A 2-0 win for Aitor Karanka’s new-look Nottingham Forest over Bournemouth at the City Ground puts the Reds in a good position for the season ahead. Scott Eley casts his eye over the new signings
So, the season is almost upon us and for the first time, in a very long time, a manager has managed to put an entire first-team squad together that actually feels like it wants to achieve, let alone be at the football club. We’ve been paid the lip service in seasons gone by but the investment and the characters brought in this summer just highlights that we want to have a good go at it this season. A really good go.
When Aitor Karanka took over, I’ll be the first to admit that I thought it would be another manager who wouldn’t be given the time to overhaul the squad and keep results at a satisfactory level in the process. To have achieved this is in his first two transfer windows is testament to Karanka but also the owners to get deals done. No messing. I’ve never known backing like this in all my 35 years of supporting Forest. We’ve come a long way since Fawaz was playing out his Championship Manager fantasies with ‘our’ football club.
It was great to be back at The City Ground yesterday. It always is after the summer break but the old girl was looking as good as ever — new signs, new club shop, even the bogs had been given a lick of paint.
You didn’t have to look much further than our opponents yesterday to see that the impossible is possible. Saved from receivership years ago and now jostling in the Premier League, Bournemouth are the existing I Believe in Miracles story.
Onto the game then. Make no mistake, it was effectively Bournemouth reserves and I was a bit annoyed having seen the Cherries line-up the night before at Bristol City. Was it the test that Karanka was hoping for? Well they had enough quality in their starting XI and, of course, they brought along their passing game blue print, which every player seems to effortlessly fit into.
People getting carried away with the result need to reign it in. Excitement? Yes. Winning the league in pre-season? No.
However, the signs were promising yesterday. Well, maybe a little more.
Michael Dawson looked like he’d never been away. No frills, no fuss when he ran back out on the City Ground pitch. No sentiment, no romanticism. On with the job in hand.
His performance was that of calmness with one 50-yard pass from out of the back that had me reminiscing about his home debut against Watford a lifetime ago. I’d never see a centre-half at Forest ever pass the ball like that. It was good to see yesterday.
The most pleasing thing I saw from him though was the organising at the back. Bellowing at our full-back when defending a throw second-half: “Tendayi, TenDAYI, TENDAYYI.” It didn’t take long for Darikwa to tuck back in. Coaching on the pitch? Love it.
There’s no doubt that we’ve missed a vocal leader. From where I sit in Lower Bridgford, it’s been obvious to see why we’ve ended up flirting with relegation and dropping points where we should have been securing them. If the likes of Darikwa, can draw on Dawson’s experience and strengths (particularly his positioning) then he will be a great signing.
Special mention to Danny Fox. He has pretty much been a revelation in the past season or so at centre half. This isn’t the left-back that Fawaz and co paraded at half-time against Watford a few moons back (a thumping win on a Thursday night I remember).
Fox’s performance yesterday highlighted that he looks like a player who has found his preferred position and is growing in confidence and drawing on his own experience. Yes, the Dias goal showed some great individualism but wind it back a few more seconds and I’m certain you’ll see Fox pulling off a Cruyff turn and then hitting a 50-yard pass for Dias to go at his full back and do the rest. Whether he and Dawson will have the pace to cope with the quicker strikers in the Championship remains to be seen but Fox starts the season for me whilst Figgy is still building match fitness.
The full-back positions still feel unsolved despite the transfer dealings. Whilst Benny looked revitalised yesterday and had a good game at left-back, I’m not sure if that is the best fit. However, he’ll want to be in team wherever he plays so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him make the conversion. Darikwa looks a different player but he will need the competition to keep his development going.
Geddy looked back to being more like, well, Geddy. He didn’t look fit when he returned in January so hopefully he’s over the bad injury now and has had a good pre-season. You can see how much it means for him to be back in a Forest shirt and, on form, he could be a big contributor this season.
A quick note on Ryan Yates too. I really like the look of him. He was excellent in Scunthorpe’s play-off games and seems to have a mature head on his shoulders in the way in which he plays. No frills, dependable and keeps play ticking over. His physique gives him the edge over Liam Bridcutt for me but he will be better off playing elsewhere if he realistically isn’t going to get the game time at Forest. He’s certainly got a bright future here.
So onto the new lads, the main reason for going yesterday. The Portuguese didn’t disappoint. Again expectations in check, two of them are young lads carrying reputations (and transfer fees).
Diogo Gonçalves. Looked short on stature but what impressed me most was his desire to get in good positions. His determination to beat a man or create with a pass was evident with his assist. What impressed me most, however, was his endeavour. When things hadn’t gone to plan, he was backtracking, being a nuisance. Competing. Not your stereotypical, continental winger who’s not so good off the ball as he is on it. I was quietly impressed with him.
Gil Dias. He has more experience under his belt with Monaco and Fiorentina, and he definitely seemed more of the finished article of our four Portuguese signings. He seemed quick and direct but with the quality to pick a pass and confidence to score a goal himself. And a great goal it was too, picking himself up to finish when he could have stayed down. He looked keen to impress and, again, the tracking back and willingness to help the team was positive. Yes, it’s early days but Dias looks like he can hit the ground running in making a key difference to our attacking play.
Carvalho. João Carvalho. I think I’ve fallen in love with him already. The lad has some serious talent in his locker. He glides. His vision is second nature. I don’t think he knows anything other than to create. Inside of the boot, outside of the boot, weight of pass, no bother. Instinctive.
He’s seems quite an unassuming looking character too, no airs or graces and not the Big Time Charlie type. He seems happiest with a ball at his feet. I’d imagine he’d be the type of kid that would be happy doing kick-ups with a golf ball after the last football had gone over next door’s fence. One of his flicks through to Daryl Murphy yesterday had the Irishman almost scratching his head. He’d not read it. It was too good for him. I’m looking forward to seeing Carvalho develop. He’s certainly got the talent and the transfer fee suggests that he’s got the tools to see it through. Everything’s crossed for him.
From what I saw yesterday, strikers that make the runs in behind will get picked out with the killer ball. I’ll guarantee there will be some gasps at their play at the City Ground this season. Ben Bereton will be licking his lips to get on the pitch with these lads.
There were cameos for Soudani and Grabban too. I’d not realised how big Lewis Grabban is so I can see why Karanka has been so patient with his acquisition. He’ll be a key player to linking up play and if he can contribute with 20 goals then £6m will be an absolute steal. Soudani didn’t look short on confidence either. He seemed desperate to make an impression, maybe too much at times but he seems to be a real character who has settled in really well. If Cloughie had seen his ill-judged rabona, that may have been his first and last appearance in a red shirt! However, he looked sharp, nimble with quick feet and another who looked ready to hit the ground running despite being slightly behind the others in terms of pre-season work.
Considering that we were ‘shooting’ at our own inflatable goal in the Lower Bridgford in the last games of the season to generate some entertainment, you have to say the forward additions have been fantastic. I’ve well and truly paid over the odds at the City Ground for quality in the past three to four seasons so above all else, I want to be entertained. Winning football? Ooh, I say.
Still, I’m trying to keep my expectations in check. I’m resisting in getting too giddy over the talent in the squad. We’ve been here before. Right?
Well, I’m not sure we have. I’ve never seen a complete squad overhaul like it. We’ve also had the disappointment over and over again with false promises of new dawns but this does feel different. The owners seem to have realised the monumental task in hand on the pitch and have moved more than swiftly. With the embargo, good player sales and lower outgoings in previous seasons, it doesn’t feel like it’s all or nothing either this season.
A word of caution, however. The expectations have to be managed — 20,000 season tickets have raised them but so often this has been our downfall. Kids for a Quid has always brought in the bigger crowds but those matches were more often than not, hugely disappointing.
We, as supporters, can do something different.
Patience is going to be key. Let’s remember, this time two seasons ago, we couldn’t open part of the ground due to a stadium safety certificate. Unpaid bills. Selling our best talent when being told we wouldn’t. It seems the club had traded its soul for two giant TVs!
The hurt and embarrassment from the Fawaz era should be a force to galvanise the support moving forwards. The experience should make the fan base stronger. We can’t go back there again. The slate is clean. We’re out of intensive care.
The opportunity is here. Not just for the players, manager and owners but for us, the long-suffering fans. It’s an opportunity to unite and back the club as reward for their efforts. An opportunity for the younger fans to make their own memories. For us older ones, a chance to restore our pride in a club that had lost its way. The fans’ movement is evolving but it needs to become bigger, something never seen before at the City Ground. It’s perhaps the missing ingredient than the owners cannot buy. That’s down to us. A responsibility even.
There aren’t many better feelings coming out of a football ground than when you’ve sang your heart out and laughed at the banter. I’m all for being entertained every week, to see the players leave nothing out on the pitch and the supporters give it their all too. It’s far from impossible. A collective effort.
A famous Mancunian once sang: ‘You gotta make it happen’. This is a call to arms. Let’s have it this season and enjoy the ride.