Sunday, 17 April 2016

Fantastic Mr Fox helps stop the rot in Rotherham

This is what progress looks like. It may not have been always been pretty, it could well have gone either way, but a toughed out 0-0 in South Yorkshire was just what the doctor ordered.

I'm sure I wasn't the only travelling Tricky concerned about what we might see on Saturday. A rampant Rotherham, managed by Neil Warnock, didn't seem the ideal fixture for a hapless side that had registered a meagre one win and one draw in its previous 11 outings.

A managerless (Paul Williams, bless him, doesn't really want this poisoned chalice does he?) mishmash of a side would surely be outfoxed by a wily Warnock and outfought by his confident charges.

Yet, it wasn't to be. Building on a promising second half against Brighton, Forest held their own. Yes Richard Wood could - and should - have done better with a series of headed chances but the fact that the best chances fell to him is testament to the way in which the Millers' attack was largely kept in check.

Chief frustrator for the Men in Black was Danny Fox, the man brought in from the cold by Williams and Reid after yet another injury crisis. A full back by trade, Fox has slotted in to the heart of the defence - a position he did play under Stuart Pearce - and deserves high praise for his performances. Pearce himself once said Fox possessed one of the best left feet at the club. We laughed at the time but Fox's distribution at the New York Stadium showed that his dreadful displays at full back haven't done him justice.

Perhaps most impressive of all was that Fox was strong in the tackle, good in the air and quick to intercept any danger - proving he was up to the physical test that the hosts posed and making him a good foil for the also-solid Matt Mills.

It was a day for unlikely star men. Ryan Mendes, an often frustrating figure, was undoubtedly Forest's main - if not only - attacking threat. His pace proved a major headache for the Rotherham back four, forcing Warnock to tweak his tactics at half time to try to nullify him. While he was quieter after the break, he was still a threat - setting up Lansbury, drawing a save from Lee Camp and dancing into the box Knockaert-style in injury time (sadly without the same end result).

The Cape Verde man is desperately close to being a decent player yet if he could finish - or provide more killer final balls - he wouldn't be on loan with us. Saturday proved that, if nothing else, pace alone is enough to give most Championship sides a real headache.

Speaking of unlikely star men, quite why Lee Camp was given man of the match for barely two saves was a mystery. Sadly he went on to prove the decision right by making a smart stop to deny Mendes.

Had others around Mendes been sharper then more points were there for the taking. Henri Lansbury's afternoon was best summed up by the fact he slipped on his backside when put through by Mendes, while Dexter faded badly in the second half. Neither were helped by the fact that Gardner and Tesche were never fully in control and able to give them the service required.

Rotherham's superior crossing ability and Greg Halford's long throws ensured the hosts always posed a threat and the 2,001 away fans could never sit comfortably. Maybe it was these nerves that resulted in Warnock only receiving one chant by way of abuse - or maybe it was that people feared Fawaz might still have to go back to him with a begging bowl in the summer.

A strangely inactive staff in the dugout made just one change - to run down the clock in injury time - while an animated Warnock threw on fresh legs and tried to orchestrate a winner.

A point was probably fair though and it should prove useful for both sides, keeping MK Dons at arm's length. It also meant that a fifth defeat in a row wasn't forthcoming (something we'd apparently not 'managed' since 1992. Even under Megson) and was the first clean sheet since Freedman departed.

One more coherent display against Blackburn would surely be enough to end the relegation nerves. If Fox and Mendes can step up to the plate, is it too much to ask for one last push from the others to see us over the line?

Millmoor is just across the road from the new ground

Rotherham: Home of legends

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Blackstock and Lansbury: The accidental attack that almost toppled Brighton

No-one is sitting comfortably yet are they? No matter how much logic tells us that a nine-point cushion from the relegation zone with five games to go is 'enough', it doesn't pay to take anything for granted with a side that has won one in the last 11 games.

The Calderwood promotion came after we'd been 11 points off with seven games to go. In that respect a 2-1 defeat at home to Brighton should offer scant hope and, yet, strangely there was a crumb or two of comfort.

For about the first half an hour of the second period Forest produced their best football of the Paul Williams caretaker regime. After a tepid first half we landed upon a vaguely useful formula by accident and should have taken at least a point against a below-par Brighton as a result.

Plan A had been to ask Jamie Ward to be Jamie Ward and annoy his way to a goal. There was a lot of running and chasing but, let's be frank, the usual lack of end product followed by the all-too-familiar injury.

In his place came Dexter Blackstock. I recently described Dexter to a colleague as a man who resembles a bag of limbs jumbled up and rearranged in the wrong order. Sometimes things work, other times arms and legs flail and the ball flies off in all directions. Sarcasm aside though, it's clear that Dexter isn't the sort of player to be a like-for-like swap with Ward.

Williams instead pushed everyone a little further forward and it paid off. Lansbury's 'free role' almost became a second striker position as Blackstock was given some support. Osborn was more comfortable on the left and suddenly we attacked with energy and purpose and had the game in our hands.

Blackstock, fittingly, got the goal. It was arch Blackstock too, a brilliant header from a whipped free kick after he'd fought to muscle himself into an inch of space.

It confirmed that Dexter probably is the best we've got available (wince at the thought if you like). It's surely worth a manager asking themselves what a defender would least like to face and Williams, a decent defender himself in his day, should know that a physical Blackstock is the best answer from our severely depleted arsenal.

Dexter might well have enough left in the tank to scramble us over the line to safety this year. He won't be able to plough a lone furrow up front on his own these day though. Equally we haven't got two strikers useful enough to play a pair. That may well mean that Lansbury playing in and around Dexter as a second striker is the best thin sheet of paper we have available to tentatively stick over the cracks in our 'strike force' right now.

The formula provided a couple more chances to the accidental attack take the lead after the equaliser. The first, to Lansbury, was fired over and the second, an awkward header to Dexter, squirmed wide. At that point Dexter was dominating Connor Goldson and looked in the mood for another goal.

Yet, sadly, the chances dried up. Vaughan and Gardner had to come off, Cohen tired and Brighton sent on the subs. Knockaert bamboozled us again and Steve Sidwell swept home an ill-deserved winner. It summed up the season - we simply weren't ruthless enough in both boxes to capitalise on the opportunities in the game.

You'd have to hope that the midfielders might be fit again for the tough looking trip to a rampant Rotherham. We also might as well bottle that unlikely Blackstock/Lansbury formula in the short term and see if, somehow, it can stop the freefall and cobble together a more comfortable finale.

Having bagged his 44th in Garibaldi Red, Dexter is slowly edging towards being the first man to score 50 for Forest since David Johnson. Lansbury himself had scored 18 across the last two seasons but just two this time around. He's apparently been craving a more forward thinking role and, while this was probably further forward than he meant, it's time for him to deliver and rediscover his goalscoring touch. It's not ideal, it's not what any of us would've stuck down on paper as a first choice attack and it's not the solution in the long term but little else has worked recently.