Stuart Pearce made a triumphant return to the City Ground as Nottingham Forest beat Blackpool 2-0 on the opening day of the season. Steve Wright offers a fan’s eye view…
The script for this opening day fixture against Blackpool was largely written back in April when Forest legend Stuart Pearce was announced as the new manager in waiting, following the departure of Billy Davies. Everything that had been anticipated by fans since that day transpired with a full house greeting ‘Psycho’ in the traditional way, Pearce himself clearly beaming with pride at taking charge of ‘his club’ and his newly-formed team delivering three points to start the season in winning style.
Perhaps less expected was that another hero of Nottingham Forest would also be returning, this time from an eight-month lay-off due to serious injury. Chris Cohen and Stuart Pearce have quite different playing personas. Pearce was demonstrative, not only striking fear into his opponents but making even his own left winger nervous, knowing as they did that any let up in performance would be greeted with some severe ‘encouragement’. Cohen is quieter, the sort of young man you would be delighted to see your daughter bring home, but in other ways they are strikingly similar.
Both are honest to their core, value their integrity and give their all for the football club that we support. I spent the whole of the second-half convinced that Cohen could never last – surely after such a long break he would need to be substituted – but he made it to the 87th minute in a crucial role in central midfield where there was no hint of doubt over the cruciate knee injury he had just recovered from. On two or three occasions he even rivalled his manager’s reputation for crunching tackles as he and Andy Reid dominated midfield and when he did finally leave the pitch the whole ground rose to show their appreciation for his efforts and delight at his return.
Cohen arrived at Forest in 2007 at the tender age of 20 having impressed against us for Yeovil whilst we were trapped in the third tier. Seven years and 250 appearances later he is the heart and soul of the current side and if we can keep him fit this season our chances of success will be significantly increased. Hopefully he will finish his career at the City Ground, achieve the rare feat in modern football of a testimonial and be remembered throughout the history to come as one of our favourite servants.
Pearce arrived at the club in 1985 as a 23-year-old and his 12 years as a player have already ensured his place in the Forest Hall of Fame. With the City Ground bathed in sunshine, his welcome back after 17 years away was everything we hoped it would be. A sold-out home section erupted as he walked out looking every inch the new James Bond and, although he has sought to distance himself from the ‘Psycho’ tag of his younger days, he clearly enjoyed his triumphant return. When the final whistle blew there was even a traditional fist punch salute as his players made sure the day was crowned with victory.
It is difficult to make clear judgments given that the visitors have been in disarray over the summer and could barely put a full team out for this fixture, but what is clear is that Pearce and his staff have identified where the team has had issues in the past and looked to address them. Antonio and Assombalonga bring pace and power, attributes that we have been bemoaning the absence of for too long, and the benefits of that were clear immediately with Forest able to move quickly from one end of the pitch to the other. Fryatt and Burke have brought real quality to the team, both highly accomplished on the ball jinking past defenders and delivering good quality final deliveries.
At the back Michael Mancienne, though not tested as much as he will be by other opposition, was calm and accomplished, on a couple of occasions he reminded me of Des Walker as he stepped across opposition forwards to walk away with the ball from a beautifully timed interception. And loan signing Jack Hunt also made an immediate impact as he tore up and down the right flank providing a genuine attacking threat and an outlet for Mancienne and Fox to find with raking passes from the back.
By half-time Forest were two up and it was two new players who had scored the goals. Antonio powered home a finish with composure after Reid had smacked the post with a drive from outside the area and five minutes later Burke curled a glorious shot beyond the desperate dive of Blackpool’s ‘keeper. It was nothing more than Forest deserved having dominated the game and played some entertaining attacking football.
There was no prospect of a rout however as Forest struggled with the heat in the second-half and tired legs began to kick in. Blackpool showed determination to get back into the game and Forest’s attacks were more intermittent as they tried to fit in opportunities to catch their breath. It’s no surprise really that with new signings having arrived just 48 hours before kick-off and Cohen playing his first game for months the team couldn’t keep up the performance of the first 45 minutes and the key aspect of the second period was keeping a clean sheet.
By the end of the day all objectives had been achieved. Pearce was well and truly back in the fold and his new signings all looked like positive additions who made us better than we were before. Our captain, who just like Pearce did in his day, drives us on when we most need it had returned to the pitch in a fashion that denied any sign of the career threatening injury he suffered last season. And after the opening day we sit in the pack of teams who have registered a first win of the season.
With Hobbs and Lichaj also on the bench after their own long lay-offs, the latter making a brief appearance at the end of the game replacing Cohen, the squad is looking strong and ready for the challenge that lies ahead. All in all this was a perfect day and I’m glad I spent it with you.