It’s been a long time. Remember the 2-0 victory over Ipswich on December 1st ? That was the last Forest match I covered ; it seems like years ago. From Derby day drama to capitulation at Carrow Road and travesties on the Trent- there has been no shortage of festive treats for the neutral, nor has there been much to shout about for Forest fans. Three losses, and two draws from the 17th to the 29th saw The Reds plummet from 5th to 10th and a 4-2 victory against Leeds on New Years Day could only nudge us back up to 7th and 3 points off the play-offs. Whether righteous or not, Karanka’s position in charge has come under serious scrutiny from the owner, who, if anything doesn’t go to plan at Reading on the 15th, is ready to pounce. Marinakis, that is. The Greek shipping merchant has been imposing unrealistic goals ever since he set foot at the City Ground. “Promotion or nothing,” he waffles. When you are Nottingham Forest and you have been out of the Premier League for 21 seasons, narrowly avoiding relegation to League 1 only less than 2 years ago, a lump of cash and a decent manager isn’t going to bring instant success. Just like Farke had last year at Norwich, just like Guardiola and Klopp were given in their inaugural seasons – a transition period is paramount. Karanka’s project is incomplete. Besides, if a slump in form leaves us only 3 points off the play-offs, I for one am not complaining – top 6 is the goal.
“Aitor Karanka, we want you to stay,” sang the Forest fans on NYD. The fans, the players, the pundits, everybody is behind Karanka- apart from pesky Marinakis. A whopping 17 managers in 8 years at Olympiakos he has been through. Whatever the circumstances, Karanka will be hanging by a thread.
This was a golden opportunity for Forest to move into 3rd and put themselves in the best position possible heading into the EM derby, but we spurned it. The Trees were outfoxed by a savvy Preston side and finished the day in 7th place. Don’t get it twisted, Forest were by far the better side and were somewhat hard done by to come away with nothing. We started the game excellently, with zest, impetus and verve on the attack, including some delicious interchanges in the final third that just needed a cutting edge. The Lilywhites held on, though rather fortuitously it must be said. And their goal in the 56th minute was farcically against the run of play. The Forest reaction, however, was nothing short of disgraceful. Our game plan folded and we began to try to compete physically with Preston, but were outmuscled and our struggles exacerbated by Karanka’s decision to bring Murphy on in the 77th minute as his presence merely initiated more long balls and ultimately less success. Preston saw the game out astutely while Forest left the City Ground ruing their profligacy.
It was billed to be the best East Midlands Derby for the past decade. Two teams, both fierce rivals, a separation of only 3 points, two feeble defences alongside 2 in-form front threes. Like it or not, Forest and Derby had a lot in common that day- and it showed. It was a match where both teams kept cancelling each other out, an attritional affair both tactically and in tribal terms – crunching tackles, splenetic elbows and flying boots didn’t let you forget which two teams you were watching. Dreadful injury luck limited Forest to a very makeshift back four of Janko, Darikwa, Robinson and Hefele (only one of which is a centre-back, and a 4th choice one at that) while The Rams found themselves in a similar predicament – Tomori and Bogle aged 20 and 18 respectively, occupied centre-back and right back with Curtis Davies out injuried. The first 20 minutes were understandably cagey, but as the game opened up both sides were exchanging spells of dominance in what proved to be a wildly oscillated match for a 0-0. Karanka was proud of his team’s performance and rightly so. Forest were brave and bold in a game where they could have easily absorbed pressure and tried to nick a point. They were composed and confident in possession and playing out from the back while Joe Lolley and Lewis Grabban, who had a poor game in all fairness, both missed fine opportunities. On the basis of play, a point was a fair result- Derby should have had a penalty but then again Bogle should have been sent off. Not Keith Stroud’s finest hour that’s for sure. Couldn’t say the same for the Forest fans, though, who, accompanied by Danny Fox in the stands, chorused with their upmost fervour from the first minute to the last. But the 12th man couldn’t secure all three for The Garibaldi or, for that matter, lift them out of 7th place.
QPR was plain dreadful. An abysmal showing by The Reds saw them loose once again at home, this time 1-0 to 13th placed Queens Park Rangers for whom it was their first ever victory at the City Ground. We were lethargic, our passing was wayward, deliveries into the box poor. There was no real explanation for this performance – Forest just weren’t at the races. Indeed, days like these will happen to most teams but that didn’t quell those feelings of incredulity walking out the ground.
It would have been typical of Forest this season to, after bowing down to an average QPR, go and add another promotion-contender’s scalp to their illustrious collection. However it wasn’t to be. For 80 minutes, Forest produced one of their guileful, savvy away performances that we know they are capable of- but then the unthinkable happened. Norwich fought back from 3-0 down back to 3-3 all inside the final 10 minutes. Our defence was torn to shreds ; we had bottled it again. Suddenly our defence had disappeared, suddenly Norwich came to life and suddenly we had thrown 2 points away. Inevitably, Karanka’s job was put under some serious scrutiny…
2 games to save his job, the press reported. Milwall were up first, a trip to The Den not being the ideal destination for a team short on confidence. Don’t be blinded by Milwall stereotypes, Forest were not bruised or battered or bullied ; we were too flat and unimposing. Having 66% possession is one thing, but it was slow and sideways instead of into the channels. Milwall did frustrate Forest after their early goal, their rigid blocks of 4 a struggle to penetrate yet the post-match talk focused around a 5th game without a win for the tripping Trees. The team that walked out at The Den were doubtless a jaded one -the festive period taking its toll – but also one lacking symphony with Dawson, the heart of the team, out injured. The boys would have to regroup quickly ; their manager was on thin ice.
The Karanka banners and unadulterated support shown from the fans for the Spaniard proved to be in vain last time out, and it would take some mean feat to top that on NYD. Yet The City Ground was raucous, amassing the biggest attendance of the season. Fans waxed lyrical on their love for Karanka throughout and cheered their team on not in hope, but in desperation. This was the epitome of a must-win game. Aitor Karanka had dragged this neglected club from turmoil to promotion-contesters in only 12 months. We, as fans, have felt reinvigorated this season, a sense of purpose after a painful 5 years. Over 20,000 season tickets were sold this season and our lowest league attendance has been 25,750 against Millwall while our highest was a whopping 29,500 against Leeds. To put that into context, in 2015-16 we averaged an attendance of under 20,000 while our support this year in the Championship has been bettered only by Aston Villa and Leeds. Through the work of Karanka and the board, chopping ticket prices down, connecting fans and players, this has been made possible. The fans knew that to sack Karanka would be a massive blow to all the positive work of the past year and a sign that we really haven’t learnt from our past mistakes. So that is why everybody knew that the game on NYD would be a seminal hour and a half. It was simple : win to save your job Karanka.
As the two teams walked out, heavy clouds of angst hung over the Trent. The atmosphere was pure desperation. Yet as Mull O’Kintyre rattled across the ground there came this overwhelming sense of certainty. We had to beat Leeds and we were going to. With Dawson and Grabban out injured and Hefele limping off early on, this was a Forest team stretched to its bare bones, they would have to battle their way through against a much more technically gifted Leeds side. Colback was making crunching challenges, Murphy was over Pontus Jansson like a rash and Danny Fox was squaring up to anybody he could find. Yet we were still very cagey, very awkward, very jittery in possession, still lacking confidence. Admittedly, part of it was because we were being shown up by a fantastic Leeds side whose press, quality of delivery, playing out from the back and interchanges in the final third were all top draw- Premier League standard really. But nevertheless, when Jack Colback had scored in the 5th minute this match was only ever going one way. Leeds fought back to 1-1 and then 2-1, even when down to 10 men they were controlling things. Forest hung in there though and equalised through Colback again in the 69th minute. Two managers prowled around the technical area, both in the zone, eyeing their next move. 7 minutes later The City Ground was in ecstasy. Forest were 4-2 up ! A bullet header by Murphy and a bit of magic from Osborn had sealed the game. It wasn’t vintage Forest, Leeds were down to 10 men don’t forget, but it might well have nudged The Reds back on track and provide some much needed confidence. “Aitor Karanka, we want you to stay,” sang the departing fans for the umpteenth time.
One particular peeve from Forest’s month has been their incapability to bounce back from the first setback. Against Preston our game plan folded after their goal, at Norwich our heads dropped after their first goal went in and then it seemed like we carried those blows with us into the Millwall match. Which raises the question, are our players spineless ? Well, in truth, it is not as simple as yes or no. If you remember at the start of the season we were grinding out results even when not playing well, nicking goals late on and winning lots of our points from losing positions. One factor is doubtless the injury to Michael Dawson. The calming influence he has on this Forest team is indispensable. Even when he is not on the pitch due to his old age, one suspects that his presence in the dressing room is as effective. You wonder how much more his legs can take though, which means Forest really need to begin scouring the market for another defensive leader like him. Somebody charismatic, that can really connect with the fans. It may seem too simplistic too consign our failings to the presence of one mere player, but the power of leaders in a team should not be underestimated.
Give the young lads a chance
Forest’s academy is one of the most revered in the Championship. Since it opened in 1997 (it was later renamed The Nigel Doughty Academy) Forest have graduated 51 scholars on to the first team. That conveyor belt of talent includes the likes of Jermaine Jenas, Wes Morgan, Gareth Williams and most recently Oliver Burke, Matty Cash and Ben Osborn. Two, though, have been flitting in around the squad : Arvin Appiah and Ryan Yates. Appiah, who turned 18 yesterday, is regarded very highly by the academy as the next young prodigy and came off the bench to score in a 3-2 cup defeat against Burton but has barely featured since. Yates, aged 21, starred in defensive midfield on loan at Notts County and impressed for Forest in pre-season but again has been deprived of real game time. Especially considering some of our recent performances have been a bit lacklustre would it not be a bad idea to give these two a game ? They are young and hungry to make their mark.
Injury issues and January window rumours
January is the window for the desperate. Teams looking certain to go down, teams explicitly deficient in one area and teams struggling with injuries will all go fishing in January. It is not a time to try and sneak a little deal in, make a bit of profit on a player, especially when it could be postponed until the summer. Neither is it good idea to make any landmark signings in January ; clubs are more reluctant to part with their prized assets midway through the season, causing an inflation in fees and wages. As for Forest, January should be about the outs rather than the ins. As I said on my last piece on Forest, some of our new signings haven’t even started a match yet so to go looking for more players would be ludicrous. The main aim in January should be to offload some deadwood. Bridcutt and Watson definitely need go while a new goalkeeper can wait until the summer.
Costel Pantilimon- 6/10: The Romanian keeps on making the same mistakes. Admittedly, he has made some important saves this month, most notably in the dying embers of the game against Leeds. But his distribution has still been poor and his lack of agility continues to hinder us. A relatively decent Championship keeper, but not good enough to take Forest forward.
Tendayi Darikwa- 5/10: Had a poor game against Derby, and has struggled like the rest of the team have this month. Can’t criticise him too much though as he has improved, especially the defensive side of his game, so much over the past 12 months. A solid player to have in the team, but for me Janko is the more well-rounded full back.
Saidy Janko- 6/10 : Featured a couple of times but at left-back which is not his natural position but continues to impress me. His pace and composure in the final third matches that of a natural winger but is also disciplined defensively and has that tenacity of your modern day full-back.
Michael Hefele- 4/10: Not the best month for The Rhino. I said after his debut for Forest that he didn’t fill me with confidence and that he has a mistake or two in him but now that is really beginning to show. He is bit clumsy and struggles to concentrate for a full 90 minutes.
Danny Fox- 5/10: Looked a bit rusty on his return from injury against Norwich and Millwall but was back to his domineering self against Leeds. He has passion and is fiery but is not level-headed enough to control a defence. I think he still needs Dawson alongside him.
Jack Robinson- 4/10: Has been very rash recently and was close to being sent-off against QPR and Norwich. Part of a poor defence as a whole this month.
Jack Colback- 8/10: The shining light of a terrible month for Forest. Bagged 2 goals against Leeds but thats not why he earned himself an 8/10. Always puts in a shift for the team, runs his heart out every match, a tough tackler, positionally astute and constantly thwarts opposition counter attacks. He is easily one of the most underrated players in the Championship.
Claudio Yacob- 7/10: Does a similar job to Colback and probably deserves a similar amount of praise. The two work excellently together away from home.
Adlène Guediora- 5/10: A puzzle wrapped inside a mystery in an enigma. I just can’t work this player out. It’s been another poor month for Guediora, giving the ball away too carelessly in the midfield. Yet at the start of the season he was in scintillating form and added a different midfield passing dimension for Forest. He looks as though he has put a bit of weight on as well after his injury this season. I hope he gets back to his best as he can be such a key player for Forest on his day.
Ben Osborn- 5/10: Disappointing month for Osborn who was given the opportunity to stake his claim for a place in that front three. At Derby he was quiet and against QPR his delivery was dreadful. He then scored a belter against Leeds in true Benny Osborn style.
Gil Dias- 4/10: Terrible when he has been coming off the bench. After that pre-season game with Bournemouth I thought we had found a fantastic player in Dias. Pace, power, finishing, the lot. But since then he has been ever so poor. He just thinks he can run straight through defences and always makes the wrong decision in the final third.
Joe Lolley- 6/10: Quieter month for Lolley. Nothing more to say really.
Joao Carvalho- 6/10: Too often anonymous when we really need him. Contributes with a wonderful pass or bit of skill every now and again but needs to assert himself across a full 90 minutes.
Matty Cash- 7/10: In clinical form against Norwich and always a nuisance running in behind. Needs to add a bit of consistency to his game.
Lewis Grabban- 5/10: A poor month for Grabban. Missed a fantastic opportunity against Derby, didn’t score in the next two and then picked up an injury. In fairness, he hasn’t had much service recently in a team that went 3 games without scoring this month.
Daryl Murphy-7/10: Featured against Millwall and Leeds and used his physicality to ruffle up defences. Can sometimes initiate bad habits of just lumping it up and trying to play off him but is a very useful player to have in the squad. Also a very different player to Grabban so when they are both used at different times in matches it unsettles opposition defences. Gave Pontus Jansson a runaround as well.