Wins breed confidence to keep Reds in with a chance
THE international break is a good time to reflect on the first quarter of the season, when the hype and hyperbole dampens for a while and the scene can be surveyed objectively.
And, I have to admit, I cringe a little bit when I think how quickly things can change these days in football.
Steve Bruce was a game away from being showered in champagne and a few months later, with the season just a quarter gone, a cabbage is being hurled his way. An extreme example, but we’re all guilty of getting caught up in short-term thinking: fans, writers, pundits – everyone with a love for their team or for football in general.
It was just a few weeks ago that I was writing - pre-emptively, perhaps - of the need for patience and time to be afforded to Aitor Karanka after the dispiriting defeat at Brentford and stuttering start to the season. A couple more iffy results and the pressure would have started to get a little uncomfortable.
I wrote, too, about the need to see Karanka’s stamp on the team: to see a glimpse of Nottingham Forest’s identity under his stewardship, whether they were winning, drawing or losing.
There were even a few mutterings about Forest signing too many players – too many!
A few weeks and wins down the line and Forest are sitting pretty in the play-offs. Most of the queries and questions are being answered.
We can see Karanka’s 4-2-3-1 shape is not all about pragmatism and defensive rigour, that it provides a platform for rapier-quick counter-attacks and gives the attacking quartet freedom to express themselves going forward.
We can see that Forest are improving at the back, even if last week’s column extolling the virtues of Danny Fox was poorly timed – when Forest promptly surrendered a two-goal lead against Millwall last Wednesday - the point remains that Fox’s growth in stature reflects the improved resolve Forest are beginning to find.
Any qualms about dealings in the transfer market have been swiftly forgotten.
Claudio Yacob and Panagiotis Tachtsidis felt like definitive and, to some, perhaps even unnecessary additions to an already bloated squad.
But evidently they, like everyone else, will have to earn their place in Karanka’s team. There will be no favouritism or reputational advantage. If they get their chance, they’re going to have to take it. And while the squad is being utilised, competition for places is bringing the best out of many of them.
Suddenly the manager and players are being lavished with praise. No-one more so than Joe Lolley, who has been in devastating form.
I love watching him drive forwards with the ball: that scurrying, scampering running style, every touch of the ball with that trusty left foot cushioning it ahead of him, stride by stride, like a winger haring down the line in an 80s arcade game.
He’s a throwback. He gets the ball and his first thought, his raison d’etre, is to be running straight at defenders. He can go inside or outside, as we saw with that first-half foray and strike at goal at the Riverside on Saturday, when he left a gaggle of defenders scrambling in his wake.
He can deliver a wicked cross, as we saw with that delicious delivery just asking to be prodded home by Lewis Grabban. And boy can he strike a ball.
He spoke afterwards of the hours of practice he puts in after training and his delight at it all paying off. I remember Kris Commons used to do the same, every day, with a bag of balls and an empty goal, just larruping shot after shot into the net.
It was all about perfecting that clean contact with the ball, and like Lolley, when he caught it true, his strikes could be virtually unstoppable.
I might be biased but they always look sweeter when struck by a lefty, too, don’t they?
While Forest were blowing Boro away on Saturday, I watched West Bromwich Albion take Reading apart in 30 blistering secondhalf minutes.
They’ve scored 31 goals this season and their front three of Jay Rodriguez, Dwight Gayle and Harvey Barnes have plundered 20 goals between them. That trio would be hard to top in any Championship season. Indeed, it wouldn’t look out of place in the Premier League.
But Forest’s front three or four this season would be a close second, I believe, and like Albion, if they can keep a few clean-sheets then there’s no doubt Forest can stay around the top six for the rest of the season.
That confidence and belief is growing, among the players and in the stands at the City Ground.
That is what a few wins and a place in the play-offs does though, right? Yes, there will be more peaks and troughs. It will still be the same group of players, the same manager.
And we all need to remember they are the best Forest have had in years.
Lewis Grabban is part of an attack that poses a real threat