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..., 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?