Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Jamie Ward is a pest...and we'll need him for tough away tests

Kenny Burns is right. Jamie Ward is indeed a 'wee pest'. On Saturday the squad's arch irritant came to the party and delivered the sort of cutting edge that we'll be needing an awful lot more of in the coming weeks.

I'll be honest, I've been a little disappointed with Jamie since he came to the right end of the A52. That's not because he used to play for them lot, that doesn't matter to me once he dons the Garibaldi, but because we haven't seen his potential.

I was genuinely excited when Dougie picked him up on a free transfer in the summer and hoped that he could provide the sort of ruthless edge that all sides need in a relentless season of Championship football.

Yet, for one reason or another, it has been a slow start in Forest colours for the Northern Ireland international. In and out of the side, he's been restricted to long range pot shots and cameo appearances and has struggled to deliver an end product (barring a superb assist against Birmingham) until Saturday.

By earning a penalty with a penetrating run, crossing for a leaping Oliver Burke and rounding off the scoring himself he delivered end product in spades, was involved in al 3 goals, and helped to ensure it was a comfortable afternoon against a struggling Bolton side.

The change in fortunes was probably helped by a positional change. Shifted from the flanks, he was freed from the responsibility of tracking back - not his forte - and could drop in behind Nelson Oliveira. The 'hole' is, after all, the most irritating of spaces for irritating players to pop up in. When you've got a pain in the backside, you might as well let him loose to inflict maximum pain.

We can't afford to get too carried away, of course. This was 'just' Bolton after all - a fact used by some to dampen any praise given to Freedman for extending his unbeaten run to 11 games. We also shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Ben Osborn was utterly sensational on Saturday. He may not have done the headline stuff, but he was a joy to watch and was right at the heart of everything good done by the home side.

Ward's performance was particularly promising, though, when it comes to our upcoming challenges away away from home.

It may have been stodgy fare in recent weeks, but a bit of cutting edge in the final third could well have secured the results needed to silence talk of tactics or negativity. Something akin to Ward's Bolton show is what we've been crying out for to stick the knife in to teams when we're on top.

That's even more crucial as a date with Middlesbrough beckons on Saturday. The trip to Fortress Riverside starts a run that will see us play them, Leeds, Hull, Burnley, Ipswich and Derby away in the next 11 games. If we're still unbeaten after then Dougie will be getting showered with praise from even the most miserable corners of Twitter.

It's going to be tough, it's going to take bags of defensive resolve and, most of all, we'll need to take our chances and be ruthless in front of goal. Let's hope Dougie's little pest has got plenty of mischief up his sleeve to unleash during that run.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Freedman searching for cutting edge and new formula after loss of Lansbury and Vaughan

When Stuart Pearce returned to the City Ground, he installed Chris Cohen and Andy Reid as his central midfield pairing. It had the makings of a formidable duo - with Cohen's passion and energy dovetailing nicely with Reid's classy touches and vision.

Their partnership was, like Pearce's tenure, short lived. Both departed early during the 1-1 draw with Derby six games in and only Cohen has been since (just).

A great many things went wrong for the legendary left back, but this was undoubtedly a big deal and probably not something that was fully appreciated. It's also a warning for Dougie Freedman as, in the coming three games at least, he is forced to do without his favoured midfield pairing of David Vaughan and Henri Lansbury.

Freedman has fought more than his fair share of fires in his time at the City Ground and will want to be more successful in his attempts to make do and mend his midfield than his predecessor. Interestingly, the re-arrival of a Pearce loanee should prove key. Brought in to add to Freedman's midfield options, the popular Gary Gardner is our best option.

The Aston Villa man will have to be used carefully though as pushing him too far too soon will only lead to another addition to the full-to-bursting treatment room. Gardner should start against Bolton though, with 60 or 70 minutes from Gardner being crucial to winning the territorial battle. Alongside him will probably be Robert Tesche - a man who Pearce basically replaced with Gardner last year. The German hasn't always showed the discipline required to boss a game at this level but has shown signs that he is now finding his feet after a spell out on loan and another on the sidelines through injury.

Outside of that, Dougie could choose to move Ben Osborn inside from the left but I'm sure he'll be reluctant do that. Osborn's energy combined with his greater freedom on the wing has helped to make Freedman's midfield four a viable option.

Then there's Chris Cohen. Like Gardner he'll need to be handled carefully as he makes his return after a lengthy lay off. For now, between him and Gardner we've probably got 90 minutes worth of footballer to utilise.

The manager could also push Michael Mancienne further forward but that'd be a shame after he has finally been allowed to show his class at the back. Jorge Grant seems an ideal choice to provide fresh legs should they be needed.

It's not just in the midfield where Freedman has food for thought. In some respects this dilemma will have been an unwelcome distraction from his attempt to fine tune his side's cutting edge. After wins against Reading, Fulham and MK Dons, Forest have been bogged down a little on away days at Charlton and Cardiff and at home to Leeds and Birmingham.

It's no so much that we've struggled away (although that is something to be addressed) but that we've struggled to kill off teams when we're in the ascendancy that worries me, especially as basement battlers Bolton arrive at the City Ground tomorrow.

In recent times we've slipped to a defeat against ten-man Brentford, given a goal-shy Wolves chance to grow in confidence and failed to see off a Charlton side that had the lack of confidence of Wolves and ten men ala Brentford.

We need to learn from those games if we aren't to be embarrassed by a Bolton side that is yet to win on its travels this season. A strong early start will surely crush their resolve and is absolutely crucial. Against Fulham and Reading we scored good goals at good times and exploited the weaknesses of our opposition. We need to rediscover that tomorrow.

That we'll need to rediscover that without our first choice midfield does make the task tougher. Being Forest manager has been one long troubleshooting mission for the Glasgow gaffer so far so, in that respect, rebuilding the heart of the side feels depressingly common. After four league 1-1s in a row, he'll know only too well the value of finding success against his former employers while keeping all of his plates spinning.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Time to have good old go at the FA Cup

Over the years my love for the FA Cup, where Forest are concerned, has been severely tested. Recently I picked out 7 moments that have pretty much summed our modern day cup history for In The Top One.

Sadly for every Man City away and West Ham at home, there's a Chester, Luton or Rochdale lurking in the history books. It's been grim hasn't it? Even Cloughie couldn't win the thing.

It'd be tempting to react to all of this by ceasing to care. Let's get out and 'concentrate on the league' etc. Yet this year, even more than before wouldn't it be nice to have a good run?

What is this season for if it's not for building. Building confidence, building a decent side, building momentum. All of that could be helped by a decent cup run.

Our league position should also afford us the chance to 'have a go'. While we shouldn't be complacent, the ten point cushion from the drop zone looks healthy. By the same token, the gap to the playoffs - also ten points - looks insurmountable. We haven't got a league goal to concentrate on, except maintaining stability.

So yes, let's get Cohen, Gardner and Jokic some game time but let's also treat it properly and celebrate the chance to add more purpose to a transition season. Although I'll draw the line at making a tinfoil trophy.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

2015/16 half term report

Since we're sort of half way through the campaign - and league action has paused for the FA Cup - now seems as good a time as any to assess how well things are going for Dougie Freedman in 2015/16.

Having played just over half of the matches we sit firmly in mid table obscurity in the Championship, 10 points below the play-off places, 10 points off the relegation zone, sitting snugly by the fire with pipe, slippers and a +1 goal difference in 14th.

It hasn't been a cosy ride though has it? If any of us have learned anything while following Forest it's that we don't do things easily and that complacency is dangerous.

August was dominated by the transfer sagas of Michail Antonio and Henri Lansbury and it can't have been easy for Freedman to operate knowing that he might have to pull a rabbit from a hat at very short notice. Then, after back to back away wins, September and October turned into one long winless slog as Dougie tried to find the right formula. Since then the story has been more positive with an eight match streak that, while a little less ambitious away from home, has got the results needed to steer us into the aforementioned obscurity zone.

Here's some of my highs and lows

Best game

No much competition here is there? Not only was the against-the-odds win against Derby a great result for a then under pressure Freedman, but it was also our best performance of the season.

Worst game

Brentford away. Having been the better side for much of the game we came back from a goal down and should've been pushing for a winner as time wore on. Instead we panicked and imploded in injury time. The defeat saw us slip to two points off the relegation zone and threatened to kill the post-Derby feelgood factor. Luckily it now looks like a blip, and Freedman used this low point as a wake up call and help fashion an eight-game unbeaten run.

Best player

Take a bow David Vaughan. With Andy Reid continuing to struggle with injury, Vaughan stepped up to the 'experienced player with a touch of class' role with aplomb. He's been right at the heart of everything, tackling, passing and pressing his heart out. He also scored a corker of a goal against Bolton. Here it is...

Dorus De Vries and Eric Lichaj deserve honourable mentions here too.

Worst player

I's not fair to stick the knife in to the much maligned Danny Fox is it? I feel for him really. He used to be a decent player and desperately needs a move while he still has time for a fresh start. The fact he can't get in at left back ahead of Michael Mancienne is a huge sign for all concerned that his time is up.

Best signing

Given the constraints of the embargo, Dougie deserves praise for some decent business. Daniel Pinillos proved an astute find and was settling nicely into to life as first choice left back until he was struck down by injury. Ryan Mendes has brought pace and trickeryy - even if he is frustrating at times - while Nelson Oliveira is the top scorer at the club with 6 goals and is finding his feet in the Championship.

Worst signing

Kyle Ebecilio just never got to the pace of the game did he? His injury even came by stretching for a tackle because he was struggling to keep up. To be fair to him, it's probably the worst place on the park to be trying to acclimatise to the game, there's no time and nowhere to hide. It sounds like he'll be dispatched back to Holland, or 'doing a Lars' as it probably should be known.

I'm still waiting for some more end product from Jamie Ward too. His excellent set up for Dexter away at Birminghan aside, he's spent too much time arguing and firing shots over from distance for my liking. He could - and should - be the difference in turning away draws into wins if he can improve in the second half of the season.


Given the state of the Championship - with 9 managerial casualties so far - it's something of an achievement for Dougie to still be in charge. That's especially so given the pressure he was under during an eight game winless run. He'll pulled out a superb performance against Derby and has successfully steered us clear of the dogfight (for now at least) by countering the bad run with an eight game unbeaten run. He's not been afraid to shuffle his pack to cope with back to back games or the threat posed by different sides and should be applauded for calm stewardship through choppy waters - both on and off the field. The cushion he's built ought to allow the much maligned 'handbrake' to come off a little more, away from home especially, while Oliver Burke and Tyler Walker probably ought to see a little more of the action to further their development. The grumbles, such as they are, are minor and he now prepares to juggle the budget once again in the January transfer market.


So, where does all this leave us compared to the start of the season? I predicted a 10th place finish to Seat Pitch before a ball was kicked and the general consensus seemed to be 8th to 12th. We lost Antonio after that, taking a huge goal threat out of the team, but we're not far off the pre-season 'par'. My ambition for the season remains unchanged really. Aim for the top 10 if possible, play some decent football, compete in every match and build a side that can be successful at this level. I'd like to finish 2015/16 having at least 8 starters in place for next year to minimise the work needed in the summer and meaning we can hit the ground running next year. This season has to lay down the foundations for next, it can't be wasted.