After the spineless performance against Millwall and a bad defeat at Burnley, my main wish was to walk away from the two next home games feeling proud of the team I support, whatever the result. Part one has been accomplished. The effort, determination and character that were so sadly absent before were back in force, which together with no little ability and so much better movement ended up making a decent Forest team look pretty ordinary for large periods of the game. That we should have won nobody can seriously argue against; the stats alone ought to confirm that as we had by far the greater number of scoring opportunities, in both halves. But it felt like a victory.
Sir Chris celebrated at the end like it was and he had every right to. And note to board: there is no other manager in the country, not one, who would have received the backing from the crowd that Powell received after we’d fallen behind in the first minute. (Of course, for a laugh I’d texted my French partner Suzanne at 19.40 to say ‘good news, we’re not losing yet’; had to send one at 19.48 to say ‘we are now’.)
Sod’s law means that when you have ample time to write a match account, due to a 12.15 kick-off, the incidents of note could have been scribbled on the proverbial back of a fag packet. Now it’s 22.30 and trying to describe all of those from tonight’s encounter would take me well past my bedtime. Suffice to say – again in direct contrast with the televised Millwall match – this was one that any neutral would have thoroughly enjoyed.
The absence of Kermorgant from the squad did underline how questionable was the decision to send him on towards the end away at Burnley. Without him, and the others (including Pritchard), we lined up with a flat back four (Wilson, Wiggins, Morrison and Wood in front of Hamer), a front two (Church and Sordell), and a four-man midfield of Stephens, Gower, Cousins and Harriott. But the surprise was that Harriott operated less on the flank than in a roving role, putting the onus on the full-backs to provide the width; Stephens tended to be on the left side, Gower central and Cousins to his right.
The game had barely started when a ball played in the air out wide prompted a silly and unnecessary challenge by Cousins on the returning Andy Reid. The free kick was right on the touchline and seemed an open opportunity for him to curl in something dangerous for someone to get on the end of. Just didn’t expect him to curl one quite superbly into the top far corner of the net. Quite clearly Hamer didn’t either as despite the angle he couldn’t get a touch on it.
Not surprisingly the team seemed stunned and for the next 10 minutes or so Forest set out to put their stamp on the game. Not by pulling us apart but by demonstrating that they were bigger, stronger, could knock the ball around at ease. They would have realised that we were low on confidence and might have killed the game off in that period. Instead, with the crowd repeating the Cardiff reaction of last season, we gradually worked our way back into the game and, despite the absence of an aerial threat for balls played forward, began to create chances, due in no small part to the contribution of Wiggins going forward.
A lot of things in that period weren’t going right, not least as Harriott operating centrally found himself running into crowded areas. But it was already apparent that the movement and willingness to give the guy with the ball necessary support was a world apart from the Millwall game, not least due to the contribution of Stephens. That alone began to bring rewards.
The first of many chances that came and went was the result of a Wiggins ball in from the left. Church had escaped his markers and got between them and the keeper, only to fail to get a decisive contact. It was a bad miss. From another Wiggins cross Cousins failed to make any contact when in a great position to score. Wilson cut into the box and I thought his shot was destined for the net, only for it to go agonisingly wide. And just before the break Stephens got clear down the left and a parried shot led to the sort of goalmouth scramble that when you’re luck’s in gets converted. Against that, one interception saw Forest break clear and only a combination of Wood and Wilson managed to prevent their guy putting it away. At the break we were a distance ahead on chances but hadn’t taken any and were behind to something exceptional.
We picked things up where we left off in the second half, with early jitters between their defenders and keeper resulting in a corner and another near miss. Forest’s anxiety at their loss of control of a game that early on seemed theirs for the taking was to be reflected in three substitutions quite early on. But we still needed to score.
Just when we were starting to think it might really be one of those nights we did. Decent work down the left ended with the ball running loose on the other side and Wilson bearing down on it in loads of space. Seemed he would take it on and shoot, but instead he played it square to Sordell in a better position and he finished coolly, showing what he might be able to do regularly if the service is provided.
The outpouring of relief, the effort expended, and the fact that we now had something to protect perhaps not surprisingly resulted in the tempo dropping and Forest coming more into the game. There was always a threat from set pieces, with more than a fair share of pushing/pulling/blocking going on which the ref seemed oblivious to. But by and large we kept them at bay and continued to fashion the better chances.
I’m not sure I remember all of them, but Cousins hit the post from a tight angle inside the box, prompting another scramble from which a goal seemed inevitable, then Harriott blazed over from a good position. At the other end it seemed for a moment that the ball would break in the box for one of their guys, but Cousins was to make a quite superb block. It was all set up for a last-gasp winner for us and the chance did come at the death (after Hughes had replaced Gower, Church limped off for Pigott, and Dervite made a late entry to the fray). Another corner and Morrison coming in at the far post couldn’t keep the shot down.
With the final whistle the players didn’t seem sure whether to celebrate or bemoan the fact that this was a game that we should have won, with a little more composure and luck in their box (can’t even call it the final third as some of the chances were from a few yards out). Whatever the initial reaction, with a chance to reflect they should take away pride in the performance and the obvious lesson that to compete in any Championship game requires the level of commitment that was on show tonight and not in the previous home game. There is no excuse for letting standards drop on Saturday.
Hamer – 6/10. Their goal made him look a little foolish and given the distance and angle there has to be some culpability, even though it was a superb curling effort. Otherwise struggled to deal with their corners but thanks to those in front of him didn’t have a shot in anger to save.
Wilson – 7/10. Defensively sound, bar one moment at the end when having been beaten to the ball lost his composure and was rounded again when on the ground. Gets a clear assist for our goal.
Wiggins – 8/10. There was concern about his form in the early games, but tonight he provided our most potent attacking threat in the first half as well as playing his part defensively.
Morrison – 8/10. Oh, so nearly a 9, if only he’d converted the chance at the finish.
Wood – 7/10. Quietly effective and impressive. Their absence of chances from open play was in no part due to him.
Stephens – 8/10. Just a world apart from the Millwall display. Not every pass or flick came off but made himself available, supported the guy with the ball, and almost scored.
Gower – 7/10. Unfussy and composed. Provided solidity in the centre of midfield.
Cousins – 7/10. Poor foul at the start to give away the free kick for their goal, missed a good chance in the first half, and couldn’t quite convert the one in the second. But otherwise very good, notable that unlike Pritchard when isolated in possession he didn’t tend to lose it but managed to find an out. And deserves a mark for his block in the box towards the end.
Harriott – 6/10. Harsh perhaps as he didn’t stop running and trying to make things happen, but didn’t really cause them the problems he might have done in his role and often chose the wrong pass/option.
Church – 7/10. Another tireless performance but as against Millwall he failed to take a good chance when it arose.
Sordell – 7/10. Often out of the game, is unable to provide an effective challenge for balls in the air, but took his chance when it came.
Subs – Hughes (7/10: a delight to see him back on the pitch, brought on to help shore things up); Pigott (6/10; worked hard enough and did offer more of a challenge to their centre-backs when it came to competing for balls in the air); Dervite (too late on for a mark).