Following a remarkable change in fortunes, Peter Blackburn takes a look at the reasons behind a resurgent Nottingham Forest rising from the flames of likely relegation and gives credit to a man that few like to praise.
Just weeks ago I was wandering the streets in football melancholia, with Radiohead’s The Bends ringing through my head. Considering the fortunes of Nottingham Forest as I made my path, Thom Yorke’s angst-tainted words ‘Where do we go from here’ was more resonant than any football fan would like, with Forest in complete disarray – a goal-shy side on the pitch and a fractured group with uncertain futures off the pitch.
Clearly, things have changed. There are any number of gleeful songs that could provide the soundtrack for a Forest-related daydream as I amble now. Not so long ago, even the Forest manager, Steve Cotterill, may have found painful truisms in Yorke’s song, particularly the moaned verse; ‘the words are coming out all weird.’ The song could easily be referring to a manager caught in the headlines of a team truly struggling and producing a few fairly bizarre pre- and post-match thoughts – but, alas, such things seem firmly in the past now.
For all the talk of systems, formations, tactics and style, there is without doubt a single more important factor in footballing success: confidence. Confidence is the wind in the sails of a football team, and so often promotion and relegation outcomes are the result of another average Championship side suffering a massive rise in confidence, or a severe lack of the same magic. Take Reading, this year, for example. No doubt they are a decent football club, with a decent set-up, a fair ownership and a relatively good set of players, but they have few top-class stars, if any, amongst their ranks and the real driving force that has seen them rise so rapidly and impressively up the table is the sense of momentum that only confidence can bring.
It is a hugely difficult thing to pinpoint. After all, very few people could give you a genuine answer as to where confidence in football comes from, how you can keep those embers nurtured and how to recover that confidence when times are hard. The only obvious factor is winning. Clearly Nottingham Forest are beginning to do that now, but the reasons behind this up-turn are largely speculative.
It seems that few are willing to praise Forest’s managerial incumbent, Steve Cotterill, when discussing the positive path that has been taken in recent weeks, but it’s highly unlikely that he has played no part in this. Regardless of whether stumbled upon or the result of a finely tuned long-term plan, Cotterill has found systems that have worked and has certainly incited much stronger performances from a group of players who have played below the level that their talent should reasonably suggest. Andy Reid, Garath McCleary, Radoslaw Majewski, and to a certain extent, Dexter Blackstock — who seems to be playing slightly above the level that he was when so horribly injured — have all been beneficiaries of up turns in form in recent weeks.
While Cotterill is the man at the helm, he is the man who will, and should, take responsibility. As football fans we are far too keen to allow responsibility to only be tied in with failure, but it also means that we should offer praise to the man who presides over success – irrelevant of the inferences and uneducated judgements that many people make. Success deserves recognition.
The 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 formation that Cotterill has adopted has made the best out of a Forest side burgenoning with talent, but lacking direction and balance. With genuine wide players playing as such, and the flexible duo of Guedioura and Moussi sitting or pushing on as is deemed necessary, Forest have a new-found fluidity that is completely capable of reacting to the opposition’s threats or weaknesses. With Majewski playing in a near trequartista role, although still taking some defensive responsibility, Blackstock now has an attacking partner that does not get in his way, as Tudgay often seemed to, and allows him to be the focal point whilst also getting close to him if needed or dropping off and providing the ammunition.
Another increasingly important facet of Forest’s play is the relationship between wide men and full-backs. Both Gunter and McCleary, and Cunningham and Reid, look to be developing genuine partnerships both going forward and in defence. On top of all this attacking lucidity, Chambers and Lynch now have to play the game of their lives every week at centre-back to avoid losing their spot to Danny Higginbotham. Cotterill is clearly right when he talks about competition, this is a driving force for people in all walks of life, and footballers are no different.
There are two features of Steve Cotterill’s performance and personality that have particularly impressed in recent times. Firstly, and most obviously, Cotterill’s grasp of the transfer market has been hugely impressive. Many were displeased by the departures of Wes Morgan and Patrick Bamford, and perhaps they may still have their displeasure ratified, but there can be no doubt that the departures have funded the sort of quality signings, bringing balance and ability, that will have gone a long way to keeping Nottingham Forest in the Championship – should things continue in such a positive manner.
On top of Cotterill’s business dealings, his humour has been impressive throughout such a dry spell. Following a heroic 7-3 victory against Leeds United, Cotterill informed the BBC Radio Nottingham representative that, contrary to his suggestion, the Forest fans had been chanting his name all season. With a look of bemusement on the representative’s face, Cotterill smirked and continued, suggesting that the songs might not have been positive but that the fans had been singing his name. There are many great qualities that we appreciate in people, but perhaps humility is the most underrated. Personal opinions on Cotterill or any manager are always going to vary but a man who can work in such a high-pressure environment whilst retaining such humility deserves a genuine degree of respect.
Whatever the interpretations on a more detailed scale, things are looking up for a team who have struggled so dearly, and so completely after a period of very real success. This is a team with potential, a team with flair, guile, solidity and the ability to dismantle their opposition. The team that faced Crystal Palace last Saturday afternoon at Selhurst Park last weekend is a team that Forest fans should be proud to watch, and that is not something to be taken for granted – now it’s time to forget the recent past, and move on to a bright future.
Follow Peter on Twitter: @petermblackburn