There are home crowds who cheer goals less passionately than the Lower Bridgford Stand celebrated Neco Williams earning a goalkick when tackling Leon Bailey in stoppage time. But this summed up Nottingham Forest on a day they deservedly won for the first time in more than two months, denying Aston Villa a passageway into the top four of the Premier League.
Goals early in each half, set up by Harry Toffolo for Ola Aina and for Orel Mangala, gave Forest the platform to halt Villa’s free-scoring start to the season after the West Midlands side had scored 26 times in their opening 10 top-flight games, their most prolific effort since 1931.
With the Forest owner, Evangelos Marinakis, in attendance, the pressure could have been on Steve Cooper and his players. But how they responded, the customary but vociferously heartfelt chants of “Mull of Kintyre” and “Stevie Cooper” having barely subsided when they took the lead in the fifth minute, and the manager’s punches to the crowd were cheered from the rafters after the final whistle.
For all the fact they had not won for six league games, which coincided with Villa’s unbeaten run, Forest have still been loud and proud at the City Ground. They have lost only two of their past 20 top-flight home games, and the atmosphere remains as impassioned and feral as ever, a positive cycle if ever there was one.
Just as Aston Villa’s winning machine looked to be shifting up a gear, and murmurs of Champions League football had begun, they were brought to a grinding halt by an impressive Nottingham Forest.
This was a reality check for Villa to maybe temper their expectations but, for Forest, who had been without a win in six matches, it provided more proof that progress has been made since last season. The home team shot up to 12th place with a 2-0 win.
Pressure had been quietly mounting on Steve Cooper, the Forest head coach, after a run of three home draws against Burnley, Brentford and Luton Town, and Evangelos Marinakis, the owner, was back at the City Ground after being unhappy with Cooper’s in-game management in the club’s previous fixture here.
But the Greek could have no complaints about the performance put on by his side as they deservedly picked up their first win since September.
There have been many tactical masterclasses in Aston Villa matches this season, but this time it was the manager in the technical area next to Unai Emery who provided it.
Steve Cooper has secured a number of memorable victories at the City Ground since Nottingham Forest’s return to the top division and his players delivered the game-plan impressively as Emery’s high defensive line was frequently exposed.
Perhaps Cooper’s set-up offered a blueprint on how to damage Villa, who have swept so many teams away this season under their brilliant Basque coach. Villa may have won 12 league home games in a row but on their travels they are still struggling to find the formula to fulfil their ambitions of competing for the Champions League.
After defeats at Newcastle and Liverpool, this was another peculiar afternoon when they appeared vulnerable and lacking a spark. Their determination to play a high line away from home can be a gamble against teams with pace on the counter-attack, and so it proved here.
Top goalkeeper in the world on Monday, match-deciding howler on Sunday. Elite sport has a habit of bringing the best back to Earth and after Aston Villa’s shock defeat at Nottingham Forest, Emi Martinez knows that feeling only too well.
The Argentina star collected the Yashin Trophy at the Ballon d’Or ceremony last week after his brilliant displays helped his country win last year’s World Cup. Those weeks in Qatar will be among Martinez’s happiest memories yet he will want to forget his afternoon at the City Ground as quickly as possible.
With Villa trailing 1-0, Martinez flew to his left to reach Orel Mangala’s 25-yard effort early in the second half but failed to make a strong enough connection, causing the ball to spin back on to the bar and creep over the line.
With Forest already leading through Ola Aina’s fifth-minute strike, Martinez’s error left Villa with too much to do. It was only their third defeat in the league this season as Forest won for the first time since their victory at Chelsea on September 2.
Forest’s long run without a success had caused some unease among the hierarchy but this should bring back the smiles. As boss Steve Cooper leapt about in his technical area to gee up the crowd during stoppage time, he reflected the spirit his team showed here.