by Bridport Red
Important stuff today - no more messing about. Looking at the table and
the fixture list this morning, it was clear that this was a game we simply
had to win if we were going to hang onto the coat-tails of the top six
and not find our season petering out into a quiet end. We were playing
one of the best sides in the division, a side who haven't lost in the
league since November, who came straight off the back of a complete stuffing
of Derby in the Cup, and who we haven't beaten at home for a very long
time. No excuses - time to stand up and be counted.
The good news was that we were at long long last able to field a fairly
strong side - not the best possible, what with the absence of Tank, Chris
Doig, Jack etc, but all the same much the strongest we have been able
to field in about 3 months. Andy Johnson was making his first start since
18 November, Benny was back for his first game this year.... even Jon
Hjelde was on the bench after being injured since August.
Just before kick-off the team went into a huddle Celtic style, and it
was immediately apparent that this was not to be a game for the faint-hearted,
as both sides tried to wrest control of the midfield by getting amongst
it early. The pitch was a paddy field after all the recent rain, so running
with the ball and sharp turns were a bit of a problem, and the game rapidly
turned into a war of midfield attrition. Graeme Souness has been a figure
of derision in Nottingham for 20-odd years, so I don't know why I was
so surpised at the way his team had come to play. All the same, I have
seen Rovers on the box quite a lot, and generally been impressed by them.
At Ewood Park in the Autumn they beat us fair and square by playing slick
football, but from the first minute today it was clear that today they
had elected to use different tactics
Mark Hughes managed to get in his first aggressive finger-pointing whine
to the ref within 90 seconds, and he was rapidly followed by Berg, McAteer,
Mahon, Berg, Duff and Dunn. Good players all of them - so quite why they
feel the need to resort to this mardy approach to the game defeats me
- and in my opinion it makes them less effective as a team. When you consider
that they combined this constant complaint to the ref with being probably
the most physical and cynical team to have played at the City Ground yet
this year (constant holding, climbing etc), you wonder what on earth is
going on... until you remember who the manager is. Why, when one of the
world's most dirty and cynical players of the past 25 years is in charge
of them, should I be remotely surprised to find that he is fashioning
a team in his own image?
Platty had clearly done his homework at Shame Park on Wednesday, and he
knew that the first thing we had to do was to stop them playing by denying
them space. In this respect the returning players were crucial - Benny
gives us an outlet and some width, plus his exemplary workrate in defence
(how we have missed him), and Johnno ran about like a lunatic tackling
anything that moved. And they didn't like it. Prutts, Riccy and Johnno
denied them time, and at the back Franky, Bartman and "Swanny" Edwards
were mopping up anything that got through (Edwards in particular was clearly
relishing marking his international manager out of the game, which can't
have done his chances of a recall to the Welsh squad any harm).
Since we were not producing that much going forward, the game quietened
down into long periods where Rovers had possession but failed dismally
to make anything like a clear-cut chance out of it. As the half wore on
they began to press more and more, and I was stirring uneasily in my seat
- but it still has to be said that Lurch didn't have a single serious
save to make in the first 45.
At half time Platty clearly told the lads to step it up a bit, as the
game was there for the taking. The midfield trio had done so well in the
first half destructively, but at no stage had we seen Prutts running at
them or any of our guys play a truly incisive pass. Almost straight from
the second half kick off, however, Forest began to run the show every
bit as much as Rovers had just before half time.
There followed one of the best 45 minutes from a Forest side that we have
seen in months, soaking up considerable amounts of pressure but looking
dangerous on the counter every time we went forward.
we began to see Prutts with the ball at his feet and Benny and Jim Brennan
making inroads down their respective wings. Up front, David Johnson had
looked an isolated figure for the first 45 as Jonah helped out in midfield,
but now Jones moved forward and made a nuisance of himself against the
shaky-looking Berg, and we began to look dangerous.
6 minutes after half time one of these breaks saw a fine crossfield ball
from Brennan arrive at Riccy's feet ten yards outside the box, where he
was clumsily brought down by David Dunn. Bartman territory! The wall was
nothing like ten yards away and Friedel looked confident that it covered
one side of his goal.... and then stood there rooted to the spot as Bart
curled an absolute beauty over the wall into the bottom corner. Before
this season, though he had scored some decent goals for us, I don't recall
Bart being a prolific taker of free kicks. Today's was his 12th goal of
the season, and now we are beginning to hear that expectant buzz in the
crowd when he steps up to take one, just like when Psycho or that Dutch
bloke were here.
"That Loving Feeling" and a suspicion that Forest's season is very far
All the same, we knew we'd probably need 2 to make it safe, so that suspicion
didn't begin to firm up at all until we scored again. Once again Brennan
was involved, being fouled out on the left. Once again Bart stepped up,
but this time he curled a perfect free kick beyond the defence and the
far post, where Christian Edwards arrived to crash a header past Friedel.
This was his first goal for the club, and boy was he delighted as he disappeared
under a pile of red shirts. (He also became the 16th different player
to score for us this year, which goes a long way to explaining why we
are still in touch despite lacking a prolific goalscorer). Hats off to
Edwards. He is looking an assured and reliable defender nowadays (transformed
from the hesitant and clumsy man, good for nowt much but winning headers,
that I watched play for the Stiffs at Arsenal in August), and it is now
hard to imagine that this was a player who was so totally out of the manager's
plans that we didn't even take him to Florida pre-season. How Bristol
City (who, if rumours are to be believed, could have had him for peanuts
in the Autumn) must be kicking themselves.
on yer, Swanny!
Rovers came back at us, as you would expect, but even then Lurch had only
to produce one really good save (a one-handed cracker low to his left),
so good was the cover in front of him. And the more they pushed on, of
course, the more vulnerable they looked to counters using DJ's pace. Unfortunately,
of course, the best breakaway chance of them all fell to Jones, who displayed
several qualities today... but not even his Mum would call him fast. So
when Prutts lifted a beauty over Berg's head into Jonah's path, we then
had the ludicrous spectacle of a centre forward apparently wearing lead
boots as Berg caught him up with nonchalant ease. David Johnson would
have scored. Marlon would at least have got a shot in. Jonah just lumbered
to a frustrated halt. He'd run himself to even more of a standstill than
his normal slow pace, and was taken off soon after to a deserved ovation.
Stacks of effort, some neat touches, several rank hoofs up in the air,
some headers won, whole hearted but average. You gets what you pays for,
I guess, but on days like today Jones does a job nobody else at the club
I have been very critical of Marlon in recent weeks, but this was a situation
ready made for him. He is not yet (and in my opinion never will be) anything
like ready to be the club's first line centre forward, but as a man to
have on the bench to come on with 20 minutes to go against a tiring defence
on a heavy pitch and generally make himself a pain in the neck, there
is no-one better. And Marlon proceeded to do exactly that, catching the
dodgy Berg in possession more than once and generally dashing about like
a bull in a china shop.
Things only changed once Souness finally took off a couple of his cloggers
and replaced them with Eyal Berkovic and Matt Jansen. Personally I think
Jansen is the best striker in the entire division, which explains why
I was (and I suspect Bart, Swanny and Franky were) so pleased to see him
sit down on the bench for well over an hour. Jansen began to run at us
and make things happen, and Berkovic's quick feet are always difficult
to counter. Even so, we held them at bay until injury time, but when Jansen
finally managed to cut inside Benali and get his first clear sight of
goal, we knew exactly where the ball was ending up, thus leaving a slightly
tense final couple of minutes. Who knows what might have happened if Souness
had played him from the start, but then that's what you get for picking
a team for a scrap rather than to play football.
Before that we had created more chances, notably when Johnno walloped
a screamer over the bar from a corner, when Berg came within an inch of
completely stitching up Friedel with a truly hideous back pass which the
keeper just managed to stretch to volley away before DJ arrived, and when,
right at the end, Brennan curled in a cross to the near post which DJ
dived at full length, missing only by a fraction. If he'd connected he'd
have bust the net (and probably brought the house down), but he shouldn't
worry because he looks a good player who is settling in well, and he won't
always be as isolated as today, especially once Jack returns. Nor, of
course, will the pitches always be this heavy, so his pace will come into
its own shortly. Still a good buy, and the goals will come in due course.
Today was a deserved victory against a good side, and it completely keeps
the chase alive and realistic. Everyone above us either lost or drew,
and the gap which was in danger of opening up has been kept to a manageable
size. The way we played today, the fact that our away form has long been
better than at home, and the way our confidence will be boosted, all mean
that next week's trip to Fulham is not the impossible task it might have
been - even they are not playing quite as well as they were, and it wouldn't
amaze me if we were to get a point there...
After such a team performance it seems invidious to pick out individuals
- everyone played their part and they all deserve a pat on the back. Bart
was probably my MoM, but Benny and Johnno also deserve special mention
for showing us how much we have been missing. Johnno's effort in lasting
the full 90 minutes, on what must have been a calf-sapping pitch, was
outstanding after so long out.
Take a look at the fixtures. At home, with the notable exception of the
Bolton game, our remaining games could be a lot worse; Wednesday, Grimsby,
Barnsley, QPR, Stockport and Gillingham - frankly we ought to win all
of those. Once Fulham is out of the way next week, we still have a couple
of tricky away games at Bramall Lane, Vicarage Road and Deepdale, but
our away performances have been so good this year that we should expect
to get something from at least some of those, with Wimbledon, Crewe, Pompey,
Tranmere and Wolves making up the rest.
Compare that with the Baggies, for instance - still to go away to Brum,
Blackburn, Fulham, Wolves, Burnley and Preston. Which of those two run-ins
would you rather have? I really think that if we'd lost today that might
have been it - but as it is, the game is still well and truly on.
Nottingham Forest 2001