Let’s not get carried away. We’re still battling for our safety this season. And, as well as we know, the next season is never guaranteed to be anything until the final ball is kicked. But last night’s performance against Swansea City, despite the loss, was clearly our best of the season.
Unlocking our true attacking potential is now merely a matter of time, rather than a conundrum, and the steady road to improvement is clearly ahead of us. Swansea had just two shots on target, to our three, but that’s evidently the difference between a side pushing for automatic promotion and one striving to get into gear.
The difference between the Forest sides of this week and just a few months ago is obvious. On Saturday, with a bit of luck, we could’ve beaten Bournemouth. Maybe Alex Mighten or Joe Lolley could’ve come on for Luke Freeman. But the plan was working, and we nullified the away side. In weeks and games to come, perhaps Hughton will make that change. But why run before you can walk? Keep the performances and the points will follow.
And what followed a solid 0-0 at home to a top six side was a dominating performance away at a top three side; only undone at the last breath. There will be more games like Swansea, some we’ll win, and there may well be a few more games like Middlesbrough, when nothing goes right and it’s just a bad day at the office.
Performances are improving, as are results, and recalling one of the most memorable things Sean O’Driscoll said — and there were many — is that “it’s about performances, not about points”. Of course, this is easy to say and hard to stomach. But maybe now, when we’re not at rock bottom, this kind of philosophy counts for a lot. The best short-term gains are also ones that result in long-term gains.
When Hughton arrived he talked about confidence. And it was clearly obvious that we were desperately short of confidence. But stressing that importance, rather than simply assuming confidence will return, has been key to those improved performances. We have some very talented players, but without belief — in their abilities, in their teammates, in the gameplan… well, we all know how the season started.
There are obvious areas of weakness in the squad, and the areas we’ve improved dramatically in are largely down to loan players — namely James Garner, Filip Krovinović and Anthony Knockaert. But targeted recruitment in the summer can address those and other positions — and while Garner is evidently destined for greater things, surely another season on loan with us is a viable option for the 19-year-old.
Of course, some people are never going to happy with Chris Hughton’s style — even when we win. That’s football, different opinions are allowed — it might never be slick, sleek and sexy football — but it will be effective, and he’s currently only playing with the cards he’s been dealt. Survival remains our short-term goal, but last night showed that the past four months are starting to pay off.