The Bridport Red Report
If ever there was a game to illustrate the infinitesimally fine dividing lines between extremes in football, and how those extremes lie largely inside the minds of the players, this was it.
At half time, after 45 minutes of football almost indistinguishable from the abject shambles of Wednesday night, Forest were resoundingly booed off to the strains of "What a load of rubbish!". We'd dropped a few players and changed to an aggressive new formation, which had totally failed to work. The opposition (better than Wednesday but still hardly Real Madrid) were 1-0 up and looking well capable of getting more. Our entire season was visibly disappearing further down the tubes by the second. I and my Trent End neighbours were taking bets about now many more minutes of this drivel we would watch before the first anti-manager songs appeared.
After 90 minutes the team were applauded off after a storming final half hour, the season very much still alive (especially as a young man called Aaron Wilbraham equalised for Stockport in the last minute at Vicarage Road to help Watford stumble to a mere point ahead of the chasing pack). Instead of anti-Platt songs, we'd spent the past few minutes hearing "Platty Platty give us a wave!"
But I still stand by my half time assessment of what the reaction WOULD have been had we continued to play like we have been this week for only 35 minutes more, even in retrospect from the warm glow of an (eventually) emphatic win. As I say - it's a fine dividing line.
Clearly, since both the manager and the skipper had gone public with their apologies for the Wednesday Debacle, something was going to change, quite apart Reidy and Williams being injured and Benny and Stern disappearing off to assorted international assignments. [Not that we missed him, or anything, but I still find it intriguing and more than a bit galling that Forest should have to pack the Trinidad & Tobago centre forward off safely on the Friday, yet his international strike partner is able to linger long enough to score a hat trick inside 20 minutes at Old Trafford 2 days later before he has to catch his flight. I'd like to hear an explanation of how exactly this does not constitute yet another example of the "one rule for United, one for the rest" syndrome.... but that is by the by.]
Jonah was dropped to the bench (though I expect with his pace he didn't reach it until about half time). Likewise Marlon (he'd have got there a lot quicker but then probably missed it as he sat down). Jim Brennan fell out of the squad altogether. So several changes from Wednesday's starting line-up, with Prutts returning from suspension, Hjelde from long term injury, Keith Foy coming back in after a couple of months away, and David Freeman making his first ever start for the club up front. Not to mention the fact that we were trying a radical revamp of the formation, with Swanny, Hjelde and Benali in a flat back 3, 4 across midfield, 2 up front and the Bartman left free to play in a free role just behind the forwards. Presumably the thinking behind this was that Bart is more capable than most of playing that incisive through ball to feet that DJ has been so sorely lacking. For that reason alone, I guess you can say it was worth a try, even though the defence left me uneasy even on paper and it forced Prutts to play wide on the right where we know he is much less influential. Still, give it a whirl - see what happens.
What happened, in short, was that we played very nearly as badly as we had before. The only difference was that you could see that the guys were at least trying to pass it on the deck, but since they seldom achieved it the resulting spectacle was much the same. Our shape was wrong, the back 3 looked uncomfortable, we were lopsided in midfield.... Nice (-ish...) idea, but no cigar.
There was one major similarity, of course; the defence (with both Benali and Jon Olav having a 'mare) gave the opposition sufficient encouragement for them to grow in confidence. Grimsby started to play some neat attacking football and then scored after 15 minutes, when Hjelde made a complete Horlicks of a high through ball, allowing some bloke called Campbell (on loan from the Foxes, apparently) to smack it past Lurch. For the second match running Forest had followed Bill Shankly's advice about making sure you shut the crowd up, but got it completely wrong by shutting up their own fans rather than the other lot. Not only that, but we appeared to be trying fairly hard to make sure Grimsby scored again - but luckily their finishing let them down. In reply, Johnno came close in a 6-yard box scramble, and DJ lifted a Prutts cross just past the angle (you see? 2 half chances! Riches beyond the dreams of the team on Wednesday!). But mostly, to use a technical term, we were crap.
Still, having had the imagination (?) to try this new formation, Platty at least had the nous to realise that it was not working and to do something about it - 2 minutes before half time he replaced Hjelde with Gareth Edds, thus killing two birds with one stone; not only did we get rid of the hapless Hjelde, but we also changed back to a more familiar shape (Swanny, Bart and Benali across the back (Bart sweeping), Edds and Foy as the two wing backs, Riccy, Johnno and Prutts in the midfield and the same two up front).
All the same, at half time I was wondering what on earth I was going to say in this report. And seriously considering saying "For Sheff Weds read Grimsby - otherwise see report for last game, love Bridport", and leaving it at that as I went on to talk about the happy morning I spent watching the Under-19s beat Derby (a good team performance, with Thompson and Haigh impressive in defence, Eugene Bopp and JJ running the midfield, and Cash wreaking havoc up the right.. and they remain unbeaten this season with only a handful of games to go. [By the way, for those of us who don't speak German, it is pronounced "Oi-Gun" Bopp, not "Ewe-Jean" Bopp - and remember the name, because he is going to be good!])
So what turned around all this incipient doom and gloom? Well, fittingly enough since I have just been talking about the Academy, not for the first time Platty's bacon was saved by a few of Harty's kids. We started to second half a bit better, if for no other reason than that the team had a far better shape. All the same, we hadn't exactly peppered Coyne's goal with shots in the first 10 minutes of the half...
And then suddenly, completely out of the blue, the whole game (and with it, perhaps, Forest's season) completely changed. Riccy and Prutts brought the ball up the inside right channel, but still there didn't look to be any danger as they were forced wide to give the ball to Edds. There were faintly unconvinced mutterings of "Skin 'im, Eddsy!" under the Trent End's breath. So he did exactly that, cutting inside to the corner of the box and smashing a left foot screamer into the far top corner.
Immediately all the doubts and worried frowns on Forest's faces melted away. The players stopped looking half paralysed with fear and began (AT LAST) to play football. You know, real life, pass it on the ground, move around off the ball, make space, work as a team, don't panic, if-God-had-meant-us-to-play-in-the-air-he'd-have-put-grass-in-the-sky FOOTBALL!! With one stunning goal from a home-developed young Aussie playing in an unaccustomed position, their minds had completely changed, and we might have been watching a different 11 men out there in the red.
Less than a minute after Eddsy's cracker, DJ had a header cleared off the line and his follow-up shot desperately blocked - his Welsh namesake then had his effort hacked away. But the respite didn't last long, because a minute later Bartman played a ball into the corner, the scampering DJ chased it and caught up near the by-line, he played it back to Keith Foy, and Foy curled a peach of a cross (as good as Benali's at Huddersfield) plum onto the head of Swanny, who soared unmarked to head into the bottom corner from 10 yards.
54th minute gloomy silence and sullen head in hands. 57th minute the joint is jumping and we're off into "That Loving Feeling".
For the rest of the game Forest played as we know they can - a total contrast to our nightmare week. Edds and Foy showed their more experienced brethren what can be achieved with some high quality delivery from the flanks which is actually aimed for someone rather than just hoofed in the right general direction, and DJ and Freeman positively revelled in it, showing pace, movement, imagination and knowledge of one another's positions to look the most potent Forest attacking pair since the distant-seeming Blake and Lester days of October. We already know about Johnson, but Freeman was simply excellent - hard work, good first touch, pace, a decent shot on him, but best of all a distinct awareness of what is going on a round him... unlike some others who have played there this season. Definitely worth another few games.
Twice DJ almost opened his account, going desperately close in particular when another Foy cross arrived inch-perfect onto his head at the near post; the resultant glancing header hit Coyne in the chest with the keeper knowing nothing about it. Edwards had another two headers from corners. Freeman drove inches past the angle from the edge of the box.
And then finally we all got what we wanted. Yet again the midfield worked the ball to Foy on the left. He looked up and spotted David Freeman unmarked beyond the far post, so swung the ball right across goal onto his head. One perfect cushioned header later and there was David Johnson sweeping it in from close range. He looked as delighted as the rest of us, and was promptly booked by the frustrated jobsworth of a referee for"over-celebrating". [I know the refs are only carrying out orders in punishing this heinous crime, but would the football authorities rather stamp out the sort of two-footed, studs showing 'tackle' on Andy Johnson for which Gary Flitcroft was NOT booked a couple of weeks ago, or the occasional shirt removal by an excited player who has just scored his first goal for the club? Priorities, eh?]
So we all went home happy - or at least relieved. Platty was honest afterwards - "if we play like we did in the first half we will definitely not make the play-offs, but if we play like we did in the second we certainly will", which is a pretty fair summing up.
I am not going to harp on, but we came close to catastrophe again in this match, and yet came up optimistic and smelling of roses. With Watford away at Brum on Friday and the Baggies away at Blackburn while we are playing Wolves, next weekend promises to be yet another crucial one for Forest..... but then most of them are from here on in.
And if, at the end of it all, we make the play-offs, I reckon Platty should be sure to buy a certain young Australian a beer, he might just have saved our season...
© Nottingham Forest 2001