Leicester City were the last Premier League team to visit the City Ground back in 1999 and what a journey it’s been since. A drop to the Championship and another drop down to League One before being stuck in the second tier of English football for 14 years. All that is behind us now. It’s now time for this new era of Forest Legends to take to the City Ground with the Lion of the Premier League on their shoulders.
Steve Cooper made two changes from the disappointing opening day defeat to Newcastle United, as Awoniyi and Orel Mangala were given full league debuts. West Ham, fresh from being blitzed by Erling Haaland, fielded ex-Forest star Michael Antonio and Reds-linked Saïd Benrahma.
Forest flew out of the blocks early on, winning a corner and a free-kick in a promising position in the first five minutes. This was after the world was able to hear our anthem Mull of Kintyre belted out with more pride than ever before.
West Ham had the game’s first real sight of goal after seven minutes — an Aaron Cresswell free-kick just dipping over the top-left corner from close range. Moussa Niakhaté had the host’s first meaningful effort three minutes later with a close range header, forcing Hammers keeper Lukasz Fabianski into an acrobatic save.
The headed chances kept coming for Forest, as Neco Williams delivered from deep and Awoniyi peeled off his marker, Kurt Zouma, but he missed the target with his head from eight yards out.
A lively encounter was unfolding at the City Ground and West Ham should have taken the lead with 15 minutes gone. Benrahma cut in from the left and saw a curling shot from the edge of the box parried by Dean Henderson, with the rebound being spurned by Tomás Soucek and quickly cleared by Harry Toffolo.
A gripping watch was paused halfway through the half so the players could take on drinks in the sweltering summer heat. Forest were really taking the game to West Ham and playing more like a team rather than the team of individuals that took to the pitch at Newcastle eight days earlier.
The tempo of the game was killed by the drinks break until West Ham hit Forest on the break to score with three minutes until half time . From a Forest corner, Benrahma broke away from the defence rapidly and played an elongated one-two with skipper Declan Rice, before the Algerian slotted coolly past Henderson inside the area. However, the Forest players stopped when Antonio barged into Mangala — a seemingly obvious foul that was missed by the officials. Luckily on this occasion, VAR was there to save the Reds, and rightly so.
I’m sure we’d have all taken 0-0 at half time — but not Cooper’s side. And just before the break, Forest made West Ham pay for their disallowed goal.
As we entered stoppage time, Toffolo — who was having a blinder — was in acres of space down the left wing. Eventually he was played in and was able to meander into the penalty area. He cleverly cut the ball back to an open Jesse Lingard who got a shot away quickly. It was a relatively tame shot that was deflected by Hammers defender Ben Johnson straight into the knee of Awoniyi — and the ball trickled across the line.
Here it was. 23 years of desire — finally a Premier League goal to celebrate.
An attacking and free-flowing half ended in Forest leading, in what was a stark improvement to the last 90 minutes the team played. The midfield of O’Brien and Mangala was working really well with both making some vital interceptions and recoveries as well as linking the defence and attack brilliantly.
Whatever David Moyes said to his players at half time worked a treat, as with 20 seconds played of the second half, they sprung forward brilliantly and hit the woodwork. Pablo Fornals collected the ball on the edge of the box and saw his first-time effort cannon off the underside of the crossbar. The rebound came to Soucek who failed to beat Henderson with a header — a brilliant acrobatic save from the Englishman diving high to his left.
Seven minutes later, it was Forest’s turn to see a goal ruled out by VAR. Toffolo hoisted a ball up towards Johnson who did well in the air as the ball dropped to Mangala. His quick thinking was vital, as he chested down and returned the ball to the Welshman, who proceeded to casually chip Fabianski with ease. His moment was taken away from him by the VAR official Michael Sailsbury, who deemed Johnson to be past last man Zouma.
This was Johnson’s first real moment in the game and he was unlucky to see his hard work taken away from him.
Momentum had shifted Forest’s way as the chances now came for the Reds; Niakhaté rising high from a Williams corner on 56 minutes but failing to beat Fabianski.
Benrahma was really causing Forest some problems, and his old nemesis came to haunt him again — the crossbar. With an hour gone, he curled a free kick from 25 yards onto the bar and, in due course, into Henderson’s arms.
Barely minutes later, West Ham had a route back into the game. After a wonderful counter attack, Benrahma found Soucek in the middle — and his left-footed shot was blocked by Scott McKenna. VAR would intervene yet again, however, to determine that it had come off the Scot’s arm and the visitors would have a penalty.
With penalty specialist Mark Noble hanging up his boots last season, Rice assumed responsibility and fluffed his lines. Hero Henderson dived the right way — to his right — to claim a lame effort from Rice and set the supporters off in delirium. Henderson was certainly filling the void left by cult hero Brice Samba.
The latter stages of the match were pretty quiet but both teams were still right at each other’s throat. Zouma had West Ham’s best chance to get back on level terms as he climbed highest to get on the end of a Cresswell corner, with Williams becoming the last line of defence and clearing off the goal line to keep the clean sheet intact.
Despite being on the receiving end of 19 shots, it was to be Forest’s day. With 29,281 spectators able to witness an enthralling encounter, Forest well and truly showed that they aren’t just here to make up the numbers. They will (like they did yesterday) have to ride their luck at times. But the style and feel-good factor that Cooper brings will shine through and count to many more wonderul days in the Premier League spotlight.
Forest are well and truly back.
Steve Cooper said: “First half we were much the better team. We took the game to West Ham. There was the occasion and the match. We had to deal with both. I was so happy with our attitude and confidence.
“The atmosphere was amazing and we played really well first half. Maybe we should have created more with the positions we got in and set pieces. They had moments on breakaways and turnovers. We could have been more streetwise with one or two things and we’ll have to learn.”