16th April
The City Ground


Mr P.Canadine

Goal One
John 24 mins

Stockport County
Beasant   Jones
Gray     Nicholson
Hjelde   Flynn
Doig Clark
Edds Kuqi
Scimeca Wiss
A.Johnson   Fradin
Bart-Williams Wilbraham
Prutton Gibb
John Clare
D.Johnson Hurst
Substitutes     Substitutes
Roche   Dibble
Vaughan Carrigan
Harewood Woodthorpe
Jones Byrne
Edwards Bergersen

Well well well. I don't know why you lot still listen to a word I say. How many games ago did I start saying we'd definitely blown it? Crewe, was it? Bolton? QPR? Uhhhh. I was wrong - thanks to Jon Hjelde's last minute goal at Deepdale on Saturday and three points today, and thanks to some spectacular ineptitude on the part of many of our rivals (Birmingham have 5 defeats and 3 draws from their last 8 matches, and the Baggies are not exactly steaming for the promised land with all guns blazing), we are still very much alive.

No, today was hardly the most spectacular of our recent performances, but that was hardly the point; for this afternoon, a win was all that mattered, no matter how stumbling and dodgy a win it might be. As it happened, it wasn't that bad - we started well and then followed in the footsteps of 30 years of Forest teams by gradually descending to the level of our opponents. But who cares? We won, and are now in serious danger of having at least 5 (or is that 6?) games to play this season rather than the apparent 3.

With Frankie Benali's return to the Dell (floods of tears all around the City Ground, but thanks all the same, Francis), we were forced into one change from Saturday, with Gareth Edds coming in at left back. Otherwise we kept the same side as for the past 3 games - nice to see some stability appearing, even at this late stage.

The Hatters came into this game on the back of a pretty decent run - wins over the Blue-Noses, Barnsley and Wednesday and honourable draws against Bolton and Blackburn in their past 5 games. On today's evidence, frankly, it is very hard to see why. They were awful - the worst team we have played this season. Yes, QPR (home) and Wednesday (away) were pretty dodgy, but at least with them you could see that they were at least attempting to play football, even if with zero confidence. Stockport didn't even try to play football; you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times they passed the ball on the floor, as opposed to hoofing it high into the air. When you couple that with the fact that they are a side of big men who resort to the physical approach at the slightest opportunity, they reminded me of a less talented version of last season's Tranmere. As a spectacle - dire. As opponents, however, not easy to counter. (I wish them well, though - personally I am itching to see Palace go down!)

Initially, the Hatters' beach volleyball tactics worked OK for them - in the Finnish International Kuqi they have a good old fashioned bustling centre forward (he'd be ideally suited for Division 2, which might yet be just as well), and early on he caused a few problems out wide. The trouble for Stockport fans was that Kuqi's shooting tended to be from long range, so relatively easily dealt with by Beas. His more dangerous work was as a creator - but since he couldn't be on the end of his own crosses, and his colleagues couldn't finish their breakfast, it all came to nowt. Two or three desperate shots had the stewards high in the Bridgford End ducking and diving, but the worst miss of the lot was truly astonishing. Kuqi won a header on our left, got free of Andy Gray and crossed to the far post, where Jarko Wiss was completely free with an open goal 3 yards out. Somehow he succeeded in scooping it miles over the bar - seldom, if ever, have I heard 23000 people simultaneously burst out laughing. Dreadful. Think Stoney at Reading a few seasons ago; this was far worse. Even Dougie would have hung his head in shame.

In the mean time we were gradually getting our act together. Stern continues his recent resurgence, and his understanding with DJ is starting to bear fruit - two or three early excursions looked highly promising without ever quite coming off. Our first real chance came when a beautifully timed pass from Prutts released DJ up the left. He cut in, shot rather unconvincingly, reacted well to the rebound, nodded it to his namesake who was arriving at speed... and Johnno, reaching behind him slightly, managed only to hit the bar when you thought he had to score.

Still, we didn't have to wait wrong. A couple of earlier set pieces had exposed some tentative defending in Stockport's defence, so it was no surprise that the goal came straight off the training ground. Free kick wide on the left, swung beyond the far post by Bart, headed back across goal by Johnno. Andy Gray makes a nuisance of himself but can't quite get the touch, but Stern dodges in behind him and heads into the corner. Stern's first league goal of the season, would you believe, and thoroughly deserved for the massively improved way he has been playing recently. He was my man of the match today by some distance.

Thereafter Stockport got down to some serious hoofing.... and not only of the ball. I said they reminded me of Tranmere, and they were just as physical - all elbows, shirt-pulling, climbing and barging. On the very sad day when the ref collapsed and died at the Southend vs Stags game, it wouldn't be appropriate to lay into our man in black today, so I will confine myself to pointing out that he was inept, missing a clear handball in the box, and somehow working out that the last defender flattening Stern when he was clean through was not even a foul, yet picking up all the trivial stuff with hawk-like vision. Ah well - enough said, I think, and it didn't matter in the end.

Frankly, that was about it. Stockport were dire. We played well enough to win but no more - probably not helped by the approach of the other 12 men on the pitch. Their keeper made a couple of good saves. Marlon came on for 15 minutes and did his familiar mix of the excellent and the appalling. Stockport made a few hearts flutter once early in the second half, Kuqi being denied by a stupendous block from Chris Doig. But after that, despite hurling in so many high balls that Doig and Hjelde must have gone home with headaches, they never really had me worried in the way that Rangers or one or two others have - I just didn't think they'd score, and I was right. As a spectacle, it was a shocker, but we still come away with 3 priceless points.

Our lot? Riccy had a stinker. Edds was iffy in the first half but improved a lot as the game went on. DJ had probably his worst game for us so far (he still looks a decent player and is making the right runs, but his passing radar was off today and his finishing lacks confidence at the moment). The rest were fine - quietly efficient rather than spectacularly good. Doig (again), Stern (again) and Gray (again) played very well. Gray continues to amaze me - apparently ready to be offloaded on deadline day, his loan fell through. Since then he has played in every game, and gradually he looks more and more assured at right back - he's even learned to tackle (must have been talking to his Dad!). Maybe there is hope for him yet.

So where does all that leave us? 4 points behind Brum, 3 behind the Baggies, 2 behind Preston. Burnley, Watford and Wimbledon can all overhaul us in theory. In other words we could finish as high as 4th or as low as 10th. So why the sudden optimism?

Birmingham (3 games left): in dire form (see above), with no time left to sort it out. Away at Burnley next weekend. Away at Huddersfield (who desperately need the points) on the final day. Catchable if we keep winning and they keep playing as awfully as they have for the past month.

The Baggies (3 games left): faltering a little. Away at Preston on the final day, which you wouldn't fancy much. Very catchable, though their goal difference is a little better than ours.

Preston (4 games left): going well, but 3 of their remaining games are against Watford, Blackburn and WBA. Very catchable - Jon Hjelde's goal on Sat was absolutely crucial.

Burnley (4 games left): looking dangerous - 2 points behind with a game in hand. But still to play Brum, the Blades and Watford, and they have a poor goal difference.

Watford (5 games left): 5 points behind with 2 games in hand. But away at Preston next week, and away at Burnley on the final day.

Sheff Utd (4 games left): 6 points behind with a game in hand. Still to play Wimbledon, Burnley and Bolton (away on final day). Out of it, in my view.

Wimbledon (6 games left): 8 points behind with 3 games in hand. Still to play us (next week), plus the Blades and Fulham away. We can put them to bed on Saturday.

So, when you look at the run-ins of all our rivals in comparison with ours, suddenly it doesn't look at all impossible. A win next week and we are really in the thick of it. Even a draw next week might do, but we'd have to rely on other results again, and surely they can't be as convenient for us for ever.

The message to the boys? 3 straight wins and I reckon we'll do it. So time for a steady hand and wait for the other guy to blink. Which is pretty much what happened today, I guess.

I started out by wondering why you lot still listen to me. But keep the faith anyway - and get down to Selhurst Park in your droves (there are always loads of seats) and make some serious noise.

You never know....

© Nottingham Forest 2001


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