As the Premier League returns this weekend after the international break, George Edwards eagerly awaits Nottingham Forest’s Monday night fixture against Leicester City — and wonders if the real season starts here?
I’m not sure what we all expected. There were supporters who were expecting a European push, while others anticipated a relegation scrap. It seems the latter is transpiring.
It’s been just over a year since our saviour Steve Cooper arrived and no one this time last year was even dreaming about Premier League football in Nottingham. Magically, as we all now know, he swiftly propelled Forest up the Championship and back to the promised land via a magical day at Wembley.
Since that moment, the support for Cooper has been constant. From us, the fans, all the way up to the owner Evangelos Marinakis, it’s a feeling that hasn’t been felt on Trentside for as long as I can remember. However, after famously spending close to £150m this summer, the Greek’s patience is sure to begin to falter should Forest stay where they are in the table.
They were dealt a tough hand by the league for their opening games, playing title challengers Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, European hopefuls West Ham United and Newcastle United and relegation-threatened Everton in their first five games. It has been clear to see that the side hasn’t been familiar with Cooper’s system and methods, but a slow improvement was evident in the opening three encounters with Newcastle, West Ham and Everton.
Four points from the first nine games and things seemed to be moving swimmingly.
Then it was the turn of Tottenham to visit the City Ground. Much like the season before, the squad seemed to thrive off these kinds of games, putting in arguably their best performance of the season, but a shaky defence wavering again in a 2-0 defeat. Compounded by a 6-0 loss to Man City just days later, the wind wasn’t well and truly out of the sails with a run of easier games to follow in the new month.
As September rolled in, three games against Bournemouth, Leeds and Fulham offered optimism that Forest failed to live up to. While the Leeds game was postponed, two dreary home performances and ultimately defeats against the two sides they came up with left Forest entering the international break needing ideas and a way forward.
Firstly, Cooper has to be the man to execute the plan. It’s easy to forget that the results and especially performances under the Welshman didn’t start coming until the New Year, four months after his appointment. So, with an almost entirely changed squad — for the better you’d think — he has to be given the time to work his magic on this new group.
The Reds have seemed passive at times, particularly in midfield. They were caught out by the injury to Orel Mangala who was looking promising and the omission of Lewis O’Brien has been rather baffling. With only a two-man midfield, you have to have two busy players at the heart of your midfield. Those two provide that, always making space, wanting the ball and connecting the backline to the frontline.
Forest also has the third worst defence in the league. Much like Mangala, the injury to Moussa Niakhaté has seemed to have been a killer. But, despite this, they’ve still looked fragile in defence, largely lacking pace.
Scott McKenna has solidified himself on the left but the other two defensive positions still seem to be up for grabs. Willy Boly failed to impress on his debut against Fulham, getting caught out of position multiple times and making silly challenges in the wrong areas. Captain Joe Worrall has also looked out of his depth at times although did seem to improve things after coming on against the Cottagers. Once Niakhaté and Loïc Badé are available, it will be interesting to see if one or both of them slot into the XI, as neither Steve Cook nor Cheikhou Kouyaté have nailed down a place in the team either.
Brennan Johnson has shown glimpses of his Championship best but has failed to have an influence in the vast majority of games. In contrast, Jesse Lingard and, particularly, Morgan Gibbs-White have added some energy and flair to the Forest strike force. Those two are the answer for me, with Johnson ready to come off the bench and Taiwo Awoniyi up front to provide a spearhead for the attack.
Despite these flaws, there have been positives. Keeper Dean Henderson has impressed massively in the opening months of his loan spell; making two penalty stops, keeping Forest in games with some outstanding saves and earning an England recall. Neco Williams has been a breath of fresh air down the right-hand side and the competition for the left-back spot is refreshing to see — with Harry Toffolo shining at the start of the season, Renan Lodi coming in with international experience and Omar Richards returning to training following injury.
And they’ve still given us some memories.
The atmosphere for the first game at St James’ Park. That roar as they walked out against West Ham. Awoniyi’s first goal. Yates’s late strike at Goodison.
These moments are what we’ve craved and although they have been few and far between, with this manager and playing staff, be sure that the feel-good factor will be reinstated at the City Ground very soon.