Town’s dogged victory at Charlton and second half stroll against a poor Bolton side saw them take the field with an unfamiliar surge of confidence; the rebuilt team, boosted by some smart loan signings and the blossoming of some of the summer ones is rapidly erasing the memories of a terrible pre season and a forgettable, if not altogether disastrous, early winless run.
Losing Butterfield has forced a change in style and the squad has adapted very well, which is no mean feat in itself, with more emphasis on wing play allied to perhaps a little too much reliance on Miller’s muscular presence which is too often executed clumsily. However, the excellent Whitehead now protects a far less vulnerable back four which has been boosted by the form of Cranie and increasingly harmonious centre half pairings.
Nottingham Forest have also had their problems. An apparently unstoppable start to last season withered as the pump fisting management of Stuart Pearce disintegrated in to an almost unfathomable mess given the money spent (a lot by his predecessor, to be fair to old Psycho) and a combination of long term injuries and FFP penalties suggested an unfamiliar season of struggle for them.
The enforced penury (though to put in to context, one of the penalties was that they can’t pay more than “only” £10,000 per week for loan players) seems to have worked oppositely to what was intended as Dougie Freeman has made some shrewd signings and marshalled his supposedly inferior squad in to an effective and dangerous unit. Following two away wins, Forest were the better team in their defeat at home to Middlesbrough and, once more, it seems that necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention.
This augurs well for Town’s self imposed financial constraints – we all get excited at the prospect of expensive players coming in to transform our fortunes, but this often proves illusory. It is the moulding of a team which should excite, and we do seem to be on the right track even if our attacking threat is a little limited at the moment.
Watching football on a Thursday to accommodate a television company is far from ideal, but it’s unlikely to be repeated until we force our way in to the Europa League so the best thing to do was embrace it and rejoice that there will be only one work day to go until the weekend rather than the usual 3 following a midweek game.
Town started much the brighter of the two teams with good spells of possession and a desire to take the game to their once illustrious opponents. For the first 20 minutes, Scannell and, especially, Carayol, were prominent and threatening – one mazy run from the former took him in to the area only for him to fail to deliver at the right time, while the Boro loanee worried Lichaj in to an early booking.
A few corners were forced and some decent passing witnessed, but Forest’s defence was solid and strong and a goal looked a little unlikely.
For their part, Forest were restricted to playing high balls up to O’Grady and presented little threat, until they forced Town in to conceding a rather unnecessary throw in on the left as Cranie – who was otherwise excellent and later a hero – opted for safety first rather than getting the ball back to Steer.
Whitehead couldn’t prevent a cross which looked over hit and would have been dealt with had Carayol tracked back properly with Lichaj, whose clever header found the otherwise quiet Mendes to fire home to round off the visitors’ first attack of any substance.
As much as the goal was against the run of play, it also exposed, in quick succession, slight but crucial lack of familiarity between team mates. While Cranie can’t really be faulted for opting for safety, there was a lack of confidence to pass back to the keeper which will perhaps be more natural when the team is fully bedded in. Carayol’s failure was less forgivable and also marked the point in the game where he lost his effectiveness.
Rocked by the goal, which was a little cruel, Town faded and resorted to too many heaves forward towards Miller, who found Forest’s central defenders far more resolute than Bolton’s and beside a presentable chance for Ward from a corner which he mistimed, Town finished the half quite poorly, lacking the cohesion they had before the opening goal.
Special mention should go to Forest’s summer signing from Derby who, in football parlance, can only be described as a “niggly bastard”. In a short spell in the first half, he incurred the wrath of Town fans on the Kilner Bank side with antics which, remarkably, didn’t earn him a booking. He was to repeat his offences (delaying throw ins, annoying fouls and generally being a lot of a knob) in the second half in return for one mild rebuke from the referee.
The second half saw Forest, rather surprisingly given the obvious quality in their team, happy to concede possession and territory to Town. They had clearly decided that their impressive defence would hold firm confronting the home side’s rather ineffective front 3, and there was some merit to their thinking.
At the heart of the visitors’ defence, Wilson was outstanding and ably assisted at his side by his central defensive partner and the classy Mancienne in front of them.
They were a little less secure down the sides and a Scannell run picked out Bunn to fire in a shot that Wilson deflected over for a corner.
That chance was a rarity, however, with Town impressing in build up only for attacks to wither against Forest’s defensive rock.
Half way through the second period, Powell replaced the increasingly ineffective Carayol – he rarely used his pace or found enough space to threaten – with Wells to give the lively Bunn a role on the left and, presumably, in the hope that the Bermudian could rediscover his scoring boots.
Despite the change, the pattern of the game continued and an equaliser still looked unlikely, with the added and ominous spectre of a Forest breakaway starting to rise.
The visitors had been restricted to one rather tame effort from O’Grady and seemed not unreasonably confident of completing a classic away win as Town’s attacks continued to promise but fizzle out.
The annoying Ward was replaced by a frequent nemesis, Chris Burke, and as another attack broke down, the ex-Birmingham winger sprang the offside trap to hare towards goal. Steer started to come but realised he was in a Boycottesque corridor of uncertainty and retreated. Burke, who could have passed inside to the better placed O’Grady, opted to try to curl the ball past Steer but only managed to hit the post. The rebound fell invitingly to O’Grady who smashed a shot goalwards only to see it kneed off the line by Cranie.
The full back, mysteriously overlooked in the first six games in favour of Smith, capped another composed display with his heroics and denied Forest what would have been a game ending 2nd.
With the game reverting to type after the scare, Town still looked unlikely to grab a deserved equaliser but resumed their pressure.
When it came, the leveller was somewhat out of the blue. Huws, who had a quiet but effective game in a slightly withdrawn position from that he adopted against Bolton, ghosted past a defender and tried his luck from distance. Catching the ball perfectly, the shot appeared to be arrowing in anyway but took a deflection from a defender and just crossed the line off the bar.
With 4 goals in 3 games now, the classy if subdued midfielder is covering the weaknesses of our front line and proving to be a very shrewd addition following Butterfield’s departure – when he is fully recovered from his long injury lay off, we can look forward to increasingly effective contributions (until someone buys him from Wigan in January. Hopefully us)
Switching to offensive mode, Forest won a cheap free kick on the edge of the area immediately following the restart but Lansbury wasted the last real opportunity of the game with a wild attempt.
While 3 wins in a row continues to prove elusive, this was a hard earned and deserved point against a very strong Forest who look likely to be challenging at the top end of the table if they resist the urge to go mad once FFP restrictions are lifted in January.
For Town, a much improved defence and a Whitehead inspired re galvanised midfield has elevated us back to competitiveness.
The ability to score however, notwithstanding the brushing aside of a weak Bolton side on Saturday, remains a problem. Miller offers presence and awkwardness but neither genuine quality or goals, and in an ideal world we would be turning to him later in games to try something different rather than him being the focal point throughout.
Carayol is clearly going to frustrate us. His pace and ability has been seen but far too inconsistently – again, a player coming back from a long lay off should be given time and extended patience but of all the new arrivals, he is the one who hasn’t quite integrated, particularly defensively.
Having said all that, even a narrow defeat wouldn’t have obscured encouraging progress. We were defensively solid, Whitehead continues to defy the naysayers with consummate performances, Cranie has added experience and composure and Bunn appears to be recapturing last season’s early form.
Our mid table spot appears eminently achievable and, if we can hold on to Huws and strengthen or improve up front, we may even start to dream a little higher.