words: David Marples
"THERE'S ONLY ONE DYLAN BARKER"
By the time 15.47 on Saturday afternoon came rolling around, Forest fans had witnessed two disappointing halves of football. Hot on the heels of the second half non-event at Derby County followed this first half performance at home against Burton Albion.
Nigel Clough’s team did what was expected of them and they did it well with - more often than not - five at the back and midfielders kept on a very short leash in terms of attacking intent. That’s not meant to sound all whiney or passive aggressive since a policy of preventing goals is not a bad rock upon which to build a foundation and what’s more, it is a policy that has served them well away from home. With three consecutive clean sheets following a five goal shellacking at Elland Road and a couple of four goal hammerings dished out by Wolves and Aston Villa, it is only sensible to set a team up with the primary intent of not conceding a goal. Frankly, to expect Nigel Clough to do any differently would have been downright folly given the recent memo circulated around the Championship informing that to beat Forest, just let them have the ball and wait for them to pick it up and throw it into their own net.
The first half played out precisely as anticipated: Forest having the lion’s share of possession yet doing anything but ‘enjoy’ it since Stephen Bywater in the Albion goal could quite plausibly have rolled out a sleeping bag or done some knitting without disruption. And when Forest did lose possession, the handbrake on the bus was swiftly released as the Brewers looked dangerous on the break. Textbook stuff as Mark Warburton admitted: “When there was no momentum, it just felt flat. We were laboured and we were not shifting the ball. So we had to change it.”
In the second half, the ball was shifted around less like a Sisyphean boulder and more like a pinball as more adventurous passes were attempted. “Move the ball quickly,” Warburton explained. “Play one and two touch football. Play the ball forward, split units and be positive in your decision making and you will get your rewards.”
Indeed they did. Although the bloody doors weren’t blown off the Burton defence, they were prised open after much polite knocking. Jason Cummings took one for the team in taking a clattering from Bywater, allowing Barrie McKay to convert the rebound. Ay first glance, it looked like a straightforward finish but in retrospect, it was a very well taken goal as McKay threaded a ball-shaped needle through a sea of yellow.
With a goal ahead, Kieron Dowell was introduced to the fray in order to exploit the space opening up. He was involved in a wonderful team goal that Eric Lichaj crowned with his left foot. Some may see his lap of honour in celebrating the goal a little excessive yet when you calmly convert such an incisive move with your weaker foot having had to fight hard for your place in the team, you are fully entitled to such scenes.
This was Forest’s first clean sheet since early September and only their second at home this season. What’s more, this came after disruption to the defence with Armand Traore limping off midway through the first half, which meant Danny Fox shuffling over to left back and Joe Worrall partnering Michael Mancienne in the heart of the defence, who despite the concessions, looks to have been growing more and more assured with each performance. Despite incredibly pleasing, a shut out against Burton is an unreliable barometer for whether the defensive foibles have finally been solved yet all involved in this defensive performance can take huge credit and confidence from it.
The starting eleven ruffled a few feathers. Dowell was left out, as were Zach Clough, Mustapha Carayol and Ben Brereton. Dowell looked a little jaded against Derby and perhaps Warburton foresaw him being crowded out by sheer numbers of Burton bodies for this game, hence him being offered some time in the big comfy chairs on the touchline. With a goal ahead and Burton coming out to play, he once again looked the classy player that he undoubtedly is.
All of which leaves Forest slap bang in mid table: five points off sixth place, eight points off relegation and above Middlesbrough and Sheffield Wednesday. The forthcoming away trips to Hull City and Reading look ever so slightly less daunting from the perspective of a home win against obdurate opponents and a clean sheet. There is no pressure to be piling on points to chase the team in sixth place (Bristol City, if you were wondering) and there is no need to crick our collective necks to look over them or to check the wing mirrors in order to see what lurks behind – as it stands, there is no rampaging Tyrannosaurus Rex clomping along in that rear view mirror.
Based on the season so far, we will win some – probably the games against opponents lower in the table than us – and we will lose some – most likely against teams higher in the table than us. On occasions, we will be considered unfortunate not to get more from the game (step forward games against Derby and Barnsley) and at other times, we will be slightly fortunate to walk away with the points (big hello to Millwall). We will probably (hopefully) concede fewer goals as the season progresses and likewise, coax more from Jason Cummings and Ben Brereton as Daryl Murphy’s body starts to wave a little white flag.
Mid table obscurity has never felt so nice. You said before the season that it would be nice. You said that you wanted to see a Forest team play some decent football, maybe even look to establish an identity both as a football team and as a club. You said you would be pleased as long as there was evidence of progress. You said that you'd settle for mid table. This is it - this is what it looks like. Let's enjoy it.