A controversial last-gasp penalty gave Birmingham City a 2-1 win over a lacklustre Nottingham Forest side. Paul Severn offers a fan’s eye view from St Andrew’s…
In September, West Ham United went down to a 2-1 away defeat at Manchester United, with the officials denying Kevin Nolan a late equaliser for offside. It was a marginal, but probably correct decision.
“Unfortunately the assistant referee has dropped a massive bollock and has cost us a point,” Hammers boss Sam Allardyce fumed.
“Somebody was suggesting his head’s offside. If he can see that his head’s offside there then he is a super-human being for me.”
Fast forward to Saturday, Nottingham Forest were also denied a point by a highly unusual intervention by the fourth official to give Birmingham a late 2-1 win from the penalty spot. The reaction from Stuart Pearce?
“It has taken a while for the decision to be made but eventually the right one has been and we accept that. We’ll never be a football club that bemoans the match officials.
“We’re not going to use the penalty as a smokescreen or an excuse for why we haven’t taken something from this game. We didn’t play well enough. That is the bottom line.”
In a world where managers such as Allardyce slaughter officials for good decisions, you have to credit Pearce for not whitewashing what was a poor performance by his team. The officials were booed off by almost 3,000 Forest fans, but I think every one of us knew that Birmingham deserved the three points.
Forest fans are used to an iconic walk over Trent Bridge to the City Ground in its picturesque setting on the banks of the River Trent. A trip to St Andrew’s involves a walk through old lock-up units and derelict buildings. And the game usually lacks any aesthetic quality also.
Forest caught Birmingham at a bad time, with a new manager and the home support back behind the team. The Blues tactics were simple: goalkeeper Darren Randolph would hammer the ball to centre-forward Clayton Donaldson and they would pick up the second ball and attack dangerously.
Birmingham were quicker, more aggressive and more decisive. Forest had plenty of possession, but it was sloppy and we quickly slipped into the bad habit of hitting the ball forward too quickly in frustration as Birmingham flooded the midfield.
So, where did it all go wrong? Nobody apart from Karl Darlow and Eric Lichaj impressed, but thinking back to the 0-0 Forest managed last season it was easy to see once again, how much we miss the strength of Jack Hobbs at the back who was outstanding that day. Arguably both goals might have been prevented in the initial build-up by the big stopper.
Without wishing to be too hard on players, Danny Fox is a clear weak link defensively. Most recent goals have been conceded down the left-hand side and Fox is never in the vicinity of the attack, withdrawing inside rather than staying tight to his winger. It’s important that the Forest left-back plays well because Michal Antonio is used very high up the field as an extra target man at times. It wasn’t a surprise that the Birmingham right-winger David Cotterill curled a superb finish for the opening goal.
Another cross deflected off Fox onto the crossbar. For me, Fox needs to improve in the attacking sense too – getting on the front foot like Chris Cohen can do. He’s a nice footballer, but like Gonzalo Jara Reyes he will ultimately fail if he doesn’t enjoy grisly defensive battles which are part and parcel of this level.
I’m seen some tweets calling for Dan Harding to play at left-back. Harding is not as good on the ball but does at least drive forward and give a more committed impression. However, for me, he isn’t the answer and let’s not forget he was withdrawn at half-time at St Andrew’s last season after being terrorised by Chris Burke.
In the last 10 minutes, Birmingham began to sit on their lead a little. Forest switched to three at the back with three rather belated subs added to the action by Pearce. As so often this season, Britt Assombalonga came to the rescue with a far-post header that was very fitting on Trevor Francis Day.
It was barely deserved, but what disappointed me was the fact Birmingham tore back into the game and wanted the winner more. Darlow made a fantastic save before there were massive appeals for handball after Forest allowed a free header on goal from a corner. Initially the away fans breathed a sigh of relief before incredibly the fourth official gave the penalty from the benches.
While the decision may have been correct, it was a strange one. The Nottingham Post’s reporter Paul Taylor tweeted:
“Ref and lino both happy to give a corner. But fourth official called them over. I have never seen that in 20 years of doing this job … From this point on, a line is drawn in the sand. If referee misses something, #nffc bench have every right to ask 4th official to intervene.”
In general, I don’t think the fourth official is in any position to make decisions from the sidelines whatever the rules. The view is limited and he is bound to be influenced by the benches and home supporters breathing down his neck.
In the end though, Pearce was right. Forest lost the game for a multitude of reasons. Pearce also knows that while following his mentor Brian Clough in respecting officials, like Clough, he will be judged on results. Pearce has done a fantastic job off the pitch, but this game showed that there is still a lot of work to do, both in the style of play and winning physical battles. It may have been Trevor Francis Day, but a Larry Lloyd would have been more useful yesterday.
It was good to hear that John McGovern said Pearce would be given time to complete his task, but it would be better for me if the owner also made the same statement. Charlton next Saturday is a must win and the pressure would be reduced if it was clear that this is a long-term rebuilding project. This season more than ever, teams like Derby, Bournemouth and Brentford are flourishing because they have gone through this process. Until we do, there will be performances like yesterday which leave our great travelling support disappointed. Luckily though, we have a manager who will go away and work on the issues rather than blame referees for making the correct decisions.
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