After two weekends without a game, it was an emotional return to football at the City Ground as Forest shared the spoils with Watford. James Bolton reports.
Steve Cotterill gave loanees Scott Wootton, Danny Higginbotham and George Elokobi their debuts while Marlon Harewood and Luke Chambers returned to the starting line-up. Lewis McGugan was not included in the match day squad, and former Forest striker Joe Garner started for Watford.
The game was an emotional occasion, as it was the first time Forest had played since the tragic news of the passing of owner Nigel Doughty. Pre-match tributes were laid outside the ground and the crowd observed a minute of applause before kick-off.
The game started fairly quietly, with the first-half chances coming after around 10 minutes. An Adlene Guedioura free-kick was met by Chambers, but his soft header was gathered at the near post by Watford goalkeeper Scott Loach.
Harewood then had his shot blocked cleared and Higginbotham blazed over from outside the box after good work by Wootton to win Forest a corner.
After 18 minutes the deadlock was broken and ended the 648-minute home goal drought. Garath McCleary cut inside from the left and unleashed a low right-foot shot from 25 yards. The ball skipped past Loach and the celebrations began. McCleary pointed to the sky dedicating his goal to Doughty, the players huddled together and Cotterill roared towards the Main Stand.
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Forest then immediately had two chances to double their lead. Chris Gunter was played through but couldn’t direct his lob over Loach on target. Moments later, Ishmael Miller was then played in and, despite the ball falling kindly onto his left-foot, his shot was right at Loach. They were two glorious chances that could have killed off the game.
But Forest were nearly made to rue some poor defending. A deep cross left a two-on-one situation at Forest’s back-post, but John Eustace headed straight at Lee Camp and wasted the chance.
McCleary forced Loach into a low near-post save after shooting from a similar position to his goal. Troy Deeney then had a chance to pull the scores level as he took on Higginbotham, but when the ball kicked up off the defender’s foot, Deeney could only find the side netting.
However, the striker did make amends when he met a perfect Sean Murray in-swinger and flicked the ball into the top corner. Camp managed to get a hand to to it but was unable to keep it out.
It was a disappointing end to a first half where Forest’s new defensive personnel had looked reasonably solid and where better finishing would have seen the hosts score one or two more goals.
At the start of the second-half, Watford weathered a bit of a storm as Miller had his shot blocked by Nyron Nosworthy after good work from McCleary, and Harewood saw his drilled free-kick skip just wide of the post.
Then came a flurry of chances for Gunter, who was playing right midfield. Harewood picked up the ball from an Elokobi throw-in and held up the ball brilliantly. His deep cross then found Gunter, but his side-foot volley crashed against the crossbar in a move reminiscent of Radi Majewski’s strike against West Brom.
McCleary then produced some great work down the left-flank and crossed in deep again for Gunter who, slightly back pedalling, could only float his header onto the roof of the net.
The Hornets then hit the woodwork themselves, this time through Eustace, who latched onto Deeney’s cross, but his half-volley crashed over Camp and off the bar to safety.
Robbie Findley and Dexter Blackstock then came on for Miller and Harewood.
More terrific work down the left-flank lead to McCleary whipping in another deep cross to Gunter, in an identical position to his previous chance, but this time his volley flew just over the bar. It was another golden chance for the Welshman, and one that left fans head in hands.
Watford came back into the game slightly following that miss, but the introduction of Andy Reid for Wootton lead to the game’s final chance.
Reid pickpocketed Eustace in the middle of midfield and played a glorious pass into Findley, but his dreadful touch with the outside of his right-foot prevented the American from creating a chance for himself, and Loach was able to collect the loose ball.
The game was the first of four crucial home games for Forest with Coventry, Doncaster and Millwall to come. While picking up a point isn’t something we’ve done too often of late, we deserved all three today and certainly had the chances to win the game by three or four.
On the plus side, the debutants looked solid; Higginbotham in particular looked composed, compact and strong. Guedioura in the middle of the park was class with his touch and vision a class above what we’ve seen so far this season. Goalscorer and man-of-the-match Garath McCleary had an outstanding game, probably one of his best in a Forest shirt. He took on his full-back, used his pace and whipped in some great crosses and looked every bit the winger we’ve been missing this season.
As a team, we looked much stronger than we have in recent weeks, mainly due to the addition of the loanees. It’s a cliché and been said before, but if this level of performance is maintained, we can start picking up vital points.