserable weather, there's not much to recommend the first 31 days of the year. So, to break up the gloom of the month, Clare and I have got into the habit of arranging something special to look forward to. Previous Januaries have seen visits to Hibiscus and Hawksmoor for delicious meals: in 2015 we decided to go to dinner. No, I mean dinner. At Dinner.

Since it opened in the January of 2015, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the world of gastronomy, as a Michelin star was garnered very quickly, followed by a second. It's also (at the time of writing) rated a heady 5th in the World's 50 Best Restaurants. Impressive stuff from such a new establishment. Busy since its opening, Dinner operates a rolling 90 day booking window which we watched like hawks until the day for booking for our preferred visit arrived. We were delighted to secure a table for two.

Unlike Blumenthal's other restaurant The Fat Duck, Dinner's concept is, well, dinner. Or, more precisely, the menus are based around historic British dishes with enticing names like Rice and Flesh, Savoury Porridge and the rather more mysterious Frumenty. Each dish's listing contains a year which, apparently, is roughly when the dish was first conceived. Indeed some of the offerings date back as far as the 14th century. Also unlike The Fat Duck, and many fine dining restaurants, Dinner has no tasting menu, just an a la carte.

Following an extravagant cocktail each at the Mandarin Hotel's (where the restaurant is based) cocktail bar, we were ushered into the dining room and to our seats. The main room is large and spacious and a glass wall allows viewing of the actual kitchen, where the myriad chefs can be seen scurrying around their stations. We selected our wine, water and menu choices, polished off our bread and waited for the feast to begin.

After a wait which was on the long side of acceptable (we didn't quite get to the 'tutting' phase), our starters were presented. Clare chose the Roast Scallops, which were accompanied with roasted and ketchuped (if that's a word) cucumber, while I opted for one of the restaurant's signature dishes - Meat Fruit. Allegedly hailing from around the year 1500, Meat Fruit looks like a small orange. Contained within the orangey coating however is the smoothest and lightest of chicken liver and foie gras parfaits. The outer casing is in fact a mandarin gel, which adds some much appreciated sharpness to the dish, as the parfait itself is very rich. The Freat (or Muit) is presented with some crunchy olive oil toast to round off a simple, but very effective starter.

For our mains, I plumped for the Spiced Pigeon and Clare went for the Hereford Ribeye steak. If I'm honest, I didn't detect much spice on the pigeon. The meat though was perfectly cooked, very pink but springy and delicious. The ale and artichokes which joined the bird on the plate provided a pleasantly sour kick and the sauce was rich and glossy. Clare's steak was also pleasingly pink with a nicely chargrilled carapace. The mushroom ketchup which was part of the dish was tremendous but the triple-cooked chips - whilst perfectly enjoyable - didn't quite hit the Hawksmoor standard. That is a very high bar mind you.

The two extra sides we ordered - mashed potatoes and butter sprout hearts - were both wonderful however. Mash so light and fluffy it wouldn't have looked out of place in the sky of a lightly-clouded spring day, and crunchy, salty sprouts, both complemented the mains nicely. Clare found the sprouts a little salty whereas I - who has been known to drink the soy sauce in the little plastic fish that you get with Boots sushi - thought they were perfect.

And so, to dessert. Ah......the desserts. If the first two courses hadn't blown us away then the desserts more than made up for them. As soon as our booking had been confirmed I'd had my eye on the Brown Bread Ice Cream and it didn't disappoint. The quenelle of silky ice cream really did taste like a slice of Warburton's finest. Our excellent waitress Sarah advised me to try some on its own first - which I duly did - and then to scoop a spoonful along with the cubed pear and sticky malted yeast syrup which made up the rest of the dish. It was a heavenly, gooey and sticky delight.

If I'd been making eyes at the Brown Bread Ice Cream for a while, Clare was equally enamoured by the Tipsy Cake, which took a while to prepare and needed to be ordered at the same time as the starters and mains. The reason for the preparation time became apparent as it was served; as it was a freshly-made fluffy brioche which housed a rum and vanilla laced custard. Sweetness and texture came in the form of a slice of spit-roast pineapple, and Clare certainly seemed to enjoy her pudding as much as I did mine.

A little bonus dish came in the form of an Earl Grey tea infused chocolate ganache served with a crunchy lemony snicket. I mean biscuit. There was also the option of having ice cream freshly made at our table - by a chef pouring liquid nitrogen into an egg custard and adding various crunchy toppings. The theatre of this was wonderful, but full stomachs meant we passed on eating it and settled for observing other tables having it made.

Service throughout was very good, and our waitress was clearly an old hand at taking photographs of satisfied diners. Our wine was reasonably priced for such an establishment, as was the whole bill to be honest. Overall this was a thoroughly enjoyable meal and experience. We've not eaten in any of the other restaurants in the top 10 of the aforementioned World's 50 Best list so we can't compare, but our feeling was that 5th place for Dinner was perhaps a little generous. However, the concept of Dinner is first class and it should certainly be on any fine-dining restaurant fan's bucket list.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Benny: King

Some passages of football commentary are so good, so well judged, so emotive that they end up transcending the action they describe and lodge themselves in the very folklore of the sport itself. Probably the most famous example of these is Kenneth Wolstenholme's unforgettable "He's got...some people are on the pitch, they think it's all over. It is now," as Sir Geoff Hurst crashed home his hattrick goal to seal England's World Cup victory in 1966. In more recent times, we've enjoyed Martin Tyler's wonderfully elongated "Agueroooooooooooooo" which perfectly encapsulated the most dramatic finish to a Premier League season, as the Argentine forward netted the ultimately League-winning goal for Manchester City against QPR.

At around 14:00 on Saturday 17th January 2015, another phrase was added to the annals of commentary history. It may not have had the worldwide, or even nationwide resonance of the two examples above, but to fans of Nottingham Forest it was every bit as enjoyable as the other two were to followers of England and Manchester City. The commentator was Bill Leslie. The words were: "Osborn...DOESN'T NEED HIM." The event: a stoppage-time winner from a Derby-born player at the home of Forest's local rivals Derby County in the Sky Bet Championship. 

It might seem like hyperbole to compare Osborn's goal to those of Hurst and Aguero, but its importance to Nottingham Forest cannot be underestimated. It may have been the goal that saved Stuart Pearce's job. It could turn out to be the goal which reignited Forest's season. It may yet turn out to be neither. But it did, at least, restore the fans' pride in their team and club and give them a sweet, sweet moment to celebrate in a season which has had more than its share of disappointment. 

In the days building up to the match there was little to suggest it would end this way. The majority of Forest's supporters feared the worst, their Derby counterparts expected the victory. However, at either end of the A52 there were pockets of fans who had a suspicion it might not turn out like that. The stock local derby cliché of form going out of the window was trotted out as, here and there, a few people thought that the unlikely could just happen. 

Forest's starting lineup contained, thankfully, leading scorer Britt Assombalonga, who had shaken off the muscle injury sustained against Sheffield Wednesday. Matt Fryatt and Michael Mancienne were less fortunate though, so Kelvin Wilson partnered Jack Hobbs at the centre of defence while the returning Henri Lansbury was the most advanced of Forest's midfielders. Loanees Todd Kane and Gary Gardner both started the game. Derby were without Jordan Ibe, recalled by parent club Liverpool, and the suspended John Eustace, but could still call upon the likes of Chris Martin, Johnny Russell and Jamie Ward, with the latter two having been thorns in Forest's side before. 

The opening exchanges were typical local derby stuff, high on intensity but low on quality. Forest were holding their own and indeed should have been awarded a penalty as museum-piece lookalike Jake Buxton grappeled Michail Antonio to the floor in Derby's 18 yard box. Predictably, nothing was given, and even more predictably soon afterwards Forest fell behind. Russell's flat corner evaded the head of Martin but Henri Lansbury, who was guarding the near post, could only divert it past Dorus de Vries to give the hosts the lead. 

For the next ten minutes the game seemed to be following a well established pattern as Derby looked to press their advantage. A Hobbs blunder nearly led to a second goal and de Vries had to be alert to tip a deflected shot over the bar, but the expected Forest collapse didn't happen. Indeed the Reds finished the half well, with Assombalonga's shot skimming narrowly over Lee Grant's crossbar. With the half time score at just 1-0 this wasn't over, not by a long way. 

The visitors' cause was further helped as Jeff Hendrick replaced the injured Will Hughes at the start of the second half and, slowly, inexorably, the Reds started to wrest control of the game from their opponents. Penalty box scrambles gave half-chances to Antonio and Wilson, both of which were blocked. It looked - yet again - like being "one of those games" until Forest won a free kick wide on the left. Osborn's delivery wasn't cleared by Richard Keogh (see file for Zamora, B) and ended up at the feet of Assombalonga who, despite the uncouth attentions of Buxton, steered the ball under Lee Grant to give Forest a fully deserved equaliser. 

There was no telling how the match would finish now. Cyrus Christie sent a shot just wide for Derby and Chris Martin somehow stayed upright long enough to loft a late lob over the bar. It looked like a creditable draw would be the outcome until Wilson won a strong header which Robert Tesche helped into the path of Osborn. The young midfielder scampered forward and, as the home defence stood off, drove a left-footed rocket past the dive of Grant and into the net for his first senior Forest goal. Pandemonium. Or, as the youngsters would say: "scenes."

Seldom can a manager, or, for that matter, an owner/chairman, have celebrated a goal so much. Stuart Pearce knows the importance of this fixture and just how much was riding on this game so it's hardly surprising there was such an outpouring of emotion when the winner flew in. It wasn't quite 1996 penalty against Spain, but it wasn't far off. 

The important thing for Forest now is to use this boost as a springboard for the rest of the season. Satisfying though it was (and it REALLY was), it'll mean nothing if the team lapses into previous poor performances. They've shown they can play well, now they need to show they can play well consistently. 

But this isn't a time to dwell on previous disappointments. Nor is it a time to give too much coverage to the unpleasant incidents after the match. It's time to enjoy a dramatic, surprising yet thoroughly deserved victory. And for that, Ben Osborn, Nottingham thanks you.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Nottingham Forest 0 - 2 Sheffield Wednesday

Apparently, one of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. If that's the case, then there are a number of crazy, crazy people in and around the City Ground at the moment.

The fans, for example, have largely been turning up week in, week out, home and away, hoping and praying for an upturn in fortune. In the main they've stuck with the team and manager too, but the pattern and outcome of recent matches has been horribly predictable. The match against Sheffield Wednesday was another example of this. However, it might also have been the match where things do start to change, and not necessarily for the better. Because, the nature of the performance against the Owls has, in my opinion, caused some of the many fans who are staunchly behind Stuart Pearce to finally begin to doubt that he can turn things around. More of that later.

Injuries and suspensions meant that, yet again, Pearce was forced to shuffle his pack. Dorus de Vries kept his place between the sticks behind a back four of Eric Lichaj, Jack Hobbs, Jamaal Lascelles and débutante Chelsea loanee Todd Kane. The out-of-form Danny Fox joined the ill Kelvin Wilson and the injured Michael Mancienne in missing out.

Further injuries, to Matt Fryatt and Dexter Blackstock, caused Pearce to name Britt Assombalonga as a lone striker in front of the five-man midfield of Michail Antonio, Robert Tesche, Ben Osborn, David Vaughan and Chris Burke. Forest's other recent loan signing - midfielder Gary Gardner - took his place on the bench, The visitors lined up with one of the largest - and hairiest - striking partnerships I've ever seen, in the form of Stevie May and Atdhe Nuhui.

The windy conditions made good football difficult, with players from both sides misjudging bounces and high balls. As has been the case recently, Forest kept the ball without really looking threatening. A good Tesche run and pass found Assombalonga but the striker's shot was half-blocked and didn't trouble Owls' keeper Kieran Westwood. An Osborn corner caused a scramble but ultimately led to nothing. Hardly seat-of-the-pants stuff. At the other end both Lascelles and Kane were forced into good tackles to head off dangerous attacks. De Vries, like Westwood, had little to do. In fact the first thing I remember him doing is picking the ball out of the net.

Another Forest corner was cleared by the visitors and Vaughan - who did not have a good game - dived into a tackle and let May get past. The attacker's centre found Nuhui, whose header was blocked, before the ball fell for Kieran Lee to bundle over the line. Coming just before half-time as it did, the goal was a real sickener. And, after Gary Gardner had replaced Chris Burke following the interval, it got worse. Another cross into the Forest area was only half cleared by Lascelles and Chris Maguire beat Lichaj to the loose ball to steer it home to double the visitors' lead.

Far from spurring the home team on, this second goal seemed to further galvanise the visitors. De Vries produced a brilliant double save to deny May and Maguire. Nuhui had a header blocked again and then hit another chance wide. Forest mustered little. A free-kick found the head of Antonio but Westwood tipped over well. Both Antonio and Assombalonga were denied reasonable penalty shouts - the latter's was probably more than reasonable to be honest - but referee Andy D'Urso wasn't interested. A good Osborn run and cross was missed at the far post by Lars Veldwijk, who had replaced the injured Assombalonga. And that was pretty much it. Defeat came with barely a whimper against a team who, with all due respect to them, have had a dreadful record against Forest in recent times.

So, where do we go from here? I'm lucky enough to sit with a bunch of sensible and reasonable fans but the prevalent feeling seems to be 'we love Pearce but it's just not working.' What's worse at the moment is it doesn't look like working. Defeats are easier to stomach if the performances are good, but they're not. The Wednesday match was as bad a showing as I've seen all season, and when you consider the Brentford and Birmingham matches......well, that says it all. Given the absences, you can't really argue with Pearce's team selection against the Owls but, once again, the players just didn't deliver.

There were a couple of bright spots amid the gloom. Jamaal Lascelles had probably his best match of the season. He looks a different player when paired with Jack Hobbs, who got another 90 minutes under his belt. Todd Kane had a solid début and Ben Osborn, after floundering in the first half, looked a lot better when moved out wide in the second. Perhaps he should start there against Derby as Henri Lansbury will be eligible again and Gary Gardner will presumably be pushing for a start.

It's hard to foresee anything but a defeat against Derby County next time out, especially if Assombalonga misses out. Without him in the side it's difficult to see where goals will come from. Fryatt returning would help, but he's hardly been prolific this season. Veldwijk looks out of his depth and, as striking options currently go, that's about our lot. Could the match at the iPro result in another Forest manager losing his job? It's not too hard to imagine.

As I wrote in my piece for the Nottingham Post this week, I really hope that Fawaz al Hasawi doesn't have to sack yet another manager, particularly one idolised by Forest fans as much as Pearce. However, if we fall to yet another defeat then his position would be nigh-on untenable. I totally appreciate what he's done off the field since his return, and I acknowledge that we can't just keep on sacking managers, but how long can we go on for if we keep losing and playing poorly?

In my heart of hearts I desperately want Pearce to turn it round, see out the season and hopefully build from there. But, after the Wednesday match, a small part of me thinks he just can't turn it round and that something needs to change. It'd be devastating for a defeat to Derby to be the reason for Pearce's sacking. That's assuming he's still in charge when we play them. The ball's in Fawaz's court now and only he knows what the following week will bring.