Monday, 29 June 2015

An ode to Julian Bennett and 'that' goal against Yeovil

Some goals are memorable because they are skilful or emphatic. Some stick in the mind because they are important in the context of a game. Others because of the rarity of the scorer.

When it comes to Julian Bennett's piledriver against Yeovil, all of the above are true and it's what makes it my favourite goal (that I've seen live).

From the crunchiest of crunching tackles seen on City Ground turf since Psycho, to stepping over a prone body to wallop home with the outside of his left foot, the Meadows man's effort had everything.

Everything too in the sense that it was him - the home town boy who had for an all-too-brief period solved the left back headache - and in the sense of its timing.

By the end of March in the 07/08 season we needed snookers to gain automatic promotion, a sad fact that made another play-off heartbreak seem inevitable.

Even five wins from six from that moment on meant that the impossible was still improbable going into the last game against Yeovil - a side we well and truly 'owed one' to after the year before (the less said about that the better).

But we needed two things to happen. To win our game and to get a favour from Cheltenham. I always feel that an 'if, but, maybe' situation for Forest spells certain disaster. Yet this goal from Bennett, 12 minutes in, set a very different tone on a day where it did all work out just right - with Kris Commons and a magnificent McGugan also netting to earn a 3-2 victory that co-incided with good news from Whaddon Road.

Bennett's wholehearted displays had rightly earned him the player of the season crown - and this goal proved to be the icing on the cake. It was the epitome of his passion and desire. Sometimes unconventional and often in trouble for over zealous aggression, it was nevertheless a joy to see him excel in a defence that kept 24 clean sheets.

It's a shame that injuries robbed him of more appearances - both in the Garibaldi and beyond. His career may have been cut short, but memories of that goal against Yeovil on May 3 2008 will live on and on.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The excitement of football fixture day. Yes, really

To the non-fan the announcement of the football fixture list tomorrow must seem like a strange thing to get excited about.

A computer simply selects the order in which football teams - that already know they will have to play each other by virtue of being in the same division - will meet across the order of the season. It's an incomplete schedule since television companies, cup games and the weather will mean it undoubtedly alters several times.

Does it really matter whether we play Huddersfield in September or March? Given that we will have to play all teams twice there are, unlike cup draws, no surprises awaiting.

However, maybe it's just me and, although it's not the cool hipster thing to say, I always look forward to the announcement with a sense of excitement.

Firstly, there's bugger all else going on at the minute. Well, except a glut of copy and paste Twitter bots telling us the transfer news and rumours Radio Nottingham or the Post brought us hours or days earlier. (They're almost as annoying as the 'wind up' 'ITK' prats who think it's funny to try to catch people out with made up 'news').

But it is more than that. I DO care when we play Huddersfield and, for that matter everyone else. As a fan living afar (deepest, darkest Lincolnshire no less) I'm eagerly looking out for the dates of the slightly easier to reach games. Yes, that's you Milton Keynes and Hull (!) - but not you overpriced Ipswich. If these fixtures fall on Saturdays - and preferably not right in the middle of winter - then an away day beckons. A football fan that hasn't experienced an away day is an incomplete football fan.

Rightly or wrongly I'm proud of my record of visiting 59 football league grounds - and slightly peeved that relegation and new grounds have deprived my total. The combination of a new place to visit and the special away day atmosphere mean that even the most mediocre match can be a fun adventure.

I'm also looking out for Rotherham, Bristol City and Reading as potential away day fodder. Only the fixture list could bring these three delights together on a bucket list, with the greatest respect of course.

Then, of course, there's the dates with the Sh**p at home and away, which are almost always late August/early September (home) and late January/early Feb (away) for no apparent reason. There's also the Boxing Day and Easter games to be aware of as well as the start of the season - before realism sinks in and the dream dies for another year - and the all-important run-in that, by then, won't be all-important.

If nothing else us Forest fans can at least console ourselves in the fact that no matter what the computer does to us tomorrow, it can't pit us against ruddy Walsall again...

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Ward, Mills and Tesche provide welcome news in summer silly season

Sadly we've reached 'that time' in the closed season. You'll all know the time I'm referring to. It's the period when Twitter is awash with fake designs for new home shirts, countless people thinking it's funny and original to set up accounts passing on made up transfer 'news' and there's no actual football to drown out the clowns. Darren Pratley has even been linked to the club - just to drag up unhappy memories of the farcical 2010 summer transfer window. It's a good job I like cricket really.

The low point in the closed season cycle came last week when the official Forest website ran a story headlined 'Capital One Cup Draw Date Set'. Not that I blame them, there's not a lot to report just yet. But that's not to say nothing is going on.

*Firstly, Dougie has come good on his word and snapped up two actual signings. Yes, I know they haven't been announced formally yet - much to the daily chagrin of Paul Taylor of the Post on Twitter - but all signs point to Jamie Ward and Matt Mills joining the ranks when their contracts are up with D**by and Bolton respectively. I know there's been a little bit of controversy about Ward but I'm happy with his arrival, providing he's fit. He's one of 'those' nasty little pests of a player - ala Paul Dickov - and should add a ruthless, sharper edge to our play. I don't really care where he's coming from - Robbie Earnshaw, Marcus Tudgay and Lee Camp show that ex Sh**p can thrive in the Garibaldi - and he might be what we need to make us more streetwise in the unforgiving world of Championship football. His appears to have precisely the tough mentality that Billy (MK1) and his signings added to Colin Calderwood's 'nice but beatable' side when he saved us from relegation. I just hope the ex Blunt winger/striker is not seen as a replacement for Michail Antonio.

As for Mills, I have more mixed views on his impending arrival. In some respects picking up a 28-year-old with well over 200 games of experience at Championship level within our FFP budget is a big coup for Freedman. My worry is that Mills has drifted around from Doncaster to Reading then Leicester and Bolton - without ever staying put. His display at the City Ground for Bolton this season was an utter shambles - completely devoid of discipline in the face of an admittedly superb attacking display. It's also a little frustrating that, when under financial constraints, we need to shop for a centre half when Jack Hobbs, Kelvin Wilson and Michael Mancienne are on the books.

Sadly though the ongoing fitness concerns of Hobbs and Wilson - and Dougie's desire to use Mancienne in different roles - makes it a necessary purchase. If Dougie can get him to mature and settle he certainly has the talent and pedigree to be part of a defence back line but there's work to be done.

*Tyler Walker's four-year contract, meanwhile, was a positive signal of intent from the club. He showed, in all-too-brief cameos, that he is a very bright prospect towards the end of the season and justified his new four-year deal. It's about time we brought through a striker and who could not want Tyler to succeed as an academy graduate and son of an absolute legend.

*German midfielder Robert Tesche looks as though he might end up heading out of the door. On the fact of it his departure would create a further gap in a position that Dougie already needs to strengthen in if he's to play his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation. Yet, it does appear that the former Hamburg man is not fancied by the current boss and his wages are rumoured to be fairly high. Yes, we aren't going to meet the tough constraints of FFP but that doesn't mean we don't need to start moving in the right direction. If we really can get a fee of about £500,000 for Tesche - and clear the best part of £1 million off the wage bill - and replace him with someone within the 600k-a-year FFP regulations then it might prove decent business. I thought the German showed potential in some games but did lack consistency. We can't afford to add too many people to the shopping list but there's no reason to think that we can't find someone better to take his place.

*Speaking of 'gaps to fill' - a goalkeeping berth will be high on the agenda for Freedman in the coming weeks, as will another full back. Talk of a Finnish stopper - Niki Mäenpää - has now died down leaving the field open to replace Karl Darlow. I'm actually relaxed about starting the season with Dorus De Vries as 'number one'. Dougie may well want to swoop if and when a player becomes available that wants to join and is better than the ex Swansea man. Tim Erlandsson's new contract shows we might well be in a position to school our own replacement for the Newcastle-bound Darlow in the not-too-distant future.

*In many ways Dougie appears to be approaching the full back situation with that sort of 'replace if possible' logic in mind. With out-of-contract Dan Harding appearing to be no more, Danny Fox has been backed to play a part in Freedman's plans. Anyone who saw Fox in a Forest shirt last season will have rightly shuddered at the thought. But this is the new world of FFP. We cannot afford to create problems. Freedman should hunt for an upgrade to Fox but he shouldn't jettison someone in a way that simply makes his search more desperate. Is this different to the Tesche situation? Possibly, in the sense that we have a potential buyer - in Birmingham - for the midfielder, that the German's wages are said to be high and that Freedman may well be aware of just how tough full backs have been to find in recent years. I fear the Scot might end up playing the versatile Lichaj at left back and Mancienne at right back were the season to start tomorrow anyway. I just hope someone turns up to ensure Lichaj can be allowed to settle at right back - maybe Jack Kelly or Alex Iacovitti could emerge from the youth ranks? Or perhaps, just maybe, Fox can rediscover the talents he showed at previous clubs.

*While Dougie may have shown intent with Mills and Ward we're yet to see the club's resolve tested with bids for Lansbury or Antonio. I'd be amazed if we didn't see at least one bid for both. As much as the club says it doesn't need to sell I've always felt that the future of both players is in their hands. We've seen before that keeping players who want to leave isn't productive and it's only when an offer is firmly on the table that we'll know how tempted either is to try their hand at Premier League football. There's vague talk of bids from West Brom for Antonio and Villa for Lansbury - these will be big tests in the coming weeks if they do emerge.

*Away from the field there have been a number of mentions of the 150th anniversary. A wonderful video with John McGovern was followed up by news that club historian Don Wright has worked on an 'official history' book to mark the occasion. This promises much substance and should be far more than a 'scratch the surface' rehash of what's come before.

*And finally...big hats off to whoever managed to concoct this City Ground shaped cake. Awesome.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Greatest Forest 11? Here's my best post-Premier League side

With the 150th anniversary now upon us, it’s only natural that the club has decided to consider a ‘greatest XI’. The problem I’ve got is that I feel a bit of a phony. I went to my first game as a small child (although I didn’t get much taller) in the very late 1980s, and started going more regularly in the early 1990s, taking in Wembley visits in 1992 for the Zenith Data Systems and League Cup finals.

In that respect I’m lucky. I caught the tail end of Brian Clough and got to see Des Walker, Stuart Pearce and Nigel Clough playing in the Garbaldi. But when it comes to a ‘greatest ever’ there’s a clear elephant in the room. Two, in fact, in the shape of our European Cup triumphs.

For fans of my age and younger it’s fantastic to look back at that footage and see our club at Europe’s top table. Yes, some other fans may think we spend a little too long wallowing in the past but what a past. And, when you’re lumping the ball up from Danny Cullip to Eugene Dadi in the present day then, frankly, the past offers the only respite.

But it’s not our personal past. We weren’t there, we weren’t blessed enough to see Robbo, Kenny Burns, Bomber Bowyer or Tony Woodcock. While that doesn’t stop us celebrating their achievements - as a history graduate I'm all for debating, analysing and reflecting on the past - it does mean comparisons are tough. 

Equally, while we don’t have the first hand knowledge to judge these players, who are we to deny their place in a great 11? Take the goalkeeping shortlist, announced on the official Forest site for example. Of those mentioned by the club I’ve only briefly seen Steve Sutton play and have seen plenty of ‘Oooh’ Mark Crossley. (Poor old Peter Grummitt and Harry Linacre have to make do with a still in a video of the contenders)

I love ‘Norm’ – he was a great character and grew to be a fantastic goalkeeper for us, after a little bit of a ropey start. Yet can we seriously say he deserves his place in a best ever 11 above the man who helped us win the European Cup? There’s surely not going to be many people who can dislodge the members of that side, if not just for the sheer weight of what they achieved. It’s going to take a lot for anyone in recent times, particularly post Premier League, to be considered worthy of rubbing shoulders with the men who brought home the bacon in Munich and Madrid.

Beyond that, there’s the 1959 FA Cup side. With 600-plus games to his name, does Bob McKinlay not walk into our best ever 11? What about the 1898 cup winners or that famous 1967/8 side? For people of a certain generation Ian Storey-Moore is a must.

In truth, it's all a bit of fun. We shouldn't take it too seriously and, in essence, you could argue that the task is to start from those European Cup sides and work out who might've made it into them. Pearce, Walker, Storey-Moore, Collymore, McKinlay and others might well lay claim to that loftiest of honours. It's an interesting debate, I just wish I was lucky enough to weigh it up properly.

Still, worthy fun though it is, what of the post Premier League era? Clearly none of these players are fit to tread the turf with Europe's finest. For most, in fact, top flight football was beyond their talents. But, it'd be wrong to write off the last 15 years. So, donning my hard hat and anticipating the flak, here's my best XI of the post Premier League days...

Lee Camp: We've actually been pretty blessed between the sticks in the past 15 years barring, you know, Barry and the coffee cup. Paul Gerrard, Darren Ward, Karl Darlow, Paul Smith and the tail end of Dave Beasant all made for decent custodians. So it is perhaps with an ounce of controversy that I'm plumping for the Derby-born stopper in my side. The smallest of the keepers on that list, Camp made up for it with a large personality. When he came in on loan, Forest were sliding meekly back to League One. Paul Smith, an imperious shot stopper in the promotion push, had epitomised our performances in the Championship - timid, out of form and not commanding. Camp was different. Brash but brilliant, he marshalled his box much better and announced his talents in some style on November 2 2008. At Pride Park, no less, the Derby fan stretched to save a bizarrely-awarded injury time penalty (thanks Stuart Attwell) and then, from the subsequent corner, produced an even better save to rescue a precious point. His tubthumping celebration was glorious. No matter where he was from, he was ours and he had a point to prove - adding a swagger and desire to win that was much-needed. Those heroics were performed while on loan and he continued his form after a permanent move from QPR, winning the player of the year crown in 2010 for 18 clean sheets in the push to the play offs. 

Matthieu Louis-Jean: This position was a straight toss up between Matthieu Louis-Jean and Chris Gunter (sorry Nick Eaden, no room for you!). In truth there's not a lot between the two - both were solid servants and both, if we're honest, lacked the attacking skill to make the most of the positions their athleticism afforded them when venturing forward. Gunter's susceptibility to being beaten to far post headers - and to becoming embroiled in 'aggro' - coupled with Louis-Jean's pace in the recovering tackle edged it in the favour of the likeable ex-Le Havre man's favour for me.

Jim Brennan: What to say about our left back worries? A succession of donkeys (eg Gino Padula), out of position centre halves (Joel Lynch) and loanees (Ryan Bertrand) have briefly stopped off in this revolving door of a position (cast also featured: Greg Cunningham, Alan Wright, Julian Bennett, Gregor Robertson, Chris Doig, John Curtis, Matt Lockwood, Alan Rogers, Clint Hill, Paul Konchesky, George Elokobi, Danny Fox, Dan Harding, Eric Lichaj...I'm sure I've missed some). It'd be tempting to stick loanee Nicky Shorey in this side, such was his impact while temporarily with us from Aston Villa. It's easy to forget he played just nine games and our inability to sign him permanently was often said to be a factor in missing out on automatic promotion in 2010. Still, while he oozed class and Chris Cohen put in some lung-busting shifts in this position for Billy Davies: The Second Coming, both were a little too short lived. Instead I'm going for Canadian Jim Brennan as my left back, just ahead of unsung hero Julian Bennett (I'll save him for my 'unsung 11', coming soon...!). What makes Jim better than the other 19 (!) contenders I've mentioned? Like Louis-Jean, he was consistent, gave us good shape and went about his business in a reliable way. He could've offered more going forward but, in Paul Hart's stylish play-off side especially, he was a vital cog in the side and greatly missed when he left. 

Wes Morgan: Little did I know on August 12 2003, when travelling away to Port Vale in the League Cup, that I'd be witnessing something special. But, enough of Darren Ward's penalty shoot-out heroics...the night also saw the debut of 'Big' Westley Morgan. Unfairly maligned by some - and often dropped by incoming managers who thought he didn't look the part - Wes proved a dependable mainstay for the side. He always relished the battle - whether it be League One football, Championship struggles or play-off pushes - keeping strikers in his sizeable pockets across 350-plus games. He was more talented than people gave him credit for - and more solid than most strikers had talent for. It's only a shame that he's had to go down the A46 to ply his trade in the top flight. Still, I don't begrudge him his time to shine.

Michael Dawson: While the choice of Wes was obvious, for me, the second centre half is a trickier prospect. Big Jon Olav Hjelde is straight into my unsung team (Ok, enough about that already!) and I've always felt Luke Chambers and Kelvin Wilson were overrated. While the return of Des Walker was joyous, it was his Yoda-like influence on the young guns that was most pleasing. For that reason - and to capture a bit more of the magic of that Paul Hart side - I'm going with Michael Dawson. His pinpoint diagonal balls out to the wing and tremendous tackling were symbolic of a side that, 1-11, played with such style at a time when we feared the worst. 

Andy Reid: Still, when Dawson departed it wasn't he who I mourned the most. It was Andy Reid, the majestic Irish magician, who lit up Hart's side with such style. I don't mind admitting that, despite being 18 and probably too old for that sort of thing, I had Reid's name on the back of my shirt. Creative and attacking, there was nothing not to love about an academy graduate who was a breath of fresh air after the dodgy Italians and other bought-in flops. It was a delight to see him return in 2011, bringing his Premier League know-how to a central role in which he is pure joy to watch. Pirouettes, flicks, tricks, pinpoint passes - he's got the lot. What a shame we saw him just six times last season.

Chris Bart-Williams: Despite joining in 1995, I felt Chris Bart-Williams' best days in a Forest shirt came after we fell to the second tier. As Platt's torrid tenure failed to deliver a return to the big time, he held together a mess of a side, providing class and leadership. The 2000-2001 season proved his high point as the free-kick specialist top-scored with 14 goals and netted a deserved 'player of the year' crown. It was just a shame that the club's financial perils meant he was unable to stay around to help Hart's young stars and he moved on to Charlton in December 2001. If you're desperately trying to remember something good about the Platt days, it was Bart-Williams. 

Michail Antonio: If Bart-Williams was a deserved winner of the 2001 player of the year crown then Antonio was certainly deserving of the accolade 14 years on. The most explosive player to grace the City Ground since Collymore, the ex Sheffield Wednesday winger proved to be an inspired signing, with 15 goals and 12 assists in his debut season. His displays of raw pace and power were enough to lift me from my seat on several occasions and made him the sort of player to relish seeing. With Reid in a central role in my side, the excitement of Antonio edges out Kris Commons who, despite his Sheep defection, maybe deserves an honourable mention for his touch of class to take us out of League One.

Chris Cohen: I've succumbed and gone for a crowd pleaser to finish off my midfield. While I fully expect the likes of the Forest Boffin could prove me wrong, I reckon there are solid reasons to have him here on the right, despite being left footed. Firstly, as with many other positions, there has been a real dearth of talent on the right hand side. Paul Hart played with a diamond in which David Prutton drifted to the right, Nicky Southall was good for set pieces but arrived too late in his career to make a difference and others have 'filled in' out of position (Lewis McGugan, Radi Majewski). Cohen, for me, actually flourishes when he doesn't have the pressure of the central midfield battle, where he can get lost. Billy Davies, who got the best from him in his two spells, harnessed his sheer energy and astonishing work rate and was often able to do that on the right. He possesses a dangerous left footed cross from the right from set pieces - dinking tantalisingly over a defender and inviting a finish - and could drift off the flank to make a difference. Plus, if anyone would take being asked to do a shift in a different position well, it's the ex West Ham trainee.

Robbie Earnshaw: The somersaulting Welshman netted more than 40 times in three seasons on Trentside and enjoyed a good record against his former employers from down the A52, with 5 in 7 against D**by for Forest. A deadly finisher and lead-by-example hard worker, Earnshaw was the star signing for Colin Calderwood's newly promoted men. Despite not being a 'Billy Davies type' striker he continued to show his undoubted class, adding a clinical edge to a solid side.

David Johnson: For a long while it looked as though David Johnson was destined to be another big money mistake of the David Platt era. But, despite looking Burnley bound under Paul Hart, he returned with a bang to inspire the 2002/3 play off push, netting 29 goals in 47 games. Injured robbed him of the chance to kick on from there, although five goals in the last four games of Joe Kinnear's 'rescue job' - particularly a rare long range effort at the Hawthorns - showed a tantalising glimpse of what could've been.

Bench: Commons, McGugan, Harewood, Scimeca, Williams, Prutton, Ward.

So, there we go. Feel free to criticise! None of these players will be anywhere near the official 'greatest 11'...but it's worth recognising their efforts to lift the gloom since the summer of 1999.