It's been a fair few years since anything that could be termed as hair has covered the majority of my cranium. Usually I lament this fact. However, following Nottingham Forest's home defeat to Middlesbrough, it was probably for the best; because any lustrous locks I had left would have been lost, strewn over the concrete of the Trent End having been yanked out in pure frustration. You see, for all Middlesbrough's attacking play and created chances, their two goals both came from Forest mistakes. Forest themselves passed up two gilt-edged scoring chances. On such margins are matches decided.
Once again I was surprised by Dougie Freedman's team selection, though this time it was the attacking nature of the line-up which was the shock. Forest gave home debuts to Chris O'Grady, Ryan Mendes and Nelson Oliveira, kept the same back five that started against Birmingham City and dropped Jamie Ward to the bench, with Henri Lansbury, David Vaughan and Ben Osborn completing the midfield. The visitors included their big-money summer captures Stewart Downing and David Nugent, enhancing an already strong team containing the likes of George Friend, Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton.
Barely three minutes had passed before one of these recruits - Nugent - had given Boro the lead. An underhit Matt Mills backpass allowed Albert Adomah a clear run on goal. The winger's shot was saved by Dorus de Vries but Forest never properly cleared, and eventually Friend's cross found the former Foxes frontman who steered the ball home.
Minutes later Mills had atoned for his mistake by hauling the Reds level. Lansbury's corner found the centre-half in space and his neatly volleyed finish gave visiting keeper Dimitri Konstantopoulos ('Dimi' on his shirt - and for the rest of this review) no chance. Phew - what a start!
It wasn't long before the visitors troubled de Vries again, this time following another Forest corner. After Boro's defence had cleared the danger Downing raced clear, only for the sprawling Reds stopper to repel the attempt with an outstretched leg. The breathless beginning to the match saw a momentary pause as Mills slumped to the ground with an injury and was replaced by Jack Hobbs. One hopes it was just a precaution rather than anything serious, as Mills and Wilson were beginning to look like a formidable partnership.
Unfortunately there was little formidable about Forest's defending through the remainder of the first half. De Vries continued to earn his corn with a double save from Nugent and Adomah before Boro were awarded another corner which they played short. The resulting cross found the head of Wilson whose back-header only picked out ex-Forest loanee Daniel Ayala. De Vries rushed out but could do nothing to stop Ayala nodding home to restore the visitors' lead. Neither side was to trouble the scorers again before the interval so it was Boro who ended the first half with their noses in front.
Their noses nearly Pinocchioed further ahead after the restart as de Vries saved yet again from Adomah, but Forest themselves should've been level moments later. Willianesque winger Mendes found himself clear through but his shot was smothered by the spreadeagled Dimi. The better option would've been to square the ball to the unmarked Oliveira, but that's easy to say with hindsight.
The match was really open now. Forest cranked up the pressure but Boro continued to play through them at will. Oliveira and Jamie Ward - who had replaced Osborn at half time - both went close with long-range efforts before the moment which ultimately decided the match. A long ball from the Reds defence could only find visiting defender Ben Gibson. His attempted chest trap rolled down his arm and the handball was spotted by the linesman who flagged for a penalty (well, he actually pointed his flag towards the corner rather than putting his flag across his chest, but the spot-kick was still given).
Up stepped Lansbury to drill his penalty down the middle as he had the week before against QPR. However, unlike Rangers goalie Alex Smithies who obligingly dived out of the way, Dimi hung out a leg and deflected the ball away. Not only that, but he was quick enough to get up and tip Ward's header from the rebound wide of the post. Forest continued to press, making Jonathan Williams the fourth new Tricky of the day, but they were unable to find the equaliser and, in a reverse of last year's result, Boro claimed the spoils 2-1.
It's hard to be too critical of the effort that Forest showed. Had the two mistakes which led to Boro's goals been avoided, and the penalty and Mendes chance been taken, they could easily have won this game. If they attack with the vigour they showed against Boro they'll win more than they lose. Though, if they defend like they did at times then....well.....
De Vries could do nothing about either goal and made some excellent saves. Mills, Wilson and Hobbs all had uncomfortable moments in defence but Eric Lichaj and Daniel Pinillos were solid at full back - against quality opposition. O'Grady was muscular up front and Oliveira showed real quality at times. Mendes could be a real find if he can sort out his decision making but the pick of the bunch was Lansbury. Once again he played deeper, protecting the back four, and once again he was outstanding - penalty miss aside. A real captain's performance.
Taking this game in isolation it was disappointing to lose. However, I'd have taken a win and two draws from the three matches against QPR, Birmingham and Boro, so two wins and a defeat is by no means a bad return. The team is certainly playing better than earlier in the season. Sort out the defensive mistakes and be a bit more clinical at the other end and we'll be OK. If the Boro game is anything to go by, we'll certainly be entertained.