"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.