As the international break draws to a close and Nottingham Forest return to action this weekend, we look back on the season so far and how the club has progressed
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Five games in the league, a couple of cup matches, an international break and the closing of the transfer window… it’s not much to go on. And yet we were battling relegation in May and everything — practically everything — has changed in a matter of months.
It’s clearly too early to predict anything but as Nottingham Forest sit in sixth place ahead of a return to action this weekend at Hillsborough, what do we think about the progress so far? What is a realistic expectation this season? And is it time to consider your betting strategy on the play-off places? We asked three of our regular writers how they see things at the moment and what the future promises.
The international break always offers an opportunity to reflect and I’m sure any fan would’ve taken a haul of three league wins and two cup victories from the first seven matches. The Championship is a tight, unpredictable league and most games could’ve gone either way. It’s easy to forget that Forest had the same record last season under Philippe Montanier, but supporters must be more hopeful that this good start will continue – with better players, better management and of course, better ownership.
Some of our attacking play has been sensational – despite the huge loss of Britt Assombalonga. Crucially it looks like the money has been spent well, to upgrade the whole squad. It must be a nightmare just to pick the bench, never mind the starting line-up. The season has already given us some fantastic moments – scoring four away at Brentford, great theatre with Britt’s return and a magnificent win at Newcastle.
However, football always has a sting in the tail and the Leeds defeat was a classic reality check. Mark Warburton seemed frustrated and unsatisfied after the match, so I think we too as fans, can be clear where we need to improve. Both Millwall and Leeds have been able to shut us down too easily and that is a concern. But the biggest worry is the number of goals conceded from set pieces.
In the Daily Record, rumoured target and now Birmingham City player, Harlee Dean said set pieces were not practised at Brentford under Warburton. Whether this was true or remains the case at Forest, the weakness must be addressed. This isn’t saying Forest should change their style and play like a Neil Warnock side, but the very best Forest teams ensured they didn’t negate attacking brilliance by conceding silly, avoidable goals.
Obviously playing out from the back brings its risks and rewards. This has put pressure on young, developing players like Joe Worrall and Jordan Smith. Both have protected the Forest goal with bravery and skill and should be applauded. I know there is no room for sentiment in football, but it seems a little harsh on Smith that the arrival of Adam Federici could threaten his place. I’d like to give him the shirt until January at least.
But overall, it’s been fantastic to have our Forest back. The attendances have been superb and there’s a real buzz around the ground. There will be tough times ahead, but when you consider how close we were to League One oblivion, it’s great to be moving in the right direction.
There’s no easy route to earn success in the Championship but it’s probably fair to say that the ‘Warburton way’ is harder to get right than others. Trying to pass your way out of the division is ambitious but it’s also admirable and, if we’re honest, it’s the sort of football that we’d like to be known for. You don’t become a slick passing team overnight and the games so far have shown that there’s still much work to be done before we’re anything like the ‘finished article’ but we’ve seen enough to know that big strides have been taken in the right direction.
From the absurdly cheap Barrie McKay to the power and experience of Daryl Murphy and the sheer class of loanee Keiran Dowell, smart signings have meant a side shorn of its star striker looks a better all-round team without breaking the bank. What a difference an off-field structure makes.
Of the 16 goals scored, only two came from players on the books last season – League Cup strikes for Muzzy Carayol and Tyler Walker – showing that the new boys have hit the ground running.
Liam Bridcutt should, in time, add much needed steel to support our flair and free up David Vaughan to go about dictating play.
The main concern continues to be the defence. Barring Tendayi Darikwa, this is the same unit that shipped 72 goals last term – the second-worst record behind rock-bottom Rotherham – and some familiar sloppy mistakes have been made. The new playing style only adds to the pressure on the defence to perform too.
The pre-break defeat to Leeds ought to keep feet on the ground – and provide lessons to learn – but shouldn’t spoil a positive start. Breaking a 10-year hoodoo at Brentford was superb and the Newcastle cup win showed the depth and variety in the squad. The Middlesbrough home win was also a great day. A stylish and energetic first-half followed by a grittier second-half, with smart substitutions and tactical changes, made for a decent blueprint for taking on good teams at home and, let’s be honest, it was funny to see Britt Assombalonga wilt under the pressure.
We have been here before. Pearce had four wins and a draw in the league by now, and Montanier had three wins and two defeats. Warburton has the benefit of a better ownership structure to support him, but faces the challenge of sustaining the early progress. Trips to Sheffield Wednesday, Sunderland and Villa, the visit of Wolves and Fulham and a Chelsea cup tie mean make for a tough schedule ahead. Let’s hope we’re still smiling by the next international break.
A week is a long time in politics. And in football four months feels like a completely different existence.
On 7 May Nottingham Forest were a club on the brink of a relegation that could have had a huge impact. At best the club would’ve faced the difficult task of climbing back out of League One with different owners and a likely-ravaged first team squad. At worst Fawaz Al Hasawi could have still been in charge of a rapidly sinking ship.
But a 3-0 win against Ipswich saved the day: genuine disaster was averted. Forest’s takeover by Greek shipping magnate Evangelos Marinakis sailed through smoothly and the City Ground suddenly looked a much brighter place –thanks to a lick of paint, a little love and attention; and a genuine footballing structure with a well-reputed chairman, experienced chief executive, savvy director of football and sharp management and coaching team in place.
The summer was a textbook guide to how to operate in a transfer market inflated by ego, greed and, in some cases, utter lunacy. Forest’s talent-spotter extraordinaire Frank McParland quietly and stealthily went about his business acquiring hungry, talented, exciting footballers for fractions of the prices clubs across the country would pay for lesser equivalents. In particular former Rangers star Barrie McKay, who at just £500,000 looks like the sort of talent who wouldn’t be completely out of place with a price tag 20 times what the Reds paid.
On the pitch the positives are obvious too. Forest are a team building an identity and a style of play and the fans have flocked back to support a club which is pulling in the same direction after so many years of shambolic mismanagement. The players look happy and fit and with the club sitting in sixth place in the table at the international break the signs are very positive – particularly because this side doesn’t appear to be anywhere near its best yet, despite early flourishes.
Expectations are growing – but patience may be needed this season. This is a new club and a new side born out of the ashes of an abusive past and it may take time to get things right. If luck is on Forest’s side a play-off run is by no means out of the question, but if there is a rockier path ahead the people in charge at all levels have already shown they deserve time, and by time I do not mean one season, to get things right in all areas. The future can, and will, be bright if club and fans stick together.