Saturday, April 11, 2009

Season 2008/2009: Match 22: Nottingham Forest v Bristol City

When I was growing up, Nottingham Forest were one of English football's biggest clubs, although their sorry decline from European Champions to League One in the space of 25 years strangely coincided exactly with my first quarter century on this planet.
Since dropping out of the top flight in Brian Clough's final season back in 1993, Forest have been up and down more often than a porn star's knickers, but they've found it increasingly difficult to make progress towards a Premiership return over the past few seasons. Ahead of today's match they were third bottom of the Championship, a point behind Norwich and three behind Barnsley, who had a game in hand.
After attending Norwich City's clash with Sheffield Wednesday last weekend, I was looking forward to another entertaining match between a team holding out hope of a promotion play-off place and a side desperate to stay in the second tier.
Unfortunately, the weather in Nottingham today wasn't anywhere close to being as good that in Norwich last weekend, with a light drizzle falling as I made my way to the City Ground.
The stadium must be the most picturesque I've ever been to, sitting right beside the bank of the River Trent:

I didn't realise until today how close the City Ground is to Notts County's Meadow Lane ground, which is on the opposite bank, and to the Trent Bridge cricket ground, which is a few hundred metres down the road - and which looks like a giant German castle when seen from the upper tier of the City Ground's Brian Clough Stand.

As I said about Carrow Road last week, the City Ground would one of the three best league grounds in Scotland, and, like Carrow Road, is a far better venue for watching football than Hampden. The City Ground reminded me of Tynecastle, although its capacity of more than 30,000 dwarfs Hearts' stadium. Slightly fewer than 23,000 fans turned out today, including a noisy away section keen to urge the visitors towards the play-offs and Forest towards League One.

There were fewer players with Scottish connections on show today than had been the case in the Norwich match. Forest's goalkeeper Iain Turner, currently on loan from Everton, hails from Stirling. In the past, I've heard him touted as a future Scotland goalkeeper, but on today's form neither Craig Gordon nor David Marshall has anything to worry about.

Former Hearts left back Jamie McAllister lined up for Bristol City for 82 minutes before receiving a red card for for a second bookable offence. Ulster-born winger and former Hibs man Ivan Sproule, who famously scored a hat-trick against boyhood heroes Rangers, also played for Bristol City today, opening the scoring after 13 minutes.

The most famous Scot involved in the match was Billy Davies, appointed Forest manager in January this year and the man charged with saving the club from sliding into League One yet again.

There weren't many household names to be seen on the teamsheets today, Forest looking to Robert Earnshaw and on-loan Dexter Blackstock for goals and having recently added Welsh international full back Chris Gunter on loan from Spurs. City, meanwhile, had Dele Adebola in their starting line-up, the big man giving Forest's defence a hard time throughout.

Forest have been struggling all season, and early on they looked like a team whose confidence has been shot for a long time. They seemed devoid of ideas, scared to make mistakes and afraid to shoot in case they missed the target.

Despite starting so poorly, Forest could and should have gone ahead in the first quarter of an hour when Blackstock headed a cross wide of the target when it looked easier to score.

The let-off proved crucial, and Bristol City found themselves in front after 13 minutes, Sproule on hand to capitalise when Turner spilled the ball in the box.

At that stage, it seemed as though City were the most likely side to add to their tally, with Forest looking like a team of condemned men. But somehow, Forest found a way back into it and Earnshaw, who had already squandered a host of chances, netted from close range.

With the match tied at half time, I would still have considered City the more likely team to win the match. Most of the second half passed without incident, Forest failing to put Bristol City under any real pressure and the visitors struggling to capitalise on their hosts' inefficiencies at the back.

When Dele Adebola scored with 12 minutes remaining, it seemed as though Forest were finished, both in the match and in the Championship.

But that didn't take into account McAllister's idiocy. Having already been booked, the defender committed a foul on the edge of his own box, and was given his marching orders. From the resulting free kick, Joe Garner was able to find an equaliser, scrambling the ball home from inside the box.

The bouncing Bristol City supporters were immediately silenced, and Forest's fans sensed that survival was within their grasp once again.

Incredibly, there was further drama still to come, Dexter Blackstock capitalising on slack defending deep in injury time to volley beyond Adrian Basso.

The stadium erupted and Forest's players rushed to celebrate with the huddle of fans standing on the corner who had returned to the ground through the open exits when the equaliser flew.

Tension gripped the stadium from then on, referee Colin Webster adding several more minutes of stoppage time to test the nerves of everyone associated with the Reds.

The noise that greeted the final whistle was tinged with as much relief as joy, and those three points may prove all important to Forest, who have now moved out of the drop zone at Norwich's expense. With four games to go, there is still a lot at stake for both clubs - and the others involved in the relegation struggle.

I remember that, in Clough's final year in charge of Forest, many people said they were too good to go down. They weren't, and they did, and they've never properly recovered since. This Forest side is definitely not too good to go down, and too many of the players today looked as though they already thought they were relegated. A new goalkeeper is definitely required, with Turner at fault too often today to be considered properly reliable.

Gunter looked decent, but will return to Tottenham at the end of his loan period. The remaining members of the backline - Wes Morgan, Kelvin Wilson and Joel Lynch - looked erratic throughout and I'd imagine that all will be fighting for their places if Billy Davies remains as manager next season.

In truth, it's easier to pick the few players who didn't have a howler for Forest today. Looking objectively at the match, only Gunter, Earnshaw and Blackstock really looked as though they were properly ready for the challenge, although both the strikers squandered several chances that could have proved crucial on any other afternoon.

I hope that Forest survive, and I also hope that Norwich stay up, but it's now looking likely that one or the other will find themselves in League One next season. At the moment, I'd bet on Forest staying up. I'd also be willing to bet on Billy Davies, if given the chance, taking a hatchet to a lot of dead wood at the club if he's allowed to stay on, and kick-starting a push by one of the true sleeping giants of the English game.

(Fascinating fact - Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa are the only sides to have won the European Cup which have never played in the Champions League. And Forest are the only side to have won the European Cup more times than their domestic title.)


Anonymous said...

The most picturesque ground you've ever been to?

Let me cordially invite you here

Assuming of course Montrose reach the play-offs!

Groanin' Jock said...

And what happened to Dumbarton being "champions elect"?!

Anonymous said...

What I meant was of course that for there to be any chance of Montrose meeting the Sons (Division three champions) next season, then they'll need a lucky cup draw or a place in the play-offs.

Good result for the Mo on Saturday but I see it went from 5-1 to 5-3!

mike said...

Thanks for coming to the city ground for the bristol game, great summary of events, and hopefully next season we may have just one or two more scot's to come and watch and get behind if stories are true. hope you enjoyed the game and fans made you welcome