It’s a familiar predicament for Nottingham Forest fans as the club approaches the final match of the season, the future unknown and unpredictable. Will it be heaven or hell? Either way, it’s something we’re used to, says Paul Severn
We’ve been here before. The odds are still on our side, but the momentum is not. I remember us losing 2-0 to QPR in April 2017, leaving us in a similar situation albeit at the bottom of the table. Ten years before we entered a second leg against Yeovil only needing to avoid total disaster to make a Wembley play-off final.
And on Wednesday, we are here again. It’s shit or bust.
After a defeat like that at Barnsley, it is hard to see things in any context. Football fans tend to catastrophise things. We talk about things that haven’t actually happened, or may not happen, and contemplate worst-case scenarios. We lash out. It isn’t healthy.
If we roll back a year or so, things were quite different. Forest had appointed a new manager, and unless you had a good memory of Forest’s opponents in the 1995/96 UEFA Cup run, it was a case of “Sabri who?”.
After goalkeeping errors cost us the match against West Bromwich Albion, and being outplayed by Leeds United in the next game, things looked bleak. But some mazy runs by Sammy Ameobi and a scrappy goal by Lewis Grabban salvaged a point at Elland Road, and soon after a good win against Birmingham City got us up and running. Away wins against Fulham, Stoke City and Swansea City started to indicate something special may be finally taking shape at Forest.
At times though, it has been a tough season. Lamouchi decided pretty early on that playing expansive football with our squad in such a tough league was not possible. Many games have been hard to watch. As Sabri himself has said, at times we have “suffered”.
For a while, it seemed like Forest might even get involved in the automatic race, beating Leeds in February in one of the best atmospheres I have witnessed at the City Ground.
However, a run for the top two never really materialised. A frustrating habit of conceding late started to set in, and there was a growing feeling that when the squad was rotated, such as the Charlton home defeat, Forest could not quite mix it with the very best.
As we have entered this strange era of Covid-ball, the league has settled further. Four teams, all blessed with a number of expensive, talented players, have come to the fore, leaving everyone else scrapping for the play-off spots. All the rest have been wildly inconsistent.
The last few games have been almost unbearable, putting to bed any feeling that we aren’t emotionally invested in behind-closed-doors football. The concession to Derby has had a significant psychological impact that hasn’t really been fully acknowledged. It gave the chasing pack hope. It left the door ajar, and that feeling now envelopes every match. Some people on Twitter told me it would be fine. But I knew the gravity of the situation and knew it would rumble on till the very end.
We have seen over the years Derby, Liverpool and many other clubs fold under pressure. Sure, tactics play a part, but the game at this point of the season is about momentum, and that’s where the danger, and some hope lies for Forest.
If, and it’s a big ‘if’, Forest are able to find a performance against Stoke City and get over the line in a positive fashion, everything changes once again. Fulham, West Brom and Brentford clearly have the more talented squads, but they will be feeling the pain of missing out on the automatic slots. Furthermore, Forest know they can beat Brentford and Fulham. Everything starts afresh. The pressure is lifted from Forest. We will return to our more comfortable role of the outsider, derided by pundits and bookies alike.
At this point it is key for everyone at Forest to keep their heads. Things in football are rarely as bad as they seem and rarely as good. If we miss out on promotion, as is likely, everyone will have their opinion as to where it went wrong and who is to blame. But for now, we are still alive. There is a need to look at the reality – which is that for the first time in a long time, the play offs are close enough to touch.
If we make them, we deserve it. Lamouchi has done a decent job. He has made many players better players — Ameobi, Worrall, Watson and Cash to name just a few. Let’s give him credit for that, and back him and the team for one final push.
The defeat at Barnsley was a bitter lesson. We have learnt that we need to have no regrets, leave everything on the pitch and enter this last leg in a more positive fashion. We are at our worst when we play passively, with fear. We are better when we are angry. The poor referee against Swansea seemed to spur us onto a new level. I hope we are angry with the performance at Oakwell and use that as motivation.
When we think back to those memorable shit or bust moments, we remember our trepidation against Yeovil, where we became the prey for Arron Davies and company. Instead, we need to look to the Ipswich game, where we approached it in a positive manner, and moments of brilliance from Jordan Smith, Chris Cohen and Britt Assombalonga dragged us out of the abyss.
That day, the fans played a massive part. It was unforgettable when Chris Cohen’s shot flew into the net. But on Wednesday, we’ll be sat in front of a laptop. Hoping and praying, with our cheers, screams and encouragement simply bouncing off the living room walls and into the ether.
But in some ways, it will feel remarkably familiar.