words: David Marples
After the last home performance against Preston at the City Ground, which exhibited about as much dignity as Joe Hart facing up to an Andrea Pirlo penalty circa 2012, the trip to Fulham went some way to restoring some pride.
Let’s – ever so briefly – revisit that miserable evening against Preston. Such a result and performance yielded more blood on the City Ground carpet than the denouement of a Shakespearean tragedy. With Aitor Karanka stalking the corridors as the transfer deadline clock ticked towards closure, any number of players could be forgiven for locking themselves away in the broom cupboard in the hope of avoiding Karanka’s manic face bursting through a splintered door – axe casually swinging around in hand like a giant holding a Ferris wheel - demanding to know what exactly they did around the place anyway. Not since Matthew Bannister decided to clear out the old guard from Radio 1 in 1993 have more employees at an institution hid under their desks than on Wednesday evening in NG2.
The only real surprise here was the efficiency with which Karanka and the owners acted. Making confetti out of contracts may not be a cheap option but it is certainly a cathartic one, acting as a strong statement of intent: this is no place for players to come in and run down a generous contract with minimum contribution to the cause. This is no longer, as Larry Lloyd once put it, ‘a nice little club’. New faces. New broom. New axe. Shit suddenly got very real. Start performing or you’ll be looking for a cardboard brown box in which to store your boots, your framed picture of your loved ones and a small pot plant as you walk out of main reception into the car park.
The sheer volume of comings and goings – with, in all likelihood, more to come – was pretty radical stuff yet few would disagree with the decisions made. Watching Forest play Arsenal and Wolves off the park only to offer little more than a whimper against Hull and Preston was pretty galling and hinted that the oscillation between such highs and lows in such a short space of time was not a question of talent but more of application. The long-term ramifications of such dealings can only really start to be judged once this season shudders to a halt but intrusive surgery was certainly required, even if the results of the x rays may take a little longer to decipher.
Not deterred by the grey skies and huge puddles of Hull, Forest fans once again headed down to London in very healthy numbers to experience more of the same meteorological conditions yet there were a few differences. First and foremost, the beer was significantly more expensive in the capital than it is in the city that spawned The Housemartins, Fine Young Cannibals, Everything but the Girl, Kingmaker and the rather fabulously named The Paddingtons. Rarely has a team sheet been more eagerly anticipated than against Fulham – more so out of sheer curiosity than the chance to apply any tactical analysis.
With Fulham finally starting to live up to their bill as one of the best footballing teams in the division and hot on the heels of dishing out a proper hiding to Burton at Craven Cottage, few had any higher hopes than to simply avoid the sight of a bunch of strangers in red shirts playing precisely like a bunch of stranger in red shirts. As it was, they got a little more than that.
Although few chances were fashioned, this was a determined performance – the home side found Forest a difficult and stubborn barrier over which to leap. Hopes of keeping a clean sheet, at least up to half-time, extended to ten minutes into the second half and then to the hour mark. Once achieved, perhaps Forest could think about breaking with more intent...
Sadly, such hopes were extinguished in the 67th minute when Lucas Piazon’s hopeful effort squirmed out of Costel Pantilimon’s grasp and ended up in the net. The balance of power shifted towards the home team and Stefan Johansen secured the points in added time.
For all of the new faces injected into the Forest squad, three debuted at Craven Cottage – with mixed results. Jack Colback looked assured in front of the defence and clearly showed that he knows how to put in a tackle and be in the right place at the right time. Much the same could be said for Adlene Guédioura who seemed very comfortable with the ball in tight positions, even if he lacked the acceleration (fitness?) to drive out of such spaces. Pantilimon’s handling was generally assured apart from in the 67th minute, when his handling was far from assured.
All in all, this was a promising performance against an in-form team who chalked up their sixth consecutive win at home. As for Forest, this was an improvement on the Preston mess-up. "I'm never happy when I lose a game but I think the performance today has been completely different to our last game,” said Karanka after the match. "Today is a completely different feeling, today is a really positive feeling because the players showed me that I can trust them."
Maybe some players can ever so tentatively creep out of the broom cupboard yet they might be advised to make sure they can find their way back there in the event of a retrospective step. Clearly Karanka means business and has the full support of those above him; underachieving players be warned. If you hear a gentle whistle echoing down the corridors of the City Ground, accompanied by the sound of an axe dragging on the cold, concrete floor, be afraid. Be very afraid.
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