It’s the game before the Big Game on Sunday. The game after the potential banana skin of Reading on Saturday. You can’t call it a must-win game, because Nottingham Forest don’t like must-win games. A mustn’t-lose game, perhaps.
Except Steve Cooper’s Nottingham Forest don’t play by the rules. Queens Park Rangers haven’t had the best run of late, but Mark Warburton’s side haven’t been hanging around the top six for no good reason. And after a rain-sodden pitch put a literal dampener on things — before Andre Gray gave the West London side the lead at half-time — it looked like one of those games.
But this team don’t put their heads down. They don’t sit back. They don’t give up. They keep on going. And for this reason, whatever happens this season, it’s as much fun — as much joy — as any Forest fan has probably had this century.
Nobody knows what’s going to happen. But if they keep playing with this vigour, this determination, this belief… then all we can do is be proud of them.
An hour before kick-off you had to wonder if there would be a kick-off. The rain was lashing down, the ball stuck to the surface and, in parts of the pitch, it was seemingly more water than grass.
After the injuries to Steve Cook and Max Lowe at the weekend — six weeks out for both — Tobias Figueiredo and Philip Zinckernagel returned to the side. Jack Colback resumed duties at left wing-back while Ryan Yates and James Garner dovetailed in midfield behind Zinckernagel, Brennan Johnson and Keinan Davis.
Forest were slow out of the blocks and the visitors had the best of the early chances. Gray shot just wide after seven minutes but was offside — an early warning. And then again three minutes later, the Hoops saw the ball across goal from the right side and Horvath managed to keep it out from Lee Wallace.
The Reds’ passing game was proving to be difficult in the conditions and QPR looked dangerous, keeping possession much better than recent sides the home side have faced.
But opportunities began to present themselves. A corner led to a Yates header that nearly saw the opener, with a point-blank save from David Marshall. And seconds later a Zinckernagel cross found Yates again, but he couldn’t connect.
Forest looked like they were beginning to find their feet. An incredible turn from Johnson on 24 minutes came to nothing and the Welshman, quiet by his standards, was not the only player struggling to find the killer ball.
Another break a few minutes later saw the final ball lacking and after some good pressure on 35 minutes, penning QPR in, there was no reward after threatening play around the area.
Andre Dozzell finally received a yellow card, the first of five for QPR, with the referee allowing the visitors more fouls than they deserved. But, after a slightly shaky start, Forest started to command the game.
And then the sucker punch came on 40 minutes, with Gray escaping Figueiredo who slipped on the wet grass, and beating Ethan Horvath at the near post from Ilias Chair’s through ball.
Was it going to be one of those games? The second half continued with Forest dominating possession and creating openings but still struggling to find that final ball. But, as we know, they don’t give up.
As the game approached the hour mark, Garner was dragged back on the run and the subsequent short free-kick to Zinckernagel was quickly squared to Djed Spence who hit an unstoppable shot from 25 yards. The 21-year-old adds a new element to his game almost every week.
And the momentum was now with the Reds. The confidence was up, QPR were on the back foot and while those doubts of old still niggle, you know how this plays out.
Johnson shot just wide on the hour mark after a wonder run from Spence, Davis created some space from a Yates pass in the box but couldn’t get the shot on target… it was just a matter of time surely?
Worryingly, Scott McKenna went off injured after 79 minutes — hopefully it’s nothing — and he and Davis were replaced by Joe Lolley and Sam Surridge. Cooper switched to 4-4-2, going all-out for the win.
A brilliantly worked move saw a Zinckernagel shot saved by David Marshall, now struggling with a hamstring injury. And the corner saw the second goal, with a Yates header deflecting off a defender.
With the City Ground now bouncing, they kept going… Lolley found Surridge who crossed to Cafu in the box. Marshall saved but Cafu pulled the ball back to Johnson and game over.
Absolutely outstanding stuff again from Forest and Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final against Liverpool is one to savour now — all eyes are on the league.
Cooper said: “It was a magnificent win. We didn’t start so well, but then I thought we were really good. We played in their half and we were threatening the goal and they scored against the run of play which was disappointing.
“We came out in the second half and we were brilliant. The bravery we showed on the ball, playing in high positions with confidence. Djed’s obviously scored an amazing goal which got us back on level terms, but some of the play before, in-between and after the first goal was just excellent.
“QPR couldn’t get out of their half and we really looked like a team with intent. We want to work hard and play on the front foot, so I really enjoyed the second half.”