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.