Wins breed con­fi­dence to keep Reds in with a chance

Nottingham Post - - SPORT - GRE­GOR ROBERT­SON

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.

PIC­TURE: DAN WEST­WELL

Lewis Grab­ban is part of an at­tack that poses a real threat

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