Remember February 2020? The month started off in glorious fashion with a sensational win against Leeds United at the City Ground. Hunting around on social media for videos of fans celebrating as Tyler Walker smashed home the winner in injury time. Then a few days later watching Forest do a Forest and lose at home to Charlton Athletic. Ahhh, simpler times.
Most of us were well aware of the growing global impact of COVID-19 and its potential to get out of hand and as March steamrolled into view, the reality of the situation began to dawn on us all. A 3-0 home defeat to Milwall with the inevitable first half hattrick from human skyscraper Matt Smith kind of summed up the mood as an away fixture at Sheffield Wednesday looked like it might get cancelled, Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis testing positive for the virus and possibly infecting the whole Arsenal reserve team in the process. And of course, something very close to our hearts, Nashville experiencing a terrible natural disaster as a tornado tore through the downtown area on the night of March 2nd.
Shortly after, MLS fixtures were cancelled, EFL games were cancelled and so with it was our plans for the 2020 NFFCNA meet up at the Tailgate Brewery. Rarely do you get so many things happening over the course of a year let alone a 3-week period. 2020 casually walks into the room, looks around and says “Hold my beer”.
Four months on and after a ton of soul searching, poignant reflection and more hours than we care to mention chasing our kids around for misbehaving during lockdown (families, you hear me right?) we can start to look ahead at what is to come, as opposed to what we will eventually be able to leave behind. Vaccine trials are showing promise and treatments for positive cases have also improved and of course, on a more personal note for a lot of us, professional sports are starting to return including our beloved Forest.
So what’s with the whole Through the Looking Glass metaphor we’re peddling? For a few months now, probably even stretching back as far as last summer….. things have felt different at Nottingham Forest. Sure there’s the occasions where Forest do a Forest and grant Jordan Rhodes or Matt Smith the freedom of the city allowing them to destroy Forest before we’ve even had a chance to fight over the last pie at half time, but there’s also been games that buck the trend and show that maybe, just maybe, we’re watching something new and something potentially very special.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and for right or wrong and not in any way taking sides, the appointment of Martin O’Neill was a divisive one at a time when we really needed the fans to come together and unite after the promise and later disappointment of the Aitor Karanka era. One thing that the sacking of O’Neill provided and be it through good luck, good judgement or a bit of both, the appointment of Sabri Lamouchi has turned out to be one of the best managerial appointments the club has made in decades. J’adore.
When we get the right manager and the (mostly) unilateral backing of the fans, the club very often goes on to do good things. Billy Davies in his first spell was a galvanizing force and led the team and supporters to the play offs after fending off relegation only a season or so before. Paul Hart took a group of rag tag youngsters and molded them into a Forest team for the ages playing exciting, expansive passing football and again, only missing out on the Premier League after getting beaten at the last gasp on a forgettable night in Sheffield.
Fans, en-masse, seem to like Lamouchi. He has a relatability to him. His interviews seem to speak a language the fans understand and respect. Describing the first half away at Charlton as “shit” probably echoed the feelings of most supporters that night. He’s also made us difficult to beat. The emergence of Joe Worrall as a future Forest captain alongside Tobias Figueredo and the experience of Michael Dawson, coupled with the best full back pairing we’ve had since Gunter and Shorey. Our back line is great. Lest we forget the man mountain between the sticks Brice Samba….. OK, hands up, when we signed Samba Sow, Yuri Ribeiro and Brice Samba over the summer, who thought any of them would amount to anything. Sure, some of us are prepared to give them a chance but the reality is, some of our summer signings have excelled far beyond anything we could have predicted. Not without its duds – Muric, Mir, Diakahby, etc. but for every one that didn’t work out, we’ve had one or two that most definitely added a whole other level to the team. And that’s what feels different, we seem smarter, leaner, better than we have for a long time. We’re through the looking glass in Forest terms.
Its not just the team, there have been so many things this season that have felt, in the best possible way, very un-Forest like. Our ability to absorb pressure from teams that have great possession stats. Fulham away at the start of the season not only producing a great performance and victory despite an onslaught of pressure for the 7 minutes of injury time we had to defend at 2-1, but also possibly the goal of the season, a passing move that touched all 11 players before Grabban slotted home the cross from Robinson forcing even the most ardent of Fulham supporters at the game to applaud its quality.
To return to a subject from earlier, look at Leeds at home at the beginning of February. Admittedly we tend to do well against one of our big rivals and frankly, they must be sick of the site of us by now, but leading 1-0 going into the last 20 minutes of the game and having Brice Samba heroically punch the ball off the goal line with millimetres to spare and then having to defend a free-kick lumped into the box in injury time (yes, I know, Derby also happened) before rampaging up the other end to cast aside any doubt in the result with Joe Lolley unselfishly squaring the ball to Tyler Walker to send Forest fans worldwide into, well….. Limbs?
5 years ago, Lolley would have shot, the keeper saves, they go up the other end and score. Probably. Or at least, the scary thing is, you wouldn’t have been surprised if that had happened. Forest doing Forest and all that.
We’ve had a 20 goal striker for the first time since 2003, Sabri Lamouchi was named manager of the month not once but twice, we’ve had a home fixture postponed because of the weather for the first time since 2003-04 (Gillingham at home – if I’m wrong, let me know!!!). We’ve also managed to wrestle results out of teams we typically get nothing from. Brentford, Bristol City, Sheffield Wednesday, Preston are a few teams that feel like we typically don’t get much or anything out of the game. Admittedly we only took a point off of Wednesday this season but the 92nd minute equalizer probably wasn’t a reflection on the game as a whole. Then there’s our good friends down the A52. Remember March 19th 2016, when Marcus Olsson scored a 2nd half winner that gave Derby the Brian Clough trophy… Well it took a whole 1,073 days before Forest would finally get a win and bring the trophy back to Nottingham. That was in February of 2019. We’ve held it ever since and will continue to do so until at last the next time the teams play be it next season or in the cup (if we’re no longer in the same division 😉). FYI, that’s over 500 days and counting.
There are so many reasons to be positive as a Forest fan right now. We have solid ownership who are prepared to back the club and manager and importantly are happy to engage with the fans (see Jake, Brian and Nick Randall as evidence). We have the prospect of a new Peter Taylor stand. We have young talent coming through the ranks with Alex Mighten, Tyler Walker, Brennan Johnson and no doubt many others BUT without the fear that they will need to be sold to balance the books – or at least if players are sold, its not because of mismanagement, but because of FFP and the club trying to do things right as opposed to selling the City Ground back to the owner for a pie and a shandy.
So as the 2019/20 season draws to a close, consider that Sabri Lamouchi has the 2nd highest % win rate for any forest manager (where they have been in charge for more than a handful of games), consider that if we do finish in the top 6, it will be the first time in almost a decade that we have done so and that the season after we did finish 6th (and lost to Swansea in the play offs) we were blessed with the McClaren era of Nottingham Forest managers and subsequently went on to finish 19th.
It probably goes against every instinct you have as a Forest fan to feel positive about the future, expecting, nay, knowing that there is to be inevitable disappointment just around the corner – and this season could yet still present us with that, be it blowing a chance at getting in the play offs by losing spectacularly to Barnsley and Stoke. Or we could get to the play offs and be soundly beaten by Brentford on xP before even getting to Wembley for the showpiece game. But even if those disappointments do come, think about the future, think about how much better the team will be with Lamouchi having what will likely be an abridged pre-season and summer to strengthen his squad and instill his ideology even further into the mindsets of his players. Worrall will be a year older yet carry twice that in terms of experience into the next season, Lolley and Cash, Sammy and Yuri, Silva and Grabban, Worrall and Figs. And all this before we even sign anybody else. Things are looking so much better Trent-Side, that pretty soon, and if not this year then maybe the next, we’re all going to end up in Wonderland. It’s inevitable.