‘Twas the day after Christmas and with that comes the joy of Boxing Day football, as is tradition in the English game. There has been little joy of late for both Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest on this festive day, however, with the Toon losing 11 of their last 14 games on the 26th, Forest with one win in seven. Two sides in dire form by their own standards met at St. James’ Park, with victory a must to reignite their seasons.
Nuno Espìrito Santo changed over half of his outfield squad from Forest’s defeat against Bournemouth, as he bids to find a settled line-up. Neco Williams, Harry Toffolo, Orel Mangala, Ryan Yates, Divock Origi and the suspended Willy Boly were replaced by Gonzalo Montiel, Moussa Niakhaté, Ola Aina, Ibrahim Sangaré, Danilo and Callum Hudson-Odoi. Newcastle, who had never lost a Premier League game against Forest, were without ex-Forest defender Jamaal Lascelles as Sven Botman returned for his first league start since September.
With three of the back four swapped and both holding midfielders changed, Forest were always likely to start off the pace. The Reds, wearing their famous Garibaldi red shirts, misplaced several passes when playing out from the back, with Newcastle failing to make these instances count.
The host’s early pressure was eventually capitalised on midway through the first half, a penalty converted by Alexander Isak. Play started with ‘keeper Dubravka and the Magpies made three easy passes through Forest’s midfield, allowing them to move goalwards. The move culminated in Aina sticking a leg out and bringing down Isak but with minimal contact, giving Isak the chance to blast past Matt Turner. Despite being wrong-footed, the American will be disappointed to not have kept it out, the ball inches away from his outstretched arm.
Forest were winless in all 24 away league games when conceding first since their Premier League return. But rather than drop heads, the Reds gained confidence after conceding and started to play with hunger, eager to give the travelling 3,000 an excuse to have gotten up at the crack of dawn for.
They spurned a huge opportunity with 13 to play until half-time, a long Turner pass down the right channel being flicked on by Montiel, allowing Anthony Elanga to finally get in behind and beat Dan Burn, something he had been threatening all game. He broke into the penalty area and had Chris Wood in the middle. But instead of squaring, the Swede shot with his left foot, Dubravka sprawling and saving, Elanga sheepishly avoiding eye contact with the striker.
But the Reds kept plugging away and got their reward in first-half stoppage time.
Similarly, Elanga broke away and darted into the penalty area after Morgan Gibbs-White had slipped him in, with Wood free once again. This time Elanga had little choice, with Fabian Schär and Burn closing him down and leaving the striker free in the middle, a cute ball to him and a tap-in for Wood, 1-1 and deservedly so.
Gibbs-White playing central has been something Forest have never quite done, and his performance in the first half showing why he is so much better in the middle of the park, with outlets on both sides.
Forest’s late first-half confidence reflected into the second, with two huge chances within minutes of the restart. Elanga involved again, this time crossing from wide on the right and finding Gibbs-White who had done brilliantly to escape his man, his glancing header from 10 yards out landing just wide of the far post. Elanga then had a chance himself inside the area but saw Dubravka in the way.
In football, you are often made to rue your missed chances, so wouldn’t it have been so typical for Newcastle to go up the other end and stick one away? There was a goal on 53 minutes, and the side that scored it certainly merited the lead…
Referee Chris Kavanagh played a wonderful advantage as Elanga led the charge forwards but was hacked down, with his ball down the left was heading for Wood. He got there ahead of Burn, turned him inside then went on the outside before cooly lifting over Dubravka and into the far post with his left foot.
The away end couldn’t believe it. Celebration like the old days, two goals away from home for only the third time this season.
So, the lead, but could Forest hold it? After all, they have dropped eight points from winning positions away from home this season. Well, they didn’t just hold on, instead grabbing a third with 30 minutes to play.
With Newcastle in transition, Murillo lifted a long ball over their high line and into Wood’s path. The Woodchopper beat the offside trap and controlled, dribbled goalwards and had only Dubravka between him and a Premier League hattrick. Cool as you like, Wood rounded the advancing ‘keeper and poked into the empty net for 3-1.
Chris Wood? Hat-trick? To haunt his former side? Do not scratch your eyes, it really happened. The confidence Wood has right now is clear to see: hold-up play, skill, pace and finishing; everything that Forest have cried out for up top since the injury to Taiwo Awoniyi. And with contributions in all five goals under Nuno so far, it looks like he will play a key role under the new boss.
Even a two-goal lead never feels secure as a Forest fan, with every second ticking by like it was an hour. But with every passing minute, Forest just looked more likely to hold on.
There were some nervy moments, with Turner making a fine save from Isak in the box and returning captain Joe Worrall making a fine goal-line clearance to prevent Callum Wilson from a tap-in. But it was Forest fans’ letters to Santa that were granted, with a festive three points being delivered from a group of players who gave everything and had the chances that meant they merited the three points.
Nuno must also take credit for the performance. His sceptical team news paid off, even players like Danilo who started shakily grew into the game, his substitutions were made at the right time, and all had a positive impact on the game. And, with Forest’s second away win of the season, he is already halfway to matching Steve Cooper’s away PL win tally, in one game compared to Cooper’s 28.
A win sees Forest move up a place and into sixteenth, still two points above the relegation zone with Luton’s late win over Sheffield United. But yesterday was all about Forest. An expansive, explosive and uplifting performance rewarded with all three points, the perfect beginning to Nuno’s chapter.