TRCH - Peter Pan

Left Brian: Passing the Tough Tests

6 November 18 words: Gareth Watts
illustrations: Adam Poole

Being a Nottingham Forest fan without much to complain about is a strange sensation. It's not quite akin to suffering from Stockholm Syndrome - the condition of forming a dependency on your captors - but it's not far off...

Do I really long for the days when I could whine about not having a twenty goal a season striker? (Lewis Grabban has ten in the bag already and my children haven't even finished off their Hallowe'en Haribo) Do I really miss the feeling of dread and despair every time the opposition floated in a cross? Could I actually get used to not having to click the 'scroll down' button to find our league placing? Since my last Left Brian update on Forest's season, the team have faced the toughest possible tests the Championship can offer and has passed almost all of them.

The team slugged it out at Ewood Park against a much improved Blackburn side and for the first (but not last) time this season the aforementioned Grabban scored a lovely goal from open play, missed one penalty yet scored a second penalty to eventually earn a creditable 2-2 draw. The 'is the glass half full or half empty?' optimism test among Forest fans is between those who think he has balls of steel for taking responsibility from the spot a second time and those who think he was a bloody wally for missing in the first place. As an optimist, I  prefer the former and saw this game as one point gained rather than two dropped.

Even I felt all optimism drain away a few days later though for our home game against Millwall who, seemingly, had the cheat codes for how to stop Forest playing: push up high and pressurise the goalie each time he has a kick, be physical and keep the ball in the air. Despite Forest taking an early lead through fan favourite Joe Lolley, there was always a sense that Millwall were the commanding team. As if to provide a crude metaphor for this sense of impending doom, the floodlights at the City Ground went out halfway through the second half. As 25,000 of us reached for our smartphone torches, there was a momentary sense of togetherness and Blitz spirit, a bonus rendition of Mull of Kintyre before the iron giants in the four corners of the ground reluctantly flickered back to life and the players were recalled to the pitch.

Our young Portuguese wizard Joao Carvalho made it 2-0 after the stoppage with a delightfully deft free kick and with 15 minutes to go we were poised, against the odds, to claim all three points. Alas, having peppered Pantilimon's goal with fourteen shots in total, Millwall struck in the 75th and, cruelly, the 91st minute to ensure honours were even at the final whistle.

The next match was away to league-leaders Middlesbrough, who at that point hadn't even conceded a goal at home all season. And yet, somehow, Forest developed an invincibility for that game (just as they did last season, when they defied the odds to batter eventual champions Wolves away from home) with a spectacular 2-0 win, thanks to yet another Lolley wondergoal and an instinctive Grabban near post finish. This was supposed to be the toughest game of the season and yet Pantilimon's goal was largely untroubled. What was happening? Was the summer hype and promotion talk actually justified?

Well, we spent the entire international break pondering these delusions of grandeur and with only five minutes on the clock in the next game against Norwich the answer was a resounding 'yes'.  Grabban had converted from another exquisite Carvalho assist and I (and I'm sure I'm not the only one) flashed forward in my mind to invading the pitch on the final day of the season to celebrate our rightful Premier League status. Meanwhile, Norwich City decided to do their best impression of Barcelona, pass with accuracy, move with pace and power through to a rightful 2-1 win. Forest's first home defeat of the season and a bruising wake-up call.

As I write this, Norwich are themselves top of the division having swept aside all comers in recent weeks. Just as the win at Middlesbrough didn't make us champions overnight, the defeat to Norwich didn't make us hopeless cases either. Tetchiness among the fans was met with snipey comments from the manager and there was something distinctly Kevin and Perry about our collective mood swings. In truth, as Forest fans, we're not happy when there's nothing to moan about but we're absolutely livid when there is.  

The half term break gave me a chance to join travelling fans for the trip up to Bolton which I hoped would provide a palate cleanser. And so it came to pass: spending 90 minutes on my feet in the North West wind with a thousand other lunatics was just what the doctor ordered. The team also seemed to thrive away from the pressure of capacity home crowds and comprehensively blew Bolton away. Another beautiful Lolley strike was followed by another missed Grabban penalty (bloody wally) quickly followed by a brilliant Grabban finish in open play (all was forgiven) before, finally another penalty converted by Grabban (balls of steel). The final score of 3-0 didn't even do justice to how dominant Forest were. On a long drive home my mind wandered again to a victory procession in May. Coincidentally, the final match will be at home to Bolton.

The next away match saw Forest, yet again, taking on the league leaders. By this stage, Leeds United were the team looking to pull away from the pack and, as fans, we felt that a point was as much as we could hope for. And that's what we got, but that doesn't get close to explaining the drama and sense of injustice we felt that night at Elland Road. Full back Jack Robinson (not one of the most glamorous summer signings, but most would agree he has to be one of the first names on the team sheet these days) headed Forest into the lead with his first goal for the club after just 11 minutes, inevitably leading to a siege mentality as the entire team grafted and fought to protect this precious lead. In fact, so much energy was spent hustling and chasing the tidy Leeds midfield that the team seemed too mentally drained to actually forge any attacks of their own.

But no matter, we were solid and heroic - on course for a victory that could trump even the Riverside display. Yet then, after 82 minutes Mateusz Klich crossed low to striker Kemar Roofe who used his forearm (yes his FOREARM!) to guide the ball into the goal. The Forest players protested (and, of course, #NFFC social media erupted) but it was no use. The ref consulted with his assistant (perhaps he asked to borrow a copy of The Damned United) before confirming it as a goal. We had been cheated, yet Forest kept their heads and saw the game out to claim the draw. In hindsight, we might look back on this as a positive: the moment that fans and players became united in a shared sense of grievance and bridged the gnawing gap between expectation and reality. We know we now have a really good football team who are going to push all the way this season. We can genuinely compete with those at the top.

Of course, being Forest, this love-in couldn't last long. Our next game was a fourth round Carabao Cup tie away at Burton Albion. Victory would give Forest their best cup run in 22 years. I'm just about old enough to remember the annual trips to Wembley in the late 1980s but for any supporter aged thirty or younger this could be a genuinely significant milestone after decades starved of success. And yet the blessing of our hugely inflated squad soon seemed more like a curse: the manager made ten changes from the impressive league line up and Nigel Clough's team out-thought and out-fought the Reds to clinch a 3-2 victory. Grabban was brought on late in the game and duly took his chance with a neat finish. Fans, though, will hope that the game will be best remembered for the fact that 17 year old Arvin Appiah (already making huge waves in the England youth ranks) scored on his first team debut. And what the hell is Carabao anyway?

Forest's next game at home was against - you've guessed it - the league leaders. This time Sheffield United held that mantle. With the first team restored, there was a confidence and composure about Forest that we've only seen in patches this season. It was an even and hard fought contest but, Carvalho's class (a curling cross-come-shot) and Grabban's striker's instinct (a lethal flick of the forehead to help the ball find the corner of the net) made the difference. But what was more notable about this 1-0 win was not the goal but the lack of panic afterwards - Forest didn't behave as though they were embarrassed to be beating the top team. Rather, this was starting to feel normal.

So, there we are. Justifiably in a playoff position - just four points from the top - contemplating a run of games against teams in far more modest league positions. Can this be right? Am I missing something? There'll be something to complain about soon, right? I’m a Forest fan ... life can’t be like this ... can it?

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