Ahead of Monday’s game at Portman Road, Gavin Barber tells us what to expect from the home side…
What has changed since last season?
From the travelling fan’s point of view, not much. The away fans’ pub, over the road from the station, has had a lick of lime green paint and reinvented itself as the Riverside Hotel, but is otherwise every bit as “classy” (ahem) as many Forest fans will remember it. (Head into town or to the docks if you want a decent pint.) The slightly-too-large picture of last season’s captain David Norris which used to greet those arriving in the station ticket hall has been replaced by a shot of Michael Chopra in an uncomfortably messianic pose. Away fans are still housed in a corner of the Cobbold Stand, far distant from the more vociferous Town supporters at the other end of the ground. Tickets for away fans are still over-priced (sorry about that) and the home fans are in a more-or-less comparable state of disgruntlement to that which Forest fans would have encountered on your last visit, 364 days ago.
How has the season been so far?
To quote John Cleese: I can take the despair, it’s the hope I can’t stand. The league table will tell you that it’s been yet another season – so far – of underachievement, relative to the amount that Paul Jewell’s been given to invest in the team. Yet there was a period during September and October when we actually looked like we could be contenders for the top six, which made the disastrously bad periods that preceded (who saw the 7-1 defeat at Peterborough on TV then?) and followed (7 defeats on the bounce!) all the more bizarre. Above all else the season has been characterised by a depressingly familiar fragility: a tendency to collapse under the slightest pressure, as was the case under Roy Keane, whose tenure was ended after that 1-0 win for Forest 12 months ago. Fortunately, there have been signs of late that Jewell has finally found a bit of spirit and resolve – as exemplified by the astonishing and wholly unexpected second half comeback at Barnsley, and the grinding-out of decent results against your friends from Derby and Leicester in two recent games.
What can we expect tactically?
A team still getting used to retaining its shape and not giving ridiculous goals away. For a while, Jewell had success employing a midfield diamond formation before opposition managers realised that all they had to do to counter it was to stop our full-backs getting forward. More recently it’s been a standard 4-4-2 with Lee Martin and Daryl Murphy occupying the wide positions and attempting to supply crosses and knock-downs (respectively) for the hard-working front pair of Chopra and Jason Scotland. Top scorer Keith Andrews picked up an injury at Leicester which will probably signal the end of his loan spell from Blackburn (though Jewell hopes to sign him permanently) which is likely to mean that Forest face a workmanlike central midfield pairing of Lee Bowyer and Grant Leadbitter.
Who are the key players to watch out for?
The recent focus on solidity has meant that our more exotic talents (hey, everything’s relative) like Jimmy Bullard, Josh Carson and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas have been reduced to cameos from the bench. Jason Scotland has had a good season since coming back into the team and can cause more problems for defenders than they may at first realise he’s capable of. Lee Martin blows hot and cold but can be a tricky winger on his day. Probably the most exciting talent to have been introduced this season has been Aaron Cresswell, a young full-back recruited from Tranmere Rovers in the summer. He’s got plenty of confidence and a lovely left foot. One to watch for the future.
Why isn’t this a top six rather than a bottom six clash?
I can’t answer that from a Forest point of view but I suspect that the shared sense of frustration amongst two clubs who would consider themselves amongst the ‘bigger’ in the Championship has a lot to do with stability, or lack thereof. Town appear to have been ‘in transition’ for most of the last decade without that transition leading to any obvious improvement. Roy Keane did some good things during his 18-month tenure but, for whatever reason, never got the players busting a gut for him. Jewell inherited a vast number of players whose contracts were expiring (a scenario which seems set to be replayed next summer, despite assurances that it wouldn’t be allowed to happen again) and made big changes during the transfer window – perhaps, he has recently conceded, too many. Several loanees have been brought in who have added valuable depth and experience to the squad, at the expense of any real consistency in team selection. Does any of this sound familiar?
What’s going to happen on Monday?
It’s unlikely to be a classic. As described above, Jewell finally seems to have introduced some discipline and shape to his team: it’s not exactly Total Football but if it prevents further Peterborough-style humiliations we can live with it for now. Based on the evidence of the many teams that Steve Cotterill has previously taken to Ipswich, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Forest counter Town’s fairly flat 4-4-2 with a 4-2-3-1 formation that sees two wide men in support of a central striker: he’s had some success at Portman Road in the past doing similar. These are two teams who, in the eyes of their supporters and most pundits, *should* be doing much better than they are: the team that wins will probably be the one that can best keep its concentration. I’m not really selling this am I?
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @gavinbarber