Sunday, 30 August 2015

Forest 1 Cardiff 2, again, as we're left to ponder 'what if?'

We live in a world of 'what ifs?' at the City Ground at the moment. Take, for instance, every team announcement. A quick glance over the squad list will lead you to ponder what the side would be like if Chris Cohen, Andy Reid, Britt Assombalonga and Matt Fryatt were fit. For yesterday's 2-1 defeat to Cardiff Henri Lansbury was added to that list.

I enjoyed the 1995/6-style programme

Injuries are one thing to consider, transfers are another. What if we lose Michail Antonio, Michael Mancienne, Jack Hobbs? What players can Dougie conjure from his magic tartan hat if they go? What is the point of FFP if barely anyone else pays it even the slightest bit of attention?

All this means it's a welcome relief to concentrate on a game or two. A relief, that is, until you're 2-0 down and struggling en route to a third 2-1 defeat to the Bluebirds in a row.

Cardiff City do, in many ways, sum up why this division is difficult to predict. After a tame return to Championship action that offered little evidence of a promotion challenge, many might have predicted Russell Slade would soon be packing away his baseball cap and looking for pastures new.

Still, after years of hectic comings and goings, Cardiff have embraced stability and benefitted from a strong start to the current term. They've largely stuck with the players they had and have stopped loaning their best talent out to other Championship sides.

That bore fruit yesterday, especially in the first half. Lee Peltier once again enjoyed his tussle with Antonio at the right of a well-organised back four. Peter Whittingham - yes, him - now puts his wand-like left foot to use to pull the strings deeper in midfield and Kenwyne Jones will threaten any defence at this level.

It was the latter two that, inevitably, combined to put Cardiff ahead. Whittingham - teed up by a tame Eric Lichaj header - curled a delicious cross and Jones left our unconvincing centre halves for dead to power past Dorus De Vries. What if we had Reid and Assombalonga to replicate such play, eh?

The international break certainly leaves Dougie with the time required to get his defence in shape. The Mills-Hobbs combination hasn't been authoritative and this was the worst of the former Hull City man's 50-plus games in the Garibaldi Red.

Forest huffed and puffed. Tyler Walker tried hard - and came close with a decent effort - and David Vaughan showed his class but there was little else. Kyle Ebecilio didn't quite look as bright as he did on debut last week, Chris Burke - up against a former employer - couldn't get into the game and Michael Mancienne looked a lost soul in midfield. You could forgive him for looking around at the 'Mills and Hobbs Show' and wondering why, if they were performing like that, he couldn't command a place in his preferred position.

Ben Osborn injected some much-needed energy into the side after replacing Ebecilio at the break but the second half had barely begun before Antony Pilkington's cross had been nodded home by Joe Mason, a man Freedman had on loan at Bolton, to leave a mountain to be climbed.

What followed next appeared to be a bit of a mess. Antonio had been shifted to a central position to shake off the shackles of Peltier and co. We then threw on Dexter Blackstock for Burke. So, to chase the two goals we needed, we had Osborn on the left, Mancienne in central midfield, Tyler on the right and Antonio operating virtually as a central striker. Four players out of position.

Yet sometimes in the Championship logic isn't everything. Cardiff actually struggled to know how to mark Michail and Dexter's introduction provided a physical threat that seemed to unsettle the centre halves. What if we'd attacked them like this earlier?

Cardiff creaked but, thanks to David Marshall, held firm. The stopper's efforts (what if he hadn't been in such good form?) meant Tyler Walker was somewhat unfortunate to depart the pitch goalless. Des' son and heir, voted the man of the match, was replaced by another teenage prodigy in Gerry McDonagh.

The push for a goal eventually bore fruit. A flick on from Dexter played in Michail Antonio and he kept his composure to ensure Marshall was finally beaten. Personally I feel we need to keep everything crossed that he's still with us when the window shut at 6pm on Tuesday. If not our goal threat will be severely diminished and it could be a long slog of a season.

With the window closed and the chance to spend training time with the foreign imports and up-and-coming youngsters, things could improve. If we hold on to our assets and sneak a freebie or loan in then things could also look a little rosier.

Let's hope so. After all the biggest of the 'what ifs' is something we don't really want to have to contemplate: What if Fawaz gets tired of results going against us and pulls the trigger again?

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Bolton 1 Forest 1: Nemesis Dobbie strikes again

The season may be only four league games old but it already has a familiar feel, doesn't it? There's the early injury to Robert Tesche, the nagging feeling that we're just a couple of players short of a proper promotion push, a debate over who should play left back and, of course, a defeat to Walsall.

Still, anyone not quite back in the swing of things yet this season will have been 'reassured' by the intervention of Stephen Ruddy Dobbie. The journeyman striker yet again rose to the task of dashing Forest dreams with an injury time leveller to earn Bolton a point at the Macron (née Reebok) Stadium.

His record (4 goals, 3 assists and no defeats in 10 outings against Forest) is surely second only to Tommy Smith (5 goals, 4 assists in 12 games) in the modern day, making him deputy Tormentor in Chief for the men in red.

Still, even with Garibaldi-red tinted spectacles on you'd be hard pushed to say that the hosts weren't good value for a point. It's certainly a result we'd have all settled for before David Vaughan's sumptuous strike on 81 minutes.

Dougie Freedman surprised us all with five changes to the team which drew 0-0 against Charlton on Tuesday night, with European imports Daniel Pinillos and Kyle Ebecilio both making their debuts and starts for Tyler Walker, Jack Hobbs and Ben Osborn.

The return of Freedman was expected to provide some added spice to this fixture and cut price tickets for home fans (not for us in the away end though) meant Douglas might well have been braced for a loud, large and hostile crowd and an awkward afternoon. In truth there was just the odd boo and one slightly half-hearted strain of a chant that suggested he's a Midland banker. To be fair to the Trotters, they were probably more concerned with their side depositing a first goal of the season into our net.

The game also had little spice in a fairly pedestrian opening half. Forest were, at least, attempting to play from the back with De Vries rolling the ball to his centre halves. You felt it was probably sensible with Tyler Walker not suited to long balls and was maybe, at least in part, an answer to Dougie's critics in the home stands.

Pinillios looked solid, Ebecilio made some neat touches and Osborn's energy was welcome coming in off the right hand flank in a bright, if not exactly penetrative, opening 20 minutes.

Bolton grew into the game, however, with Gary Madine increasingly unsettling Matt Mills - also booed on his return to his former stomping ground - and more crosses coming into the penalty area. Defender Dorian Dervite, in particular, might feel he could have done better after getting on the end of two such crosses.

With Lichaj on a booking that seemed a little harsh (this was yet another game at this level with far more yellow cards issued than were warranted), you worried that Bolton would continue to threat from wide areas as the game wore on.

Tyler worked hard but was physically dominated by the elaborately named Prince-Désire Gouano (the artist presumably just known as 'Prince') in a tough afternoon.

The second half was much more open and while that made for a better game, it also put Dorus De Vries' goal at greater risk. The home side were gifted a golden chance to finally end their goal drought when awarded a slightly soft looking penalty. Mills' contact on the tricky Zach Clough may have been minimal but it was telling that the danger came from yet another cross.

Gary Madine's effort was saved by De Vries and, while it wasn't the best spot kick you'll see, it marked yet another key contribution for the Dutch stopper this season after superb saves against Brighton and Charlton.

The penalty was followed by a number of skewed shots, wayward headers and blocked efforts from the goal-shy hosts. In total the Trotters fired 21 shots on goal, with just three on target.

At the other end some neat work by Tyler Walker released Michail Antonio, who burst forward but shot straight at Ben Amos. We also failed to capitalise when Jack Hobbs found space at the far post from a free kick. We were in the game but you did fear it had the feel of one of those '1-0 home win' away days.

As the goal action started to dry up Freedman freshened things up, throwing on Chris Burke for Osborn and David Vaughan for the debutant Ebecilio. Both showed their class and experience, not least with Vaughan's stunning strike that made us dare to dream of three points.

It looked briefly as though that class from the bench would be the difference between the two sides yet, of course, Bolton has their own subs ready to sink our hopes. As soon as Stephen Dobbie's name was announced you feared he'd haunt us again and so he did, firing in from the edge of the box in added time.

The home fans were relieved while our hopes were dashed. It didn't take long for the sinking stoppage time feeling to fade and the realism that this was a decent point to replace it (certainly before Stoke on the way home).

1-1, 5 points from 4 games and 11th in the 'should they really print it this early?' league table. That's probably indicative of what's to come all season, isn't it?

On the plus side, the two debutants settled in well. Pinillos stood up to the test and looked a solid, sensible full back. Ebecilio worked hard, showing a couple of class touches that hinted to him being a smart addition once he settles in. Antonio played and, despite being tightly marked, threw the shackles off in odd flashes to show he was 'in the right place' to play. Fellow transfer target Henri Lansbury continued his decent form in the middle.

However, the Hobbs and Mills partnership needs a little work on this evidence and we didn't play high enough up the pitch to bring Tyler into the game. The young striker should learn from afternoons like this but we also need to learn how to get the best from his talents. It's also a worry that he's our only option at the moment. We didn't dominate the ball enough and allowed too many crosses to come into the area for my liking.

So, pros and cons, points shared and a predictable intervention from Stephen Dobbie. It's like the football was never away...

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Michael Frey...a very modern transfer saga

Following Forest's hokey cokey transfer sagas is a near full time job at the minute (Hamer, Lansbury, Antonio, Barton et al) and not recommended from the odd glance in a hotel room on holiday.

Returning from Munich - where the football side seems in decent order - it dawned on me that the pursuit of Lille striker Michael Frey will go down in folklore - largely thanks to the bizarre way it played out on Twitter.

First came the whiff of a mystery striker. Who could this be? A rabbit from Dougie's magic hat? 

Next it emerged it would be a foreign rabbit and - largely by pestering tabloid journalist Alan Nixon on Twitter - fans attempted to piece together the puzzle. We learned that the mystery man was a foreign striker playing abroad. Someone who had changed hands for decent money last year and who would be considered something of a coup.

That certainly set the hares running. Suddenly the hashtag was awash with people brandishing random Wikipedia pages of an array of unknowns from the depths of Ligue 1, the Eredivisie and La Liga. 

Then news came that HE was coming to this country. He was on a plane and about to be shown around the club. We held our breath and hoped for no riots - which may or may not have caused the demise of the Wesley Verhoek non-transfer under McClaren.

It now emerged that the mystery man was Michael Frey. Half the Twitter timeline rushed to glean what they could from the bowels of Wikipedia and the ropey realms of Google Translate. The other half let out a collective 'who?'.

Then came the usual rush to judgments: 'look at his goal record last season', 'this article says Liverpool were interested so he must be half decent' etc.

Then suddenly - and I include myself in all this - fans became transfixed with the progress of a deal for a man we'd not heard of. The cries of 'who?' were replaced with 'when?'.

We were told that he was impressed with the set up, lack of riots and Dougie's vision for the club and, as a result, was keen to join. We then spent a lot of time making sure the deal would work within the constraints of the FFP embargo. Too long for the timeline-refreshing Twitter crew. After all the loan deal of keeper Ben Hamer had gone up in smoke after falling foul of the dreaded regulations.

After that work was seemingly done it appeared we were not just keen to go ahead but also to try to get permission to set a fee down the line. Dougie, at this point, seemed concerned that the player would come and be so good that someone else would snap him up on a permanent deal and cash in on our hard work. That at least sounded promising - as though the debate was more about what came next than whether he came at all.

We even saw off competition, apparently, from Blackburn Rovers who had now been alerted to the Swiss prodigy's availability after our interest. He'd chosen us, we wanted him and all seemed lined up to push the deal through.

But then, at the last minute, the plug was pulled. Cue another #meltdown. If some are to be believed the player was even said to be on his way to the airport when he heard of the u-turn. That may be an embellishment but in this tale you wouldn't rule it out.

The mystery, the excitement, the drawn out chase, the successful drawing up of a financial package and the challenge of a rival bidder all overcome but, then, after all that, we just didn't fancy it any more. All, for added farce value, played out on Twitter since the beginning. 

You probably could make it up...but if you did you ought to bung a CV to a soap script editor. 

Dougie, speaking after the 0-0 against Charlton, said he'd pulled the plug because he wanted someone who could 'hit the ground running' and there were concerns that Frey hadn't played since January and was recovering from injury.

That does, on face value, sound sensible. That, coupled with the need to adapt to English football, would make it tough for Frey to adjust to the Championship. 

However, for me, it sounds fishy. We knew the fitness/rusty concerns before flying him over, wooing him and working up the terms of the deal. Maybe Dougie thought - wrongly it seems - that Lukas Jutkiewicz would arrive as part of the now-cancelled Henri Lansbury deal? Maybe it wasn't really Dougie's decision? Perhaps these eleventh hour transfer u-turns have always gone one but only now do we hear more about them?

Who knows. The serious point amid this whole saga - and that of Hamer and, further back, George Boyd - is that such instances do serve to undermine our reputation in the game. Does that matter? I think it does. If players, agents and clubs fear we'll pull out of deals or be unable to complete transfers that we've committed to it could be even harder for Dougie - or whoever comes next - to do his business. 

Perhaps oddest of all is that, by some bizarre method, I'm happy with the business we've done so far. I didn't really want Lukas Jutkiewicz or a foreign striker who may take months to settle and hold back Tyler Walker's progress (albeit Frey might have been good enough to prove me wrong). I also want us to hold on to Henri Lansbury and Michail Antonio which, as things stand, is still the case (although less certain with Michail). I'm also happy to let Dorus de Vries have the gloves and let the Ben Hamer money be spent on positions we need to fill more urgently (with a view to getting an emergency loan in if DDV gets injured).

Who knows what tomorrow holds. Joey Barton? Kyle Ebecillo? While ever the window is open you cannot be certain what the next twist will be. Sometimes cringeworthy, often surprising and always, oddly, compelling. I'll see you on the hashtag...

Monday, 10 August 2015

Brighton 1 Forest 0: 5 pros and 5 cons

These days, you feel like the season hasn't begun in earnest until we've picked up our first injury do you? And, there it was, on 39 minutes Robert Tesche - returned from the wilderness (or St Andrews) to play a big role in midfield - broke his metatarsal following a nasty looking challenge.

With that we knew the football was back. If that wasn't enough disappointment for you then up popped Kazenga LuaLua to give Brighton a deserved 1-0 win. The hosts weren't exactly sparkling but had done enough to take full share of the spoils.

Cue another familiar football season sight: the social media meltdown. Amid a sea of rush judgements, panic, over-reaction and tweets to Fawaz it is worth remembering that this was just one game. Plus, if you're prepared to look at a league table before 4/5 games in then you need to question your sanity.

Sitting now, in the relative calm of Monday (a day before the next meltdown after a traditional Walsall defeat), it's worth reflecting on the good and bad of Friday night ahead of a trio of home games that could, in theory at least, breathe a bit of positivity into the early season on Trentside.


1. Full back woes: I'll always try to defend a player but at the moment there's not getting past the fact that Danny Fox doesn't look good enough. Yes, he doesn't get much cover but he shouldn't need support for every one on one. I don't blame the man - he doesn't look like he's not trying - but there's no hiding from the fact that he's not up to scratch. Perhaps even more worrying was the fact that Eric Lichaj was every bit as bad on the other side. Whether it was the fact that he felt aggrieved for his yellow card or that he simply came up against a good player in LuaLua, Eric certainly didn't match his showings from last season.

2. Midfield: The Forest midfield, shorn of the sort of class Gary Gardner brought when on loan last season, struggled to dominate. The extra man didn't see us stamp our authority on proceedings - possibly because he was Michael Mancienne. David Vaughan looked off the pace and sloppy when he came on and Lansbury is always less effective when dragged too deep.

3. Tesche: As mentioned earlier, the ex-Hamburg man became the latest player to be checked into the ever-busy treatment room. It won't be long before the injured players could make up a better side than the one we're putting out each week...

4. Run continues: With a trigger happy chairman to appease and potential transfer targets to try to sway, Dougie could do without '9 games without a win' being brought up.

5. Struggled to chase: Despite a slight upsurge, it was disappointing to see that we couldn't mount a sustained late charge to try to rescue a point. My worry is that by being positive with substitutions (Tyler for Fox) we ended up simply conceding even more ground and in a 442 we're always struggling to get anywhere near enough of the ball to get the attackers into the game. Oh and Burke would've been a better sub than Pato for me.


1. Mills: This was an impressive debut for Matt Mills who slotted in well next to Jack Hobbs. He did his defending tidily and played a couple of smart forward passes to contrast with some of the less cultured aimless long stuff that poor old Dexter was forced to make do with.

2. Antonio: Michail doesn't look like he's letting the transfer speculation get to him. He didn't have it easy and was better marshalled than Brighton's match-winning wide man, but Antonio's pace and power meant the hosts could never truly settle.

3. Tyler Walker: While we're all watching progress of a potential new striker, there's no reason to stop being excited by 'Des' lad'. He injected pace and movement to the forward line and gave us a threat. Deserves to star in the cup.

4. Dorus De Vries: He showed Dougie that Ben Hamer, if he ever arrives, shouldn't automatically get the starting role between the sticks. His save on the stroke of half time was top class.

5. Not getting carried away: Perversely, one good thing about getting this defeat out of the way is that it keeps us all from getting carried away. The early season optimism bubble has burst and anyone who thought getting together a competitive side under an embargo would be easy should be thinking again.

One down, 45 to go...

Thursday, 6 August 2015

All set for another close Championship marathon

I can't help thinking that the Championship is like one big mid table. Take a look around and the vast majority of clubs seem to be going into the season thinking that they're in an Ok position but are probably just missing one or two ingredients to make them contenders.

That hits at the heart of what makes this league so tight. Most sets of fans - at least before a ball is kicked - will hope their side can click and make the promised land. It's a cliche to suggest any team can beat any other but it is true.

There are exceptions of course. The pressure is well and truly on our near neighbours down the road. Fresh from being at Carlo Ancelotti's side at Real Madrid, Paul Clement has been backed with big money in a bid to succeed where Steve McClaren failed. (Yes, I enjoyed typing failed there).

Darren Bent and Tom Ince will command big wages while Ince comes in for a hefty-looking £4.75m fee. Both excelled on loan last season but it'll be interesting to see if Ince can stay interested long enough to carry on his form - he certainly didn't look as though he fancied the challenge for us last year.

Middlesbrough, themselves also managed by a former Real Madrid assistant, will also be among the favourites. Aitor Karanka has added the Premier League quality of Stewart Downing and loanee Tomas Kalas to his squad and carries experience of football of this level into this season after missing out to Norwich in the play offs.

Beyond those two there's a whole batch of teams who should make the top six - and then the rest who, frankly, could make it if everything does click.

My money would be on Wolves to continue to flourish under Kenny Jackett - probably the most underrated manager in the Football League. Yes, he's lost one-time Forest target Bakary Sako but he's shopped smartly and should have more than enough firepower to make the top six with Dicko, Afobe and Le Fondre.

The three relegated clubs will inevitably attract attention as contenders - but all remain in flux. Hull City have lost players but I'd back Steve Bruce to get them into the play offs at least. However you feel he hasn't finished his shopping yet and it will take time for him to get his side settled after losing players in recent weeks. They're still the most likely of the three to 'do a Norwich' and bounce straight back for me.

QPR, too, are a team in transition. Leroy Fer failed a medical with Sunderland, while Charlie Austin seems destined to be snapped up any time soon. Their planning must be on hold until their respective futures are decided.

Burnley, meanwhile, will have to regroup after losing Ings, Trippier and Shackell - although Dyche could well be the man to make that happen.

Beyond those six Bristol City should be on a huge roll after their stunning form last year and Mick McCarthy's Ipswich Town have built on last year when they forced their way into the play offs. Gary Rowett's rescue job at Birmingham sees them on an upward curve too.

Sheffield Wednesday will need to settle with a manager who is unfamiliar to the league, Fulham should be an awful lot steadier this time around and Preston and MK Dons should be well placed to make the step up.

Leeds United probaly epitomise the whole league in the sense that they're impossible to predict. I like Uwe Rosler but the club seems chaotic and anything could happen at Elland Road this time around.

I fancy the hot seats at Cardiff and Reading to become vacant early on, two clubs where last season's poor league form will soon become an issue if they don't have a good start. Brentford may have made the top 6 last time but I just don't fancy them to repeat that feat under their new boss and I fear they may continue to lose some of the players who made them such a good side to watch under Mark Warburton.

Charlton, Huddersfield, Blackburn, Brighton and Rotherham feel like they should struggle too, as should cash-strapped Bolton. Yet, again, none of these three should be as bad as last season's relegated trio. If the Championship is one big well-matched mid table, these might be the teams who just find themselves in the lower part of that mid table. All do have their merits though on their day and could easily prove me wrong.

And what of Forest? In the Seat Pitch season preview I plumped for 10th and I'll stick to that. We've got enough firepower to win some games - but enough frailty in certain areas to hold us back. I don't think we'll be far off but I do think Middlesbrough, Hull, Burnley, Wolves and (through gritted teeth) the dirty Sheep will definitely be stronger. That leaves one place to aim at for us and pretty much everyone else to fight over it. I don't think we'll be far off, points wise, but I do think we'll just fall short.