Left Brian: Don't Mention the 'P' Word

29 September 18 words: Gareth Watts
illustrations: Adam Poole

It’s difficult to describe how exciting the summer transfer window was for Nottingham Forest fans. Usually, if you want to see grown men in matching shirts getting this animated about potential transactions in a window, you’d need to be on a stag weekend in Amsterdam.


Just as runaway 17/18 champions Wolves before them, Forest had enlisted the help of super-agent Jorge Mendes in order to land the brightest young Portuguese talent second-tier money could buy, smashing their own transfer record in the process with the €15 million swoop for Joao Carvalho from Benfica, alongside teammate Diogo Goncalves and Gil Dias from Monaco on loan-to-buy deals. With the addition of a proven championship striker (Lewis Grabban for £6 million from Bournemouth) and the return of Forest hero Michael Dawson in defence, to name but a few of the thirteen (yes thirteen) new faces at the City Ground, fans could be forgiven for thinking they’d wake any moment from a fever dream induced by too many hours on Football Manager.

Yet despite the mouth-watering prospect of Iberian flair on Trentside, fans also knew that manager Aitor Karanka was renowned for fielding gritty, defensive teams – a pragmatist whose idea of a perfect match is winning 1-0 by scoring a deflected goal in the last minute. So it was a swirling cocktail of expectations which ushered the team onto the pitch for their first game away at Bristol City.

That creditable 1-1 draw was followed by one of the best nights I can remember at the City Ground for a long time. And yes, that too was a 1-1 draw, but the performance at home to West Brom was so much more - Forest were bright, first to everything and it all flowed beautifully through Carvalho. Other stars shone that night too: Algerian midfielder Adlene Guedioura, back for his second spell at the club, imposed his will on the game, scoring with one long range effort and narrowly missing with  a goal-of-the-century attempt from his own half. That this sort of performance was possible against a newly relegated Albion team (who, let’s not forget, had invested millions into their squad every summer) set the bar very high for fan expectations. For the time being, at least, everything else would be compared to ‘the West Brom game’.

And for a while, this was more of a curse than a blessing, as Forest struggled to a 1-0 win at home to Reading and an eventual win, on penalties, in the cup against Bury. This was followed by a relentless onslaught on the Forest goal away at Wigan. All three games were scrappy, bad-tempered affairs and it was homegrown matinee idol Matty Cash, rather than any of the summer signings, who galvanised the Reds each time in order to force a favourable result. Cash reminded us  (alongside Ben Osborn and Danny Fox) that talented players already at the club before the big money started flying would still have a vital role to play. Yet in truth, as fans, all we really had to cheer about was the fact that the new-look Forest had an uncanny ability to score late goals and find a result even when the performance left much to be desired. We were becoming a Karanka team.

If West Brom was the early season zenith, Birmingham City at home was the nadir. For 75 minutes Forest were simply awful.  We couldn’t get the ball. If we got the ball we gave it away, or, to be more precise, we kicked it high so that a tall Birmingham player could gratefully receive it. We were 2-0 down with fifteen minutes to go against a very poor team. But even then, they dug out a result: birthday boy Joe Lolley came on as sub and scored with his very first kick and powerhouse Irish international Daryl Murphy equalised with three minutes to play.

The next cup game brought Premier League Newcastle to the City Ground and with a team selection unburdened by league form logic, fans were given a glimpse of even more summer signings. I’m always wary of a self-proclaimed colourful character, but defender Michael Hefele’s charms are difficult to resist. Loves getting the crowd going and loves winding-up opposition strikers... what’s not to love? Per Mertersacker was affectionately dubbed the ‘BFG’ at Arsenal but I hope we can embrace our Big German without vulgarity. Cloughie said ‘no swearing’ remember?

The team revelled in the chance to play with more freedom and there’s a pretty compelling case to be made that Forest do better against ‘better’ teams. Among their best performances over the past 12 months you’d have to include the FA cup win against Mertersacker’s Arsenal, West Brom and now this, a convincing 3-1 win against the Toon. One school of thought is that we’ll be perfectly fine in the Premier League, it’s just getting there that’s the tricky bit.

Which brings us to Brentford, who’ve flirted with the idea of being a ‘better’ team themselves. Well, they were certainly better than the Reds at Griffin Park at the start of September. In fact, Forest’s league performances were starting to become frustratingly predictable: Slow start? Tick. Ragged, unattractive football? Tick. Matty Cash equaliser? Tick.

What we weren’t used to, though, was actually losing a game. Ollie Watkins’ late goal robbed Forest of their main saving grace this season as the unbeaten record was gone. They needed league points and they needed them quick.

And yet just as the knives started to be sharpened for our Spanish manager on the #NFFC timeline, things took a turn for the better. A draw and clean sheet away at newly-relegated Swansea, a classy victory against Sheffield Wednesday where, finally, Carvalho and Grabban got on the score sheet and a further three points at home to Rotherham thanks, yet again, to a late goal. The month ended with an insane 3-2 win against the third relegated team, Stoke City (insane because it could easily have been 6-4, such was the carefree spirit of the Carabao Cup). So we enter October just four points away from the top of the league and in the fourth round of the cup. And all of this through rarely playing that well. Our handsome coach knows how to win ugly, his team won’t be bullied off the ball and they’re gelling into a coherent team.

There’s one ‘p’ word I’m too superstitious to use here, but another, ‘playoffs’ seems a realistic prospect if the team continue on this trajectory.


Forest are at Blackburn Today at 15:00

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