At any time in the past 10 years, Nottingham Forest would’ve lost this fixture 1-0. The extra push required, after an ecstatic win the previous weekend, would’ve been a step too far — we’d be lethargic, concede a sloppy goal in the first half and only begin to chase the game in the last 15 minutes.
Things are different now. Steve Cooper doesn’t let the team slip into old habits. With the prospect of going within a point of the top six, this game wasn’t the banana skin of old. But, regardless of the performance in the first 45 minutes and closing the game out, Cooper still demands better. A more clinical team than Barnsley could’ve punished us in the second half, and the standards expected are higher than ever now.
Forest started on the front foot, and it wasn’t long before Brennan Johnson had drawn the first foul and a yellow card for Barnsley’s back four — Romal Palmer in this case. The midfielder then shot just wide of Brice Samba’s goal, and if the Reds needed an alarm bell this was it.
Johnson then sent the ball one side of Mads Anderson and went the other, but was brought down 30 yards from goal — a second yellow card for the Tykes. The free kick led to a corner which Jack Colback got on to the head of Steve Cook, and the ball went across the goalmouth.
Keinan Davis and Johnson were the most advanced Forest players for much of the game, seeking to exploit gaping holes in Barnsley’s back four, with Lewis Grabban in a withdrawn role on the left ahead of Colback.
And it was Davis who struck first, with a debut goal for Forest. A misplaced ball from Barnsley was intercepted by Scott McKenna and the Aston Villa loanee chased down the visitor’s centrebacks, winning the ball and calmly slotting it past Brad Collins.
The 23-year-old has been an excellent addition to the side — slotting in comfortably and, while adept at holding the line and winning long balls, fast and skilful to boot. Talk of Lyle Taylor joining another club on loan is no surprise, with the 31-year-old unlikely to get much game time now.
Forest, cheered on by a packed City Ground, continued to press, looking to kill the game off. Garner, Johnson, Djed Spence and Ryan Yates all asked questions of the Barnsley defence.
And it was from a spell of pressure, which saw four corners in a row, that the second goal came just before half-time. A delicious ball by Colback down the left, dummied by Grabban, found Johnson and his cross into the six-yard box was met by Yates.
Forest’s intent, movement and passing were too good for Barnsley; it was a dominant half with an eye on getting the job done.
The second half began fairly steadily, but Forest began to sit back and the pressure of the first 45 minutes let up. A little too relaxed, with the occasional ball going astray, and there was a sense that Barnsley could get back into the game.
It was only in the final 20 minutes the hosts were back on the front foot. Johnson, Grabban, Garner, Zinckernagel and Spence all looking to attack the Tykes’ tiring legs. And then a mazy run from Spence, which started in his own half, took him into the visitors’ box before pulling the ball back to Johnson who scored his seventh goal of the season; and Spence’s first assist.
Substitutes Xande Silva and Ateef Konate, making his league debut, made an immediate impact as the Reds continued to attack. Silva hit the post, Cook’s header was just tipped wide and in the 92nd minute Garner played Silva in, but he couldn’t keep his shot down.
Barnsley, to their credit, worked hard all game, didn’t let their heads drop and, despite having a depleted squad, could’ve got more from the game if Forest had had their usual off day.
Cooper said: “I’m pleased with the result, I enjoyed the goals and should have scored a couple more. I didn’t love our performance particularly in the second half, we are a much better team than what we showed.
“There were still some good bits, it was good for Djed to get an assist and good for Keinan to get his first goal for the club. Like any game, we’ll look at what’s gone well, what could be better and what can be changed for next time, so we’ll do that and pick it up and be ready for the next one.”