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.