Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Forest Five Asides: Support for Karanka, Burton, signings, corners, Appiah

With a third of the season already behind us, we're heading into the meat of the Championship season. After an up and down few weeks for the Tricky Trees, here are some thoughts on five talking points...

Gone for a Burton

The less said about the 'performance' at the Pirelli Stadium the better. Yet, I can't help but hope that the fourth round Carabao Cup defeat to Burton doesn't turn out to have a similarly destabilising effect as another recent Clough-inspired cup exit. February 16 2014 saw the Reds visit Nigel's Sheffield United side on a 16-match unbeaten run. A win would have meant that only a home tie against Charlton stood between the Tricky Trees and an FA Cup semi final. Despite going a goal up, Forest capitulated, failed to seize the moment and killed their momentum. Billy Davies never won another game in charge and was sacked just a month later.

I'm not suggesting that things will explode as badly as they did for Billy MK II, but it's a cautionary tale in how a poor cup defeat can have a knock-on effect if you're not careful. Momentum is difficult to build, but easy to lose. It was certainly frustrating to pass up a great chance to progress against Burton and it'll be tough to put that disappointment behind us when the league leaders are in town on Saturday.

Support for Karanka

One thing that was worth noting from Tuesday night - and in other games in fact - is the level of support from the paying punters for Aitor Karanka. He's attracted not one but two chants and both were audibly expressed by the travelling Trickies. Managers are rarely around enough to warrant such a privilege these days and while the support might, in part at least, come from a desperation for someone to stay around for a bit, that he is supported by the fans who attend games is not in doubt.

Is this significant? It's certainly worth bearing in mind when grumbles and murmurs begin on social media. It definitely ought to act as a reminder of the fact that Twitter is not always the best gauge of the entirety of fan opinion.

A goal from a corner

The Forest goal against Leeds United was a rare treat. Jack Robinson's header was the first goal from a corner since Dani Pinillos' injury time leveller in the 2-2 draw against Derby on March 18 2017 (thanks to Darren Morley for that shocking stat). That game - Mark Warburton's debut in the Forest dugout - feels a long time ago now doesn't it? The club's dismal record since is brought into sharp focus when you consider that we were the only team in all four English leagues and the top flight in Germany, Spain, France, Portugal, Italy and Holland not to score from a corner last season (stats here). That's on top of conceding the most goals from corners in the division too.

It all goes to shown that we make life hard for ourselves, missing out on a potential source of goals and a way to win the sort of tight game that is common in the Championship. Let's hope Robinson's goal is the first of many.

Lesser spotted signings

I wonder how long it will be before we see the most recent two additions to Aitor Karanka's squad? Claudio Yacob and Panagiotis Tachtsidis are both yet to make their Reds bow despite, apparently, being fit. With Jack Colback being suspended, might Yacob step up to make his bow on Saturday? Given his recent pedigree, you'd like to think that he'd have plenty to offer at this level.

It's certainly the case that, despite having an abundance of midfield talent at the club, we haven't quite found a combination that can consistently dominate teams and dictate the play. You feel that the balance is much better when we don't field two deep-lying 'destroyers' - and Watson and Colback doesn't feel like the best combination.

Arvin on target

There was one bright note to come from the Burton game, however, as 17-year-old Arvin Appiah stepped off the bench to net his first senior goal on his debut. It's great to see the Academy production line continue, and that's something that we can't afford to lose sight at a time when we've just seen a big influx of new signings. With Joe Worrall out on loan and Ryan Yates struggling for game time, it's important to see that the door is not shut on the club's young talent.

I'd like to see us have the confidence to field Appiah on the bench for league games. Especially given that we've had some games in which there have been three wingers among the substitutes and no strikers. It'd take some strange circumstances for us to need to bring on three fresh wingers and, given the size of the benches these days, it's surely worth having an attacking player up our sleeves.

It also made me feel pretty old to read that Appiah was born on January 5 2001 - a time when the rest of us were suffering the second season of David Platt.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

A good start? Assessing Karanka's opening ten games

Ten games in to the season seems a fair time to take the league table seriously. It's no longer just a 'form table' and it's hard to argue that teams aren't where they deserve to be in the reckoning.

So, what does it show us? Forest sit in 11th on 15 points, five places, four goals and one point outside of the top six. Three wins, six draws and one defeat looks, to me at least, a pretty solid start and allows the club to continue to harness the positivity brought about through this summer's massive season ticket sales. 

It's always telling how quickly a narrative can turn in this league. Three games ago our record was one win, five draws and one defeat. The glass half full, Karanka advocates among the fanbase could trumpet this as 'just one defeat', while the glass half empty doubters could point to 'just one win'. In a febrile, impatient world, it could have gone either way.

That's what made those back-to-back home games so important, with wins against Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham shifting the narrative to the 'half full' crowd. Indeed, the most optimistic of those fans can now throw in the league cup victories and hail the fact we've seen just one defeat in 13 this season. 

Yet, the back-to-back home wins did show the importance of victories when it comes to controlling the narrative. Draws can merely be added to the pile of 'winless' or 'undefeated' streaks but won't alone prove decisive. Turning those draws into victories is key if we're to build on this start. It's why we're 11th and no higher. 

You can never rest on your laurels, particularly at this stage of the season when the international breaks create intense mini runs of games. A draw against Millwall and a defeat to Middlesbrough and people would quickly point to 'three games without a win and spend two weeks feeling the pressure of the impending visit of Norwich City.

When considering the start to this season, it's also instructive to look at where we've come from. A haul of 15 points is actually our third best tally from the opening ten games since we returned to the second tier in the 2008/09 season. It's two points better off than both of the two play-off campaigns overseen by Billy Davies, and bettered only by Billy Mark II and Stuart Pearce - both seasons in which our start faded away badly. 

Indeed, in each of the last three seasons we've ended up with 12 points from ten games. While we're all hoping for better this season, we can't ignore just how far we've got to climb and the mediocrity that needs to be shaken off. We're probably trying to make three seasons progress in one here - although the owners may feel that their investment is enough to fast forward us to a promotion push this time around.

Here's our 'starters for ten' since 2008/09 in full:

  • 2008/09 (Colin Calderwood): W1 D2 L7 5pts 24th
  • 2009/10 (Billy Davies): W3 D4 L3 13pts 14th
  • 2010/11 (Billy Davies): W2 D7 L1 13pts 11th
  • 2011/12 (Steve McClaren): W2 D2 L6 8pts 21st
  • 2012/13 (Sean O'Driscoll): W3 D5 L2 14pts 12th
  • 2013/14 (Billy Davies): W5 D4 L1 19pts 4th
  • 2014/15 (Stuart Pearce): W5 D5 L0 20pts 2nd
  • 2015/16 (Dougie Freedman): W3 D3 L4 12pts 13th
  • 2016/17 (Phillippe Montanier): W3 D3 L4 12pts 15th
  • 2017/18 (Mark Warburton): W4 D0 L6 12pts 16th
  • 2018/19 (Aitor Karanka): W3 D6 L1 15pts 11th

Set against our recent record, therefore, this season does stack up favourably. The league position and proximity to the top six is surely good enough too, especially now that the team selection appears to be relatively settled. We're also one point better off than Fulham were this time last season, for example. Performances have been promising, without always being convincing. The team has shown some character - and the squad depth has come in handy, with subs helping to turn games around. 

The foundations have, therefore, been laid for a decent campaign. The challenge now is to ensure that we build on this - rather than slip backwards - and turn draws into victories. Let's hope the glass is still half full in ten more games time.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Karanka's selection dilemmas: What have we learned about Forest so far?

I don't know about you but I can't help but notice that Aitor Karanka loves a good scribble and I'd be fascinated to know what he's furiously noting down in games. While it might well be his shopping list (milk, eggs, bread, full back), the chances are he's jotting down what he's learning about his team in the early season fixtures - and he might well be going to be getting through a few more notebooks yet.

The biggest criticism of the Spaniard so far is that he doesn't know his best eleven. Unless he was following in the footsteps of his mate Mourinho and being especially stubborn, surely even he'd have to admit this was true. Yet the arrival of 13 new players - albeit some returning after loan spells - was always going to require a settling in period.

While performances so far have been more mixed than results would suggest, you'd like to think the lessons of these early season notes will stand Karanka in good stead as he strives for the right formula (in terms of personnel at least, since it's fairly clear he wants to play 4-2-3-1).

So, what might he have learned so far? Here's my guess at the contents of Karanka's casebook:


Costel Pantilimon seems to be the settled choice in goal. Yet, while his towering presence at the back is welcome he does need to learn to keep his cool a little better. Opposition managers will certainly fancy their chances at putting him off at corners. Luke Steele looks to be a smart choice as experienced back up should the Romanian lose either his temper or his form and deserves to start cup games to keep sharp should his moment arrive.

Right back

Sam Byram looks to be an astute capture from West Ham. He was a classy performer for Leeds at this level and should be comfortable on the ball in both defensive and attacking positions once he's settled down. Darikwa has the athleticism required to be a modern full back, but probably lacks the decisiveness needed in both boxes to be first choice. In fact, the decision over Tendayi demonstrates the question the manager has to ask about all of his players - will he get me into the top six?

Left back

Left back a tricky position? Surely not? To say we've been here before is putting it mildly. In truth, it's too early to judge Jack Robinson but he'll probably be given the chance to make this position his own. However, we're probably going to be left with a dilemma in that Robinson struggles with the attacking side of the role and Ben Osborn lacks the defensive nous needed. Karanka, like countless managers before him, also wants to find a way to get the energy and drive of Osborn into his team and might well - at home at least - choose to use him as an attacking full back.

Central defence

Soft goals from crosses continue to find their way into the back of the Forest net at a worrying rate and whilst it's wrong to blame these solely on the central defenders it's fair to say we're not yet as solid in this area as we'd all like. As a defender himself, Karanka should have a decent sense of what is required here. So far he's stuck with Danny Fox and Tobias Figueiredo but it wouldn't be a surprise to see changes here soon. The Portuguese defender has looked a little rusty to me - perhaps showing the ill-effects of a shortened pre-season. He's misplaced the odd pass and has tended to rush into tackles or challenges that he shouldn't be getting dragged into, which has left us exposed at times. Fox, meanwhile, has earned praise for his performances and rightly so. Yet, this is probably the best that he can get and teams are getting wise to his raking cross field balls to the right wing. While I admire his Reds resurrection, I can't help but thinking that a Fox-led central defence probably isn't up to scratch for the top six (this question again and the standard the owners and manager have made clear we'll be judged on this campaign). I certainly wouldn't be surprised to see Michael Dawson and/or Michael Hefele blooded into the team soon to add strength and aerial prowess to the team. Hefele's bubbly personality might well help to settle a few nerves too.


It seems increasingly clear that the manager has an 'either/or' choice when it comes to Jack Colback and Ben Watson. Fielding both makes us a little too defensive and pedestrian and we have a better balance when we have one 'destroyer' and partner them with a more creative player who can drive forwards with the ball and link the midfield to the attack better. So far, Adlene Guedioura has excelled in this role and has instigated most of the best play we've mustered. Perhaps in his absence Ben Osborn would have been a better fit against Birmingham and ensured we didn't relinquish as much space and momentum to the opposition. Colback appears to have the nod over Watson at this time, although his style of play is likely to attract cards and maybe even a knock or two, so it pays to have Watson waiting in the wings.

Number 10 role

If Forest really are to challenge for promotion this season, then they're probably going to need something special from Joao Carvalho. It was only right to give Soudani a start on Saturday after his goalscoring exploits, but fielding him behind the striker left too much space between the deeper midfielders and the attackers (although, this might have been made worse by picking both Watson and Colback). Club record signing Carvalho has shown some neat touches and flashes of talent, he now needs to get used to his team mates as much as the rigours of the league. Frustrating as it might be, Soudani might have to settle for a wide berth or a role as an impact sub to chase a game. Ben Osborn might even be a consideration for this number 10 role too, especially if we're up against a team who will have a lot of the ball.


Joe Lolley's thunderous striking was a timely reminder of his talents, and will probably propel him back into the starting XI. Matty Cash has been one of the most impressive performers so far this season, with his pace, work rate, strength and finishing ability helping to secure some decisive goals and is making himself tough to drop. Gil Dias has shown flashes of ability - more so than Diogo Goncalves you'd say - while Soudani might well be worth a place as an attacking wide man who can give more direct support to the central striker. The biggest issue might well be that most of our wide players look better off the bench when sent on to save a game - although I suspect this part of the team is where Karanka is most likely to rotate anyway, depending on whether we're at home or away and who we're playing against.


We desperately need Lewis Grabban to get up and running this season - and I've said before that I feel that a lot rests on his shoulders from a goalscoring perspective. If his form or fitness stop him getting 20 goals then we'll need to get more from Daryl Murphy - and his two goals this season have shown that he can still be a decent finisher - or bring in another player with the money that seems to be coming in from Blackburn for Ben Brereton.

It's still early days yet, of course, but Karanka knows that time is of the essence and that he's being asked to make three seasons' progress in one. While he's got plenty of food for thought in his notebook so far, there might only be four or five positions in which his first choice is totally clear. The time for chopping and changing too much will very soon be over.

Now is when he'll need to be decisive, ruthless and probably lucky if he wants to repay the faith shown in him during the transfer window.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

A 'what if?' starting XI

Imagine if the purchases of Hilal Soudani and the Portuguese trio Joao Carvalho, Diogo Goncalves and Gil Dias didn't come off. Yes, I know that's pretty pessimistic - I can't help it after years of bitter experience - but bear with me on this.

If that worst case scenario were to play out, we could now line up with a starting XI which looked something like this:

Now, I don't know about you but even this pessimistic old sod is fairly pleased with that 'what if?' team.

Importantly, it marks a step up from last season in several key areas. There's a more solid defence - on paper at least - with the likes of Michael Mancienne and Matt Mills cast aside and the unpredictable Armand Traore removed. There's also real leadership with the returning Michael Dawson and Ben Watson and, in Lewis Grabban, someone with a good goalscoring record at this level. Jack Colback and Costel Pantilimon bring experience and a winning mentality that was also missing this time last year.

I'd back that team to do better than the one that took to the field in 2017/18, especially if the centre halves gel and we can cut out the daft defensive errors that have plagued us for far too long now. With Fox, Worrall, Bridcutt, Brereton, Murphy, Clough and Guedioura on the bench there'd be a bit of back up and competition too.

Would it challenge promotion? Maybe not. That'd depend on whether or not Cash could continue his excellent progress, whether Watson has the legs to manage a full season and whether Grabban could bear the vast bulk of the goalscoring burden.

That, however, is where the imports come in. I'm not going to profess to having become an expert in the new recruits, but their pedigree suggests that they all have the talent to shine at this level.

Soudani looks the sort of character who could become a cult hero, with the sort of cheeky confidence and style that fans love. He could compete for any of the three forward positions and offer something a little bit different to the attack.

Joao Carvalho has a 'record signing' tag to live up to but he Gil Dias and Diogo Goncalves need to bring the sort of pace, vision and all-round quality to help us to dominate teams - or find a way to win the sort of tight encounter that is common in this league.

The Championship is far too unpredictable to be certain of anything at this stage. Who, for example, knows what to expect from Aston Villa after a tumultuous summer? It seems, however, that our overseas attacking imports would need to shine if we were to be among the contenders at the top. The good news is that our recruitment drive this summer has now set in place the solid foundations for a more stable Championship side regardless. That should help to take the pressure off the new boys as they look to settle in to a new club, league and country and give them a platform from which to shine.

My pessimism is still keeping me in check, but I am looking forward to seeing this side come together. Aitor Karanka has been backed. He'll know that he now needs to translate his squad's promise into points.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Forest's spending spree naturally makes me nervous - but there are signs things might be different

I have to admit, when Forest spend money it makes me nervous. Yes, excited too, but nervous. It's the same sort of feeling I get when we win a penalty. You know that it's a good opportunity and should lead to something positive - but there's also that nagging feeling that it might not.

It'd be easy to blame Fawaz for this. It might well be fairly accurate too. The ex-owner handed out big name contracts like confetti and, with a lack of planning or strategy, led us up the FFP garden path while presiding over a year-on-year decline.

Yet while it is easy to apportion blame to Fawaz, it's also too simplistic to pin it solely at his door. The spending splurges of Steve McClaren and David Platt - under their respective regimes - were every bit as badly handled. During all three periods there was excitement at the prospect of new arrivals - often for big transfer fees - and in all three cases things quickly unravelled and left us with a big mess to clear up.

Now, don't get me wrong, there are signs that things may well be different this time and this isn't about having a moan and groan. But bitter experience has made me wary of getting too carried away, no matter how many Wikipedia pages I read about talented young Portuguese prospects. I always think that when it comes to Forest's imports, for every Bryan Roy in the past there's been an Andrea Silenzi.

On paper, Joao Carvalho, Diogo Goncalves and Gil Dias look several steps up from the likes of Hildeberto Pereira, Ryan Mendes and Lica who have checked in at the City Ground in recent years (and hopefully a level above Platt's infamous Italian trio Moreno Mannini, Salvatore Matrecano and Gianlucha Petrachi). Carvalho's £13.2 million arrival from Benfica didn't just break the transfer record, it almost trebled it. With the valuations placed on his compatriots there's a potential £50 million of creative talent in those three alone. If that potential is realised, the 18,000-plus season ticket holders could be in for a thrilling ride this season.

Yet there's clearly a level of uncertainty about the trio. It's amazing how quickly some people are prepared to predict a title victory parade on the basis of three players they've never seen and had never heard of a couple of weeks ago. All three need to settle to a new country, league and manager and mature into men's football after battling for game time at their parent clubs (albeit at a much higher level than ours). They might need time to settle - just as Karanka might need time to find the right formula for his new-look attack. It's not enough to say 'it worked for Wolves' - these are different players coming into a different team. There might be £50 million of talent there on paper, but that doesn't always translate on grass and, unfortunately, that's where it matters.

Hopefully, the trio - and they may not be the last - can help each other to settle in Nottingham. The arrival of Tobias Figueiredo too means there's a strong Portuguese contingent in the squad now. The Sporting centre half's arrival, however, is a good sign for much more than his nationality. He showed himself to be a very capable performer at Championship level last season and should team up with the returning Michael Dawson to form the sort of strong defensive partnership that we've been sadly lacking in recent years. Our attacking flair has to be built on better defensive foundations in 2018/19 and Dawson should, along with Ben Watson, also provide leadership and stability for the side.

Yet, while Karanka might have his leaders and his flair players, the biggest gaps in his squad still remain. A striker, left back and goalkeeper are all a must - as is a right back now that Eric Lichaj has made the switch to Hull. All of that means even more money to spend - with the striker likely to carry a big transfer fee, especially if we choose to supplement the fresh faced talent from Portugal with a proven Championship goal scorer (which will hopefully be the case). The thought of all the work still left to do - and the money that might still need to be spent, probably contributes to my nervousness.

Again, though, there are signs that we've planned this spending spree better. Goncalves and Dias arrive on loan - with a view to permanent moves if everything goes well - and Figueiredo's 2 million Euro fee looks a bargain. Carvalho's price tag might appear eye-popping, but signing him on a five-year deal also allows us to spread the cost over the course of a long-term contract, while Dawson is a free transfer. The rumour mill has linked us with Costel Pantilimon, Sam Byram and Fabio - all of which could be attracted on loan or relatively cheaply to free up funds for the likes of Lewis Grabban, Jack Marriott or Patrick Bamford, the likely attacking targets. This,  it seems, is how clubs comply with FFP and still manage to spend.

You'd like to also think that work is ongoing to move on the players who left on loan in January - none of which were missed - as well as the likes of Vellios and Mancienne, who surely fall short of the standard required.

There can be little doubt that the standard required of Karanka is a promotion push. Yet the scale of that challenge cannot be underestimated. How many of the side who started on the final day at Bolton (Kapino, Darikwa, Osborn, Fox, Hobbs, Colback, Bridcutt, Watson, Tomlin, Lolley, Brereton) will begin the 2018/19 campaign in the first XI? One or two? That level of change usually requires time and patience. Given his top six target, the ex-Boro man might not be expecting to be granted either and he'll want - and need - to show the hierarchy that he can come good on that ambitious goal by Christmas at the very latest.

It's another big summer of change at the City Ground. It's probably needed to shake away the mediocrity of recent years and has certainly helped to whip up enthusiasm. Hopefully the club's hard work in installing a structure and developing a strategy over the last year or so will bear fruit and show that it really is different this time. By then, I'll have found something else to be nervous about I'm sure.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Forest Player of the Season 'curse' and the future for Ben Osborn

I'm worried for Ben Osborn. No, not because of the Twitter trolls. Those fans should, by rights, have been silenced by his fully deserved - and fan-voted - Player of the Season award. The sometimes-silent majority have spoken and Ben should take heart from the fact that we do truly appreciate his efforts during a chaotic period at the club.

My concern is that the Player of the Season award at Forest is becoming a little like the Manager of the Month crown or the board's 'vote of confidence'.

That bad? Here's what happened next to the last 11 winners of the award:

2007: Grant Holt

After bagging 18 goals in the 2006/07 play-off push, Holt seemed to fall out with manager Colin Calderwood and was shunted out on to the wing where he, perhaps predictability, failed to flourish. He netted just three times and was loaned out in March 2008 before being sold in the June.

2008: Julian Bennett

Bennett had been an inspiration during the successful League One promotion campaign - culminating in 'that goal' against Yeovil - so it was a huge blow to lose him to injury after just four games in the following season. When he did come back he suffered a collarbone injury that kept him out for six weeks and then eventually succumbed to a knee injury on Boxing Day that ended his season.

2009: Chris Cohen

The recently-retired Cohen wasn't struck by the 'curse' in 2009/10 - although play-off heartache was to come at the end of the season. Chris' bad luck was to follow later.

2010: Lee Camp

Again, Camp thrived after winning his Player of the Season title. He kept 12 clean sheets and narrowly missed out on becoming the first player to retain the title, finishing second to Luke Chambers.

2011 Luke Chambers

Chambers was appointed captain by new boss Steve McClaren but failed to hit the heights of the previous campaign. He scored no goals - compared to six the season before - and, along with the whole team, struggled for form. Eventually left at the end of the season.

2012 Garath McCleary

Having been a key factor in saving us from relegation under Steve Cotterill - scoring nine goals in the process - Garath left for Reading in the summer.

2013 Chris Cohen

Cohen suffered the second major injury of his career in November 2013, ruling him out for the rest of the season.

2014 Andy Reid

A ten-goal campaign earned him his second Player of the Season crown - ten years after the first. Reid and Cohen had then formed a promising midfield combination during a superb start under Stuart Pearce before both were injured in the same game - at home to Derby in September 2014. Reid wasn't seen again for nearly a year after.

2015 Michail Antonio

Michail's 15 goals and 12 assists were a joy to watch in 2014/15 (I'd put him in my best post-Premier League XI as a result) but he left to join West Ham by the end of the subsequent summer transfer window.

2016 Dorus De Vries

The former Wolves stopper played just one game of the 2016/17 season, leaving to join Celtic. His experience and calming influence have been missed since.

2017 Eric Lichaj

The popular American international only made half as many appearances in 2017/18. Despite memorable moments - such as a stunning goal against Arsenal - he twice found himself behind Tendayi Darikwa in the pecking order.

So, that's three major injuries, three immediate departures and three - to a greater or lesser extent - losses of form for those winners.

It's probably a reflection of the club's chronic inability to find any real form of stability in recent years. Players who are key one season have either been sold, replaced or misused, meaning we've rarely had a solid, consistent core that has worked together for a few seasons to become a coherent and successful team.

The future for Ben Osborn

Will the same fate befall Ben Osborn? It's hard to say. In some respects - and this isn't meant as harshly as it sounds - he won this season's crown by default. There were very few other players to feature in both the Warburton and Karanka sides. That is, of course, testament to his hard work and talent (he's impressed far too many managers to be dismissed now) but also reflects his versatility.

As the below Tweet shows, Ben has found himself in no less than seven positions during the course of the season.

His flexibility makes him a great squad player and perhaps it's fitting that he takes the crown at the same time as Chris Cohen - a man who filled a similar number of positions in his time - bows out.

However, he'll be acutely aware of the fact that the manager is surely about to embark on another shopping spree. The additions from the January window and those to come in the summer might well mean that we have new recruits to fill all of those seven positions that Ben has filled.

Ben Osborn isn't a player to shirk a challenge. New managers, new positions, new playing styles and tactics, Twitter trolls, relegation battles, off field chaos - he's seen it all in his time in the Garibaldi. The Player of the Season crown is a fitting reminder that he has overcome all of that to earn and keep a place in the side. In light of the lack of a consistent, experienced backbone, the likes of Osborn have been the heart of the club and he's been the poster boy for the Academy core that has kept us afloat. Yes, he isn't perfect but lesser players would have wilted.

The next challenge - to forge a role in a Karanka side that has to challenge for the top six - might be the toughest yet. If he can do that, he'll need to defy the gloomy history for recent Player of the Season winners too. Over to you, Ben.

Friday, 27 April 2018

'Only' pride to play for? Rubbish

In football, it's often said that there's 'only pride left to play for'. That cliché has certainly been applied to Forest ever since relegation was mathematically impossible (and before for some brave souls).

Yet that cliché is rubbish for two reasons. Firstly, 'only pride' implies that pride alone is a poor reward. That completely ignores the fact that, outside of the rarified world of the Champions League superpower clubs, wins are not exactly a throwaway joy that happen every week. I certainly haven't become blasé about Forest winning matches and every victory is worth cherishing. On top of that, every game matters from the perspective of the individuals on the pitch - their personal stories, milestones and careers - as well as those in the stands. Every match is someone's first, someone's 'one for the season', someone's 'big game' because of a personal rivalry or just their escape from the humdrum of work. If people are being paid to play and people are paying to watch then of course it matters and there's also a sense of professionalism and duty in carrying on when others in the table continue to fight out the promotion and relegation races.

Ben Brereton prepares to finally end a club record goal scoring drought with a penalty against Ipswich Town.

Secondly, and importantly in the context of Forest's current ambitions, seasons don't happen in a vacuum. The way you finish one season can set the tone for the start of the next. You may be thinking that there are 'two games left to the end of the season' but Aitor Karanka is more likely to be thinking that he's got 20-25 games to whip us into shape so that we're challenging at the top end of the table come Christmas. That may seem ridiculous, but you can't ignore the fact that the owners will want to see drastic progress on the pitch next season and - rightly or wrongly - will expect a promotion challenge at least. In the grand scheme of things, there aren't a huge amount of games to transform us from bottom third strugglers to top third challengers and there's no time to lose in doing the work required to get there.

In that respect, this end of season spell should prove invaluable for the Spaniard. He's had a long time to assess the relative merits of both the existing playing staff and his first batch of new signings. These games should have given him chance to think about how he wants to play and who fits into his plans and where.

If that is the case then it will mark a big change from previous seasons. The five years of Fawaz all saw seasons fizzle out at the end - all with different managers in charge from the men who sent out a side on the opening day.

I wrote two years ago about the end of campaign flops for Seat Pitch. To update the list, we've now seen:
  • 2012/13: One win and four draws in the last eight games as Billy Davies' initial run of one draw and six wins came to a crashing halt.
  • 2013/14: Two wins in the last 16 games as Billy was sacked and Gary Brazil was left holding the baby for the incoming Stuart Pearce.
  • 2014/15: No wins in the last eight games as Dougie Freedman's honeymoon period fizzled out.
  • 2015/16: Three wins, and just 12 goals, in the last 15 games as the Freedman reign ended and Paul Williams stepped in.
  • 2016/17: Four wins - and nine defeats - in the last 16 games as we left it until a nail-biting last day of the season to stay up on goal difference.
  • 2017/18: Four wins from the last 16 games as we've limped past last season's points total with two games to spare.
Yet the stats only tell part of the story. It's not just the poor results that have been disappointing in these end-of-season slumps, it's been the fact that much of this time has been wasted. The club has been all-too-happy to let things drift and wait to press the reset button yet again, often going through the motions while fielding loanees that stand no chance of returning.

The challenge for the current ownership and management is to shake us out of the current cycle of underperformance. By making the games at the end of this season count - in that we can take away some useful lessons for next season - we can make a start towards the overall goal. 

The fact that Karanka will still want to make drastic changes to his playing staff is pretty clear. However, the more changes required, the harder it will be to knit it all together. You'd like to think that he's established a few of the building blocks for his side. If Ben Watson's leadership, Liam Bridcutt's dynamism, Joe Lolley's mazy wing play, Matty Cash's boundless energy and Tobias Figueiredo's solid defending all feed into the team next season then it'll be easier to hit the ground running. The whole squad will be used to his shape and tactics by now too.

Beating Barnsley 3-0 on a wet Tuesday night at the City Ground.

Plus, if we can avoid having to sign squad players and back-up options then we can save the precious transfer kitty for strikers and expensive creative players. The owners have shown every intention of wanting to spend money in the summer, but the high price commanded by top strikers will mean that we still need to be wary of the dreaded FFP rules. Karanka should know exactly who he can utilise and where by now.

On the flip side, Karanka should have also seen enough to avoid sentimentally hanging on to players who need to be moved on. Michael Mancienne, for example, probably exemplifies the mediocrity that the club needs to move on from. Mark Warburton's failure to fix a defence that was so obviously leaky was a costly error (although perhaps he was preoccupied with filling the goalscoring void left by the departing Assombalonga?). 

So, against Bristol City and Bolton - just as in the 3-0 win against Barnsley - there's both pride to play for and the medium to long term future. There's no 'only' about either of those things and by taking both factors as motivation we can hopefully sow the seeds to avoid a seventh successive slump at the end of next season.