Mr P Durkin
© Nottingham Forest 1999
When in ten years' time someone updates our beloved club's history and looks back to this period of the early rebuilding under David Platt, it will be interesting to see how much prominence is given to the recruitment of Paul Hart from Leeds to take over our youth teams. Like many of us, I was concerned in recent years that Forest didn't seem to be producing young talent which progressed convincingly into the first team; the gap between Steve Stone and Marlon Harewood was... what?... 5 or 6 years? A long time for a club like ours, which in the modern game cannot afford to buy established players for every position but needs to rely on bringing through its own youngsters (something we have always done well in the past).
On the face of it a 0-0 draw away to a team like Bristol City is no special achievement. I can almost hear many fans sighing faintly and saying "We ought to be stuffing sides like that". Well look again at the team that Forest put out tonight (and bear in mind that we were not doing some Man Utd "oh we can't be bothered with this Cup, so let's give the kids a whirl", but were down to the bare bones of our thinnish squad because of a crippling injury list). Make no mistake - this game tonight was a big fat banana skin just waiting for us to trip over, adding yet more fuel to the ill-informed "Platt isn't up to it" theories that seem to be featured in some sections of the media. Alternatively, make a mental list of the players who were unavailable to us: Moreno Mannini, Salvatore Matrecano, Riccardo Scimeca, Steve Chettle, Jesper Mattsson (and that's just in defence!), Andy Johnson, Chris Bart-Williams, Gianluca Petrachi, Ian Woan, John Burns and Ian Wright. An entire team and then some.
Of all the players with knocks of varying degrees of severity, the only one who managed to pass a fitness test was Jon Olav Hjelde. When the players ran out to warm up I really thought to myself that we were up against it in a big way. I am a Forest fanatic, and even I was looking very carefully at my programme and the numbers on their shorts to work out who half of these guys were! When it actually came to kick off and I saw Thierry Bonalair in the centre of our three man defence lining up against two great big strong strapping strikers, I exchanged glances with the guy next to me and crossed all of my fingers. It isn't that I think Bonalair is rubbish - but as a centre-half??? He's tiny, for heaven's sake. Well I was wrong.
This was a good performance by Forest - in many ways we played considerably better tonight than on Sunday against Wolves. Hjelde had another commanding game at the back. Bonalair used his footballing brain and his pace to compensate for his distinct lack of inches. Young Steven Doig played excellently; good tackling, good distribution, strong in the air and brave; he played the last 20 minutes with a bandage round his forehead after sustaining a cut in an accidental clash of heads, and by the end of the game there was enough blood on the bandage to make it look like a Kamikaze pilot's bandana. But he was still heading the ball. In midfield Bernard Allou had a strong first half, creating much down the right and crossing well. He faded a bit after half time, but still tackled back well even after he seemed to get tired. Matthieu handled the dangerous Brennan (a rumoured Forest target) with aplomb. Tank had another good game down the left (whatever it was that caused his apparent early-season lethargy has clearly gone) - in the second half especially he created several doses of panic in the City defence with his extreme pace, direct running and curling crosses. Nigel Quashie worked his proverbial socks off, creating space, linking well with debutant David Prutton and tackling like a demon.
Up front Marlon showed his customary 100% commitment and pace, good movement and some deft touches, and Dougie (Captain Dougie, indeed!), though pulling wide a lot of the time to escape the attentions of the two giant City centre halves, put in a display of flicks and subtle passes that Marlon relished. I still think (as do many fans, judging by tonight's crowd reaction) that we could see more movement and pace from Dougie, especially when we haven't got the ball, but he played well enough. To be honest, he was probably our most disappointing player, but that is not to say he had a stinker by any means.
The star of the show for me, however, was David Prutton. Like almost all of us, I suspect, I had scarcely heard of this bloke before a couple of weeks ago. He then played alongside the manager in midfield for the reserves against a very strong Chelsea side, and Platty described him afterwards as "the best player on the pitch, bar none". For those of you who haven't seen him (which will be almost everyone), he is an England U-18 international, still only 17 or 18 (not sure which), big, strong, quick and left-footed. He looks a real prospect - his passing was clever (one diagonal through ball to Tank on the left brought an audible purr from the Forest fans), he tackled strongly and kept the ball well (and even on the few occasions he did lose it, he was quick to win it back). I was extremely impressed.
Credit also to David Platt for playing Prutton - Platty was fit enough to put himself on the bench, and with such an inexperienced side the temptation to play himself must have been strong. And to Platt and Steve Wigley for insisting that the reserves play the same system as the first team; all the new players looked completely comfortable with it. So. The game. The first half was pretty even, with neither side making too many clear cut chances. The worst bit of the night came after ten minutes; Brennan tried a lob which Norman clearly had covered all the way, but as he made absolutely sure by tipping it over the bar he landed awkwardly and appeared to twist his ankle (let's hope it was nothing worse). Off on a stretcher for poor Norman and on with the Mighty Lurch.
The best bit of the half, and the clearest chance, came after 35 minutes when Prutton and Allou combined neatly on the right to free Louis-Jean. He cut in and crossed and Marlon rattled a header against the bar with the keeper beaten. Apart from that there were some promising moves from both sides but nothing which desperately troubled either keeper other than a Prutton drive narrowly wide of the left hand post. After half time the game became more stretched, with City attacking more (credit to them, incidentally; they were not playing Div 2 hoof & hope to their big strikers, but playing neat passing football and using the wings) and Forest looking dangerous on the counter-attack. Twice we came very close - once when Rogers gathered the ball from Lurch's throw after a City corner and sprinted the entire length of the field into their box. How his cross-cum-shot managed to miss both the far post and the foot of the onrushing Marlon I am not entirely sure, though since we won a corner I guess their keeper must have managed a crucial touch.
From that corner the ball broke to Quashie, whose rasping drive from outside the box can't have missed the far past by more than an inch or two; from where the Forest fans were we all thought it was going in. In between times City were attacking a lot, but there was only about a 10-minute period from 75 to 85 minutes when I felt we were really under the cosh, Lurch making a couple of good saves; for the rest of the half we handled them pretty well, with the offside trap working nicely and frustrating the crowd. And then right at the end, when Andy Gray came on for Allou, his first touch of the ball was a beautifully weighted pass into the path of Prutton. Having played so well it would have been fitting had he got a goal, but he dallied a fraction too long in the box (or maybe should have shot rather than trying to round the keeper) and had the ball picked off his toes by the charging goalie.
So a 0-0 draw - and probably a fair result. I must mention, incidentally, the excellent performance of the ref, Paul Durkin. There was not a single booking and he let the game flow when he could. He seemed to prefer to keep order with a quiet word and a smile on his face. Would that we could see a few more refs like this one. I suspect a lot of you will think I am waxing far too lyrical about this game.
We weren't brilliant, and we only managed a draw against a team from a lower division. But I spent the 30 minutes before kick off and the first few minutes of the match fearing a morale-sapping defeat because we had by far the youngest and most inexperienced team I have ever seen in red & white. Prutton and Doig are not yet the finished article any more than John Burns is. But they both played well enough (along with the 20-year-olds Quashie, Harewood and Louis-Jean) for me to think that Forest are going in the right direction. I saw the future tonight, and it looks rosy.
And we are through, unlike Everton, Coventry, Ipswich, Man City......