In stark contrast to the midweek game against Millwall, Nottingham Forest notched up their first away win of the season as they comfortably beat Middlesbrough and moved into the play-off places. Scott Eley made the journey up to the Riverside Stadium
Continuing with my one-word summary on games this season, ‘opposite’ is my latest offering.
Forest’s performance yesterday was the complete opposite of Wednesday night against Millwall. After offering to write back-to-back observations, I must admit the content of today’s report was the antithesis to what I thought I’d be writing. I was taking my cousin to his first Forest away match and on the drive up I’d given some thought to what I might have to say in condolence on the way home.
After a pretty treacherous drive up the A1 in the rain, we were greeted at the Riverside Stadium with blue skies. If anybody is thinking of heading up here in the future, it’s actually a pretty good drive up from Nottingham. Not as far as you think. The opposite in fact.
Cheap car parking near the ground? The opposite of what I’m used to. If only this was nationwide.
My kid brother had treated himself to a pre-match kebab at lunchtime. Kebab at lunchtime? No chilli sauce on it either. Another opposite in my book. Mayonnaise couldn’t disguise what appeared to be an odour eater found under the floorboards in a pitta. Alarmingly, he couldn’t describe where he’d bought it from. Nonetheless, he still ate it. I can definitely confirm it was the opposite of what resembles a kebab in Nottingham.
You’re probably thinking what on earth am I going on about? But what I’m alluding to here is that each of these subtle opposites were working against my subconscious for the game. By the time I’d finished watching Daryl Murphy smashing in shot after shot in the warm-up, my mind set had changed. I fancied us against Boro, when on Wednesday night I was dreading it.
Onto the team news. I felt that after the naivety shown both on and off the pitch midweek, I wondered if Karanka would be better off going ‘horses for courses’ for this one. It wasn’t going to be too dissimilar from Wednesday with Flint, Ayala, Gestede in the Boro armoury.
Lolley was starting. A welcome surprise as I thought he was out injured. Dawson was in but at the expense of Hefele and not Danny Fox, another surprise. I thought Fox might’ve made way to better deal with Boro’s aerial threat. It was also good to see that Costel Pantilimon had decided against running off with the circus after Wednesday’s dress rehearsal. Janko being left out had raised a few eyebrows. And no Osborn or Grabban. The #nffc Twitter feed was in meltdown.
It’s taken a while but what I witnessed yesterday was the eagerly anticipated sequel to the West Brom performance in the opening home game at the City Ground. It wasn’t the complete flowing football performance, but it had passion and desire in abundance. Against one of the division’s top sides, this was a marker put down by Forest. Arguably, it was a game more suited to Karanka’s philosophy but it was classic counter-attacking. We also had to be savvy in game management. Opposite to last Wednesday night.
I’ve been crying out for us to start on the front foot in games given the belief that I’ve got in the current squad. What a refreshing change yesterday was. To a man, the players held that same belief in their own performances yesterday. Joe Lolley and Gil Dias set the tone with some excellent running to pin the Boro defence back. Daryl Murphy was not going to be bullied by Aiden Flint and Daniel Ayala. By the end of the game, the division’s toughest defence had been reduced to a bunch of cloggers. Murphy played a pivotal role in that.
I think Karanka’s decision to stick with Danny Fox speaks testament about how much he values him. Fox has come a long way in recent seasons wearing a red shirt. Apart from David Johnson, many years ago, I can’t think of too many others who have almost completely changed the views of the fan base. Fox was a 3/10 a few years back. He’s now consistently producing 8/10 performances. Even his toughest critics must acknowledge that. Most significant yesterday, was how Fox grew in stature as the team had a setback before the end of the first-half. Michael Dawson left the pitch injured after he had a made a really promising start to the game. With no Michael Hefele to come on and deal with the aerial threat, the task of beating Boro had become that much harder.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. If his weakness is in the air, Fox didn’t show it yesterday. He dealt with a number of balls into the box. His reading of the game was good. A stalwart. His distribution was a key asset in stretching the play when we needed an outlet. An outstanding performance and he didn’t half show what it meant to him at the end. Hopefully Fox can continue to grow in belief because there is still room for improvement.
Ben Watson and Jack Colback were both excellent in marshalling the Forest midfield. João Carvalho showed that even when he’s not quite up to his usual standards with the ball, his work rate was phenomenal. His shirt was absolutely sodden in sweat when he trudged off before the end.
Tendayi Darikwa had been given a surprise start and he rose to the challenge. You could tell he wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass him by. It was his best performance in a Forest shirt to date. Tackling, passing, heading and supporting play; he was fantastic.
The game itself, ebbed and flowed. Boro were predictable in pumping the ball in to our box but we looked a constant threat on the break. The opening goal came at the right time as Boro were starting to build up a head of steam just before the break.
What a goal it was too from Joe Lolley. The strike would have graced any ground in the world. Picking the ball up from Daryl Murphy, 35 yards from goal, he drove towards the box and hit an absolute screamer into the top corner. The away end were in dreamland. Not a bad goal for my cousin’s first game. I dared to dream for both him and me that we could pick up the win.
The gauntlet had well and truly been thrown down to Boro. I’ve been reading Pulis’ assessment of his team but, to be honest, I thought it was his changes that hampered their comeback. Martin Braithwaite was by far their most attacking threat and I was happy to see him go off. As for his replacement, Britt Assombalonga just doesn’t look like the same player he was at Forest. He had the key moment in the game to equalize and he fluffed his lines. Pantilimon produced a good save in fairness to him.
And then we landed the final sucker punch. Watson and Lolley combined well down the left for the latter to fizz in a worldie of a cross. Take nothing away from Grabban. Even though it looked a tap in, there was plenty of work to be done given the pace of Lolley’s cross and he buried it.
This is the type of service that Grabban will thrive off. His game isn’t chasing centre-halves down, it’s about being in the right place at the right time. Grabban now has five for the season. He’s picking up no doubt.
Jack Robinson had a good game up against Stewart Downing and his sending off was a shame. He’d deserved a better finish to the game.
Despite the sending off and thinking ‘here we go…’ the players didn’t panic. Opposite to Millwall. Everything that Boro served up was dealt with by aplomb. If any player could fit into Ben Osborn’s back pocket it would be Stewart Downing. And he was a good fit too. Ben came in at left-back and nullified their only remaining attacking threat. With 86 minutes on the clock and another four to come in injury time, we didn’t look flustered. I wasn’t flustered. It was in the bag.
My final observations from the game are reserved for Lolley. He continues to rise and rise in my estimation. I’m saying now that he’s the most exciting player we’ve had since Michail Antonio left the City Ground. It was a superb performance from Lolley. For every attacking run, he was tracking back to help out Robinson. His goal and the quality of the ball in for Grabban’s definitive match winner was right up there. Unplayable.
Forest have now lost once in 15 games and have more than matched arguably superior opposition. I said at the start of the season that if the manager got us into the play-off positions, we could well stay there. Phase 1 has been achieved as we finish the first quarter of the season in fifth.
A mention also to the travelling support yesterday. Boro’s drummer was no match for the Forest boys and girls. The Karanka/Lampard song must be confined to the Lower Bridgford. It didn’t take off in the away end. ‘Who comes from Spain and who is a W***er? My much-bemoaned Heartbeat rendition of ‘Aitor Karanka – take Forest up for me’ was catching on and it filled the away end as we headed towards victory. My lads loved it. Maybe I was a bit harsh on the song in the week. Even I was clapping to it towards the end…
The rapturous celebrations that greeted the final whistle were mirrored by the players. Fox was doing his best Psycho impression and Pantilimon seemed quite humbled by the fans chanting his name (after Millwall). Superb stuff.
While Pulis had likened Boro’s performance to a bag of potatoes, my lads had experienced the complete culinary experience. Kebab for lunch, McDonald’s for tea and a Chinese takeaway for supper; they’d bagged the ultimate teenager’s food hat-trick. What a day those pair had; after the game, to avoid the car park queue, we headed around to the players entrance to see if we could get a few photos. Lolley was the prize but all of the players were great and accommodating.
Interestingly, due to the international break, it was quite insightful to see that not everybody went back on the team bus.
Watson seemed to be ordering a taxi in reception. Dias and Carvalho had their civvies on with suitcases in hand, assuming they were headed back home to Portugal. A few were headed back to London and it was quite funny seeing Murphy and Fox waiting for their ride home. As we walked past them we heard Murphy’s booming Irish accent shout ’Foxy, I’ve left my f***ng bag in the changing rooms’. Footballers are human after all!
What struck me most though was the togetherness between the players and senior officials as they left the ground. Nicholas Randall and Jonny Owen looked like the cats that had finished their cream but were equally gracious with Boro security staff. Frank Clark was about to climb into his car before heading over to wish Adlene Guedioura well with a hug. There was a big ‘well done’ also for Fox as he wished them a safe journey. It was all quite refreshing. It felt like a family parting ways after an afternoon out.
As we headed back home, the Forest bus passed us so we decided to join the convoy and tailed the coach for a good 20 minutes. Deciding that I wanted to be back home for midnight, the lads gave the players a wave as we passed them. It was pretty much the end to a perfect day out. As his first Forest away match, that will hopefully live long in my cousin’s memory and cement his allegiance to the Reds. That’s what football is about! Let’s hope there’s a few more of these before the end of the season.
On a final note, has anybody got the 12-inch, Nick Berry version of Heartbeat? Asking for a friend.