Monday, 20 March 2017

Pinillos peach plunders sweet point as Warburton plots Forest rescue mission

It was the new haircut that did it. Perhaps. Daniel Pinillos, the freshly shaven headed Spaniard, headed home the sweetest of injury time headers to let loose a roar of joy and relief around the City Ground. Muchas gracias Dani.

Maybe one day, we'll view the Pinillos goal in the same vein as 'that' Blackstock finish against Bristol City. There's still a long way to go - but it certainly felt like an important moment. Not least because it helped to ensure we didn't face a two week international break consigned to the bottom three to lick our wounds.

New boss Mark Warburton now needs to use the next fortnight to plot how he'll keep us out of the drop zone come May. He'll have plenty to ponder after a fiery first taste of the East Midlands derby.

In some respects, he can save himself a lot of research time by just re-watching this game as it pretty much summed up the season so far. Energy, endeavour and promise followed by a lack of ruthlessness, little or no control and an underlying fragility all mixed in with just enough spirit to give us hope of avoiding a bigger mess.

While we didn't create bucket loads of chances in the first half, we had at least approached a game of this magnitude with the right mindset. The experience and guile of Cohen and Vaughan gave us a good launching pad and the twinkle-toed talents of Zach Clough were there for all to see. What a player he could be and what a joy it is to be cheering Clough goals at the City Ground again. Not least in 'El Cloughico'. Apt indeed.

Ben Brereton also took to his task impressively. Stationed on the right, he ensured that Martin Olsson - a classy player who has tormented us in these fixtures the past - was given a big test all afternoon. It's performances like these that convince me that Ben is destined for bigger things. The maturity and skill he showed, despite being 'out of position', belied his tender years. At times in the second half, he was the only hope we had to cling to. You can't help feeling (and fearing) that he'll very quickly be too good for this level.

The subplot to the game had, of course, been the arrival of new men at the helm of each side. Gary Rowett's presence in the away dugout was especially intriguing since he was said to have been the man that John Jay Moores and co would've installed as Forest boss if Fawaz hadn't pulled the plug on the takeover. This could have ended up as one long 'this is what you could've won' cruel Bullseye-esque display, although that was somewhat diluted by our own capture of Warburton.

Rowett certainly rallied his troops well at half time. They came out for the second half with the sort of energy and drive that we'd showed in the opening 45 minutes - and we now froze and showed exactly why we're so dangerously close to bottom three, with a performance suddenly strewn with errors and nerves. Vaughan and Cohen struggled to regain control and Russell, Johnson, Bryson and Ince stepped up their influence, smelling blood.

No-one was surprised at the identity of the scorer of the equaliser surely? Matej Vydra now has eight goals in seven games against us - more than he's scored against any other team. When David Nugent doubled the advantage I can't have been the only one fearing the worst.

The frustration at having let our grip on the game slip boiled over when the superb Clough was taken off, to be replaced by Ross McCormack. His removal did seem a little premature - and the Villa loanee certainly struggled to fill his void - but the jeers that greeted the substitution were harsh on Warburton. Still, let's put that down to the heat of the moment, in the context of a game and a season that were slipping away before our eyes. In a far-from-ideal world, far-from-ideal things happen.

Luckily, a defeat that then seemed inevitable didn't materialise. The fact that it didn't was down to a few key factors.

First, came Jordan Smith's intervention. He made a couple of crucial saves to minimise the deficit - the best coming from an Alex Pearce header. Like Brereton, he's come in and looked like he's already been in the team for ten years. With him and Henderson, there's no need to go shopping for goalkeepers this summer.

Next, enter Matty Cash. Unfairly maligned by some in recent weeks, Cash came on to give us fresh legs in place of Cohen. But 'fresh legs' is an understatement. He came on like a man possessed, pressing players and driving forward with the ball, pushing us on for that one last chance and grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck. He was instrumental in the move that led to the goal and deserves great credit for his energetic cameo.

Apostolos Vellios also made a difference when replacing an out of sorts Assombalonga. He was close to writing his own name into folklore with a superb turn and shot that struck the inside of the post.

Smith, Cash and Vellios all did their bit, but it was up to Ben Osborn and Pinillos to seal the dramatic late point. Osborn whipped in an inviting dead ball, Pinillos did the rest. Cue pandemonium and surely the best full length of the pitch goalkeeping celebration from a Forest player since Mark Crossley against Spurs in the cup.

Warburton has much to sort, but he'll have known that anyway. He needs a fit Eric Lichaj for a start and the return of Jamie Ward from suspension - both of which might have given us more balance, solidity and experience (despite my reservations about Ward). On top of that he needs to try to engineer a threat from the flanks. Brereton did well on Saturday but his long term future lies in the middle. The new boss will need to try to get something from Carayol or the lesser spotted Ariyibi or Texeira - even if it's just as subs to help stretch a game.

There's also the question of Assombalonga. He might look in poor form but, equally, I can't remember us creating a proper chance for him in a while. Britt's a player who thrives off getting goals. You feel that if he can get one, he'd have a spring in his step with his build up play.

What can be done with McCormack too? He's got the talent to fire us to safety, but we're yet to look like we have a clue how to use him. Is fellow Villa loanee Tshibola ever going to be fit for the battle? How do we kill games off when we're on top? What can we do to keep more clean sheets? How can we turnaround the torrid away form.

Good luck with all of that Mark. That's some in tray with just eight games to go. In the meantime we'll be staving off the boredom of the international weekend by watching that equaliser on loop.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Bye Bye Nicklas Bendtner, let's hope you're the last of your kind

With very little fanfare, Nicklas Bendtner drifted off to Norway this week to end a fairly forgettable six-month stint at the City Ground. Despite the big billing, he leaves as another failed 'vanity signing' and a symbol of misguided transfer planning.

Never mind the Lord's Prayer. With 'Lord' Bendtner amid our ranks, we were left praying that the enigmatic Dane would actually run about and at least look interested. The success of the transfer always rested on whether or not he could channel his undoubted natural talent and provide the squad with a talisman after being cruelly robbed of seeing more of Oliver Burke.

Yet, while Gary Brazil might have chosen to be polite about Bendtner this week, it was clear to all involved that the former Arsenal man wasn't good enough to earn a start. Not good enough for a side in the bottom third of the Championship and definitely not good enough to get in ahead of 17-year-old sensation Ben Brereton.

By all rights, Bendtner should be embarrassed by that. However good Brereton is - and let's not alert too many prying eyes to his talent just yet - he surely should've been striving to show him, and Championship defenders, why he was a cut above this level of football. By the end of his time on Trentside you could make a case that Assombalonga, McCormack, Brereton, Clough, and Vellios were all ahead of him in the pecking order. Indeed, even the lesser-spotted Matty Fryatt was in danger of overtaking him. Bendtner did have injuries, sure, but who at the club hasn't?

That there was a collective shrug of the shoulders among fans shows you how little impact the Dane had in his time at the club. Yet, while the transfer to Rosenborg was best for all involved, I can't help hoping that lessons are learned from this episode.

The 'vanity signings' have to stop. There should be no more Bendtners and plenty more players in the mould of Zach Clough. Nicklas wasn't the first. In the past we've turned to the likes of Andy Cole and Neil Lennon when they've long gone past their sell by date. The less said about David Pl**t's three Italians the better. More recently, Federico Macheda was surely only signed because of memories of his early promise under Manchester United? Then there was Chuba Akpom. He might have been an Arsenal player on paper but he's surely got as much chance of being a full team regular there as I have.

Players like these just waste resources and halt the progress of good young players. If Brereton or Tyler Walker, say, come in and make a mistake then at least they might learn from that and improve. When these players make a mistake they're just wasting everyone's time.

Bendtner is in danger of turning into a travelling circus, a journeyman who people just roll up to laugh at and check out how bad he's become but at least, for now, his reputation was enough to get him a move. You never know, he might enjoy a cushy little number in Norway. If he'd have fancied it, surely our club offered him a great opportunity to prove himself though?

The fact he was reportedly on £1.3 million a year here (or about £25,000 a week) was only surprising in the sense that I feared it would have been higher. Big numbers have lost their meaning in the mad world of football haven't they? The main worry is that Philippe Montanier previously said that Bendtner wasn't the highest paid member of the squad. Lord knows (not Bendtner, the other one) how much we're wasting on some players.

January showed little sign that the transfer policy has become more sensible, especially in the case of Joao Texeira. It would sum Forest up if we go through all of the hassle of 'sub loaning' a player from another club and then never actually deploy him in a match. I've also wondered whether we put much thought into whether or not we'd be able to field Clough and McCormack in the same team.

I hope the arrival of Frank McParland as director of football in recent days is the first step in the right direction, although I'm not holding my breath with Fawaz's track record. We need a much more strategic and sensible approach to transfers. First and foremost, players should only be brought in if they offer something different to what we already have coming through the academy production line. Even then, young, hungry talent from this level and those below should be snapped up, along with one or two experienced leaders who have the desire and talent to still offer something to the team. It's not rocket science, but it isn't seemingly obvious to Fawaz.

So, good luck in Norway Nicklas. If you bump into Jon Olav Hjelde do say hello. He'd probably have been a better bet up front than you.