Forest 0-3 Sheffield Wednesday
Forest 0-1 Sunderland
words: David Marples
After the home defeat against managerless (oh, the irony) Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day, Nottingham Forest and their fans appeared to have reached the stage whereby each loss was tangible proof that Mark Warburton was clueless while each win was irrefutable evidence of progress. Not for the first time, fans were divided.
A year ago, Forest fans were epitomised by the slogan, ‘Fawaz Out’, yet after the binning of Warburton, his assistant David Weir and director of football, Frank McParland, Forest can revert back to being the club defined by ‘X Out’.
‘Doesn’t matter. X Out’.
Maybe that’s a little harsh since most are aware that it is quite plausible to express dissatisfaction with a performance, a manager’s tactics or a team selection without desiring a statement on the club website starting with, “The club has decided to...” and ending with, “the club wishes to put on record its thanks for X’s hard work.” Yet such a statement published the day after the defeat to Sunderland, accompanied by the generic sad and lonely corner flag, was precisely what fans got.
During the game against Wednesday, witnessed by a bumper crowd, arguments and disagreements broke out between supporters in various parts of the ground:
“Forward’s not taking his chances.”
“Not Warburton’s fault that, is it?”
“He put them up there.”
“But he’s not missing the chances, is he?”
…and so on.
All of which invoked the spectre of the Doncaster Rovers Boxing Day disaster of 2008…or the ghost of the Leeds United Boxing Day win of 2012.
The exchange above brings us back to the age-old chestnut of who to blame for a team’s underachieving: blame the people on the front line or the person who put them there? Or perhaps more pertinent to this case, do you deploy the players you have in a system that suits them or coach the players to adapt to a rigid system?
The Boxing Day performance laid bare all of these concerns, worries and nagging doubts regarding the current team. When a performance such as that of the second half is lazily plonked on the table, some issues become startlingly clear – most notably, a lack of mental fortitude running through the team and individuals.
Yet despite suffering 14 losses from 25 games, there was evidence of some green shoots of recovery from a side that evaded relegation by a mere two goals.
The team were becoming ever more confident and assured in playing out from the back after a series of very hairy moments in the early part of the season. Jordan Smith and Joe Worrall were tasked with huge responsibility in being the fulcrum for such a style of play and there were clear signs of improvement in this respect. Similarly, the team became increasingly adept at playing out of tight areas in wide positions. Going forward, the play could be very occasionally scintillating, especially when Forest were able to double up in wide positions.
Forest fans were clamouring for an identifiable style of play and Warburton was striving to provide exactly that. Yet no matter how unique and pleasing on the eye a style of play may be, fans want to see wins while avoiding defeats. Fans get cranky when they see their team lose so often.
Producing clean sheets has been a real problem for Nottingham Forest in 2017. In the tail end of the previous season since Philippe Montanier’s departure, Forest enjoyed only nine clean sheets from 20 games, including three shut-outs from nine under Warburton. This season, Forest produced five clean sheets from 25 games. The puzzle of how to prevent the opposition from scoring never really looked close to being solved. Other problems were apparent too:
During the Sunderland game, it was alarming to witness the shenanigans that was Cummings coming on from the bench to replace the injured Daryl Murphy. Cummings was still warming up and had to be called to get ready at least twice while Murphy was being escorted off. Even then, there was a whole bunch of faffing to be done by the young striker once he made his way back to the bench, culminating in Forest playing around three minutes with ten men. It was all a little bit shambolic.
When Guardian columnist Barney Ronay observed on Twitter that, “The Championship has quite a few “progressive” teams playing slow possession football,” he could quite easily have been referring to Warburton’s team. His faith in his system and youth may well have been his downfall. Against Wednesday, very presentable chances to get back in the game were spurned by youngsters Tyler Walker, McKay and slightly the less young, Ben Osborn. At least twice this season, Forest’s attacking four had an average of 21 and came up short each time.
While Warburton deserves praise for such principles – and let’s not forget that after the travails of the previous five seasons, seeing a team play the ‘right’ way with young talent was on the wish list of many a Forest fan – it is precisely these ideals that lost him the patience of some fans and the Forest hierarchy.
Ultimately, under Warburton, Forest lost a lot of games. And conceded a lot of goals. Regardless of any principles and context, such results yield only one thing in the hurly-burly world of Championship football.
According to John Percy’s report in the Telegraph, the play-offs were a target for the owners for this season. One wonders whether to feel buoyed by this fiercely lofty ambition or utterly depressed that such a benchmark - and failure to achieve it - will only entrench the club even more firmly into its current cycle of six month reigns for managers.
Maybe the new ownership does know what it’s doing and there can be no denying that many things behind the scenes have markedly improved in a short space of time. But at the moment, with fans flocking back to the City Ground and a good proportion willing to exercise some patience in the long-term goal of progress, the decision to sack Warburton and his staff feels demoralising.
Whatever happens next, it’d be better be good.
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