words: David Marples
All the signs for a third round cup classic were there; you just had to know where to find them.
Cold and damp evening by the Trent. Check.
Beautiful orange glow sunset peeping out from behind the Trent End. Check.
A completely bonkers game of football. Triple check, ticked, underlined and highlighted in red.
The team selections were intriguing. Gary Brazil put his faith in the kids. We know full well that these kids are more than alright but we had seen them chucked in together on a few occasions this season, with underwhelming results.
As for Arsenal, in a rare moment of optimism, my heart jumped on seeing their line-up. See, here’s the thing: if they had selected an unfeasibly talented bunch of academy kids as they have been prone to in the past, I would have feared the worst. However, a creaking defence and a weird mixture of youth and elder players whose time at Arsenal is in all likelihood well and truly up, gave cause for optimism.
Nonetheless, let any talk of ‘weakened team selection’ be slung unceremoniously into the trash. After all, it contained a World Cup winner, boasted 633 Premier League appearances and a front line comprising Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi. Against a Championship side which is barely on first name terms with the concept of a clean sheet, that’s a very decent front three.
Admittedly, the Arsenal bench – this time untroubled by Ron Atkinson – was less than impressive. In fact, were Atkinson to have actually been on the bench, it might have added some much needed ballast.
As for Forest, the youthful front line of Ben Brereton (18), Zach Clough (22), Kieran Dowell (21) and Matty Cash (20) meant an average age of 20.2 with the relatively old head of Ben Osborn (23) patrolling behind them while the 20 year old Joe Worrall shored things up at the back. In addition, five of the starters progressed through the Nigel Doughty Academy.
If we could just get through the first twenty minutes or so without conceding….
Ben Brereton’s performance meant we might well need to all take a breath and remind ourselves of the first rule of the Ben Brereton Club. Actually, it’s probably far too late to resurrect such a notion: the secret is well and truly out.
His deployment wide right by Mark Warburton was always a little odd yet I for one took solace in the idea that playing out there would enable him to learn more about the game and develop him as a forward. Sometimes managers do such things with an eye on the long term or because they know things we the paying punters don’t. For example, seeing Harry Kane on corner duty during Euro2016 seemed odd at first yet it was to be assumed that Roy Hodgson knew something we didn’t: that he’d seen him in training and this was part of a very master and cunning plan which would bear fruit and eventually make us all see that Hodgson was a tactical genius.
Yet as it turns out, it was simply a very silly idea.
Maybe Brereton has developed and learned from his stints out wide playing alongside Daryl Murphy and maybe we are starting to see the fruits of that experiment. Or maybe, Brereton should have been trusted to lead the line much earlier since quite clearly, he is more than capable of doing so.
Even if the moments of brilliance were evident last season, there were recent signs too that he was ready. His performance at Leeds was excellent and lacked only a goal to show for his efforts. He was quite simply a joy to watch against Arsenal.
Somewhere in north London or Hampshire, a very tall man will be waking up in the depths of the night for weeks to come, muttering something about “Brereton in behind” when asked what caused such distress.
It could easily be said that Brereton invoked the ghost of Garry Birtles on those cold and damp European nights at the City Ground.
The team performance didn’t come from nowhere. Sure, no one in their right mind expected such a high quality performance but the kernels were evident at Elland Road.
Not only did Brereton add a real goal threat to his menace, there was a willingness to hit the channels from the back and when that wasn’t on, Forest were not afraid to hit Brereton who more often than not, either held it up or turned and scared the living bejeezus out of Rob Holding or Per Mertersacker,
At the back, there was a resolve to throw themselves at crosses and shots with a desire that would make Colin Hendry blush. This is not to say that everything Warburton sought to achieve has been stuffed into a large black bin liner, it’s just that the team seem to be creating pretty patterns and knocking the ball around for fun at the right time and in moderation - not unlike how you should have consumed all those chocolate treats and nips of sherry over the Christmas period but didn’t.
Going forward, Arsenal did look slick when moving the ball through the midfield but Forest rarely panicked and stuck to the game plan.
The opening goal for Forest was barely believable in its simplicity. When Dowell stood in front of the A block waiting to fire in a free kick, the ghost of Ian Woan against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup lingered behind him. The similarities with that goal are eerie. Eric Lichaj scampered in behind to crash the ball in at the near post while the Arsenal defence did an excellent impersonation of background actors in a bar scene.
But Lichaj was only just getting started. Not content with one goal, this generally goal shy defender invoked the spirit of Lilian Thuram and netted two goals from right back in a game of significance. His second may well have long form articles, t-shirts and statues in its honour at some stage in the future.
Does it mean anything? Is this really one of those legendary nights at the City Ground that will echo down the ages?
As it happens, yes. Memorable moments in the last 20 years are few and far between. Snatching promotion on the last day of the season against Yeovil Town was pretty special but it was after all, promotion to the Championship from League One. Beating Manchester City on their own patch in the FA Cup at this very stage back in 2009 is another stand out result and general day out with which the similarities are startling. When Forest stuck three past City without reply at the Etihad, it was under the guidance of caretaker manager John Pemberton as Colin Calderwood had been shown the door and Forest were struggling to adapt to life in the Championship after three season in League One.
Cup fever has been in desperately short supply for a while in these parts and so a severe outbreak is very welcome indeed. After all, Arsenal’s FA Cup record is outstanding.
So yes – we will celebrate this like we’ve won the thing and we will enjoy our moment in the sun and we will go on and on about how proud we are of the youthful core of the team and of course, we will remind Arsenal at every opportunity that they will never sing ‘Champions of Europe’ and if they come back with a reminder that we weren’t even born, we will indeed politely but loudly point out that they may not be alive to see their team become champions of Europe.
And we’ll bloody enjoy it because it’s been a while since we had a night like that.
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