My thoughts on: Forest 1 v 2 Rams
Nine months ago, on a cold and foggy December evening, Derby were humiliated by their local rivals Nottingham Forest 5-2 in a game which Nigel Clough describes as a career low point and one that will remain with him until old age. On Saturday, Steve McLaren may have felt a similar feeling as his fledgling career at the City Ground hit a new low.
This fixture appears to have intensified in its importance to supporters from a rivalry borne out of geography, exacerbated by the prevalence of the greatest manager in both club’s history and in more recent times, the increased frequency of players, managers and coaching staff switching allegancy along the A52. It is the most eagerly anticipated game in the fixture list for this part of the East Midlands as the short 13.3 miles separating the two clubs provides plenty of opportunity for family and friends to conflict on their support.
Nottingham Forest have enjoyed two successful years under the stewardship of former Rams boss Billy Davies, although on both occasions failed to succeed in making the play-off final. The presence of Davies undoubtedly helped to stoke the fire between the two clubs (as I am sure is the case that Derby have a manager by the name of Clough); but his dismissal under the guise that owner Nigel Doughty had concerns over his ability to raise the players for another more successful tilt at promotion was one that had a mixed reception amongst the Forest faithful. The appointment of former England (and Derby player and coach) Steve McLaren received a similar level of joy and disappointment, although my view was that it would ultimately be a positive selection with McLaren promoting a brand of football more pleasing on the eye (whereas I would argue that Davies succeeded by knowing that results, however they come, ultimately returned success), and his experience of putting faith in youth development. These are two key beliefs held dear by Forest fans and I think some of the criticism that Davies came under was because he wasn’t always seen as sticking to these principles; my view with Davies is that he sees short-term goals very clearly but if you want someone to develop a football club and adhere to a long-term plan, his vision may appear a little more cloudy.
On the other hand, Derby’s recent performances since Clough’s appointment have led to similar levels of discontent with some supporters believing he isn’t the man for the job whilst others preferring to point to the pressures of massively reducing a wage bill and squad size whilst dealing with the issue of ensuring year-on-year improvement without being given the financial support some believe he has sometimes been promised… an issue familiar with Forest fans maybe?
So despite the fact the Rams started the season in a fashion not seen since 1905, the two defeats against Burnley and Coventry City was a concern in that the Rams have often been very quick to fall out of a good run into something incredibly dreadful. Forest on the other hand had started poorly by expectations (although their early season points return was not too dissimilar to that which has coupled seasons of play-off heartache), and although they suffered a defeat at Southampton last week, the players are very quick to communicate that performances are improving as the squad gets fitter and more accustomed to how McLaren wants them to play.
The anticipation before the match surrounded personnel and who would be fortunate to be selected for the Rams after what was quite a flat performance at Coventry City a week earlier. I was convinced that Theo Robinson would start; anyone who has seen any of the goals that Forest have conceded so far this season (and I am particularly thinking about the 1-4 defeat to West Ham Utd and the 2-2 draw with Leicester City), will know that Forest are struggling defensively; both with and without the ball. Distribution is poor under harassment, they look slow and confidence is low… quite astonishing taking into account that the last two season’s play off assaults have been built on a solid back 4 and goalkeeper. For Clough to also choose Thomas Cywka to play off the frontman and keep Jamie Ward in the side I feel was very positive and was quite refreshing as Clough I think has been guilty of being a little too negative in his selections on occasion.
To me it looked as though we had set up not to concede (as I think that remains the primary objective in these early months) with the ability to counter quickly. Any game plan however went out of the window inside the first couple of minutes with the sending off of goalkeeper Frank Fielding as he tried to block Ishmael Miller’s (scuffed?) shot (/poor control?). The long ball by Camp to the £1.2million striker proved to the be first of many such balls from a player in red and caused big problems; I don’t understand why Forest didn’t capitalise on the relatively inexperienced Mark O’Brien who, although is maturing at pace and clearly looks to have an excellent future ahead, did struggle with the physique of Miller. I thought if Forest were going to impose themselves as an attacking force, Derbyshire and Miller needed to be clever in their positional play; for Derby, we were quite happy for Miller to tangle with captain Jason Shackell all day long, leaving the young O’Brien to handle the much less robust Derbyshire. When Miller did get free he looked a handful and I think with games and better fitness he will prove to be a good signing.
The sending off for me was a bit harsh. Looking back on the television I don’t think I can argue with the awarding of a spot-kick, and I guess the letter of the law justifies the red card; but with Gareth Roberts clearing the ball from behind Fielding and with the ‘keeper making a genuine attempt to stop the ball, I can’t help but think that this rule really needs to be considered more carefully when goalkeepers are brought into the equation. It was a genuine collision and it would be fair to say that I thought the ‘writing was on the wall’ at 1:05pm on Saturday and prepared myself for another result similar to what we witnessed last season.
What was surprising was that the inevitable onslaught didn’t really come to fruition. Forest ‘huffed and puffed’, but never really got going. It seemed as though they had an awful lot of possession in the middle third with a lot of sideways passes being played, but no-one appeared willing to go past a full-back or provide the guile or intelligence to get what would have been a crucial second goal. Although Derby weren’t proving to be an attacking force themselves, I got the feeling there was an uneasiness around the Forest back-line, and this proved to be the case in what has been made into a very contentious moment in the match.
Chris Cohen went down in some pain under no challenge in Derby’s half as Jeff Hendrick strode past him. There were calls from Forest players and supporters for Derby to put the ball out whilst Rams supporters, and management, were beckoning Derby to carry on. Derby did carry on and Jamie Ward ended a simple move with an excellent run and finish. Forest fans and players were furious and in the aftermath of the game I have read on a forum that Derby “lacked class” and it showed a “lack of integrity” in what they did (not views shared by all Forest fans I may add); but I will maintain that we did the right thing and played to the whistle. It is easy to throw statements about such as ‘you should’ve kicked the ball out’… but the question is, would you have been happy to do the same if the ‘boot was on the other foot?’. I think the real issue is (and one that was discussed with a number of Forest mates after the game in mutual agreement), was that it took Derby 66 seconds to score after the incident. Within that time there were a number of opportunities for a player to make a tackle and make the decision for the referee in terms of halting play. In addition, you would have to look at the attempts to stop Jamie Ward by Raddy Majewski and Chris Gunter and the effort to save the shot made by Lee Camp; I think it is easy to blame Derby rather than looking at the real issue and that was that Forest defended the moment terribly. If some Forest supporters want to point to gamesmanship and integrity I would quickly refer to the surrounding of the referee after the penalty he had awarded asking for a red card and on a similar level, highlight the 1-1 draw at the City Ground in 2004 where Rams’ forward Junior was barracked and booed for ‘feigning’ injury; he made 13 more appearances as the injury ultimately contributed to ending his career.
Steve McLaren said the goal shocked his side but I struggle to understand how his side can remain shocked for an hour? On paper I think Forest have a better side than last season. True, they have lost a number of players, but how many of them were truly first choice? Forest don’t look like a team; Derby do. Clough has moulded a side that is hard-working and has a great team spirit, and everyone knows their job and to ensure they do the simple things correctly. That’s what happened on Saturday. Derby defended manfully, put the ball in the right places when attacking and looked arguably more dangerous than the home side, despite the numerical disadvantage, whenever the ball was in and around the penalty area.
Jeff Hendrick thankfully made up for his earlier glaring miss with a nicely taken winner but even without the three points, this game for me showed that under Nigel Clough, Derby are beginning to look like a team. It has taken a long while for it to come, and I don’t think we are really there just yet, but the foundation of something good is in place. The quality of football will improve as confidence and maturity grows and players return to fitness, but in terms of a performance, I am struggling to think of a better one conducted by a Derby side reduced to 10 men.
Derby did what they needed to do; Forest didn’t and that was the difference in my opinion on Saturday. Forest struggled to fashion any clear-cut chances, looked comfortable playing a square pass, largely lacked leadership (with the exception of Guy Moussi) and generally guilty of being poor (again, with the exception of Moussi, but also Miller and substitute Joel Lynch – who I wonder why he isn’t considered for the troublesome left-back slot Forest continue to crave a solution for), and seriously looked short of confidence and passion.
I may be biased but I thought it was a deserved win.