Another month at the City Ground, this time featuring international breaks, away at Man City, Chelsea and Crystal Palace, home to Brentford and why anxiety is freedom...
On the overground train out of West London, giddy from a convincing 1-0 win away at Chelsea, I bumped into a fellow Forest fan and we discussed the raft of new signings the club had just made at the end of the transfer window. “The international break has come at a perfect time,” he said, “give Cooper a fortnight with all the new lads and he’ll work wonders”. This was impeccable logic, betraying the level of expectation Forest fans had established over many years … international breaks were something apart from Nottingham Forest, a chance for us to steal a march on the big boys. While everyone else had players tormented by jetlag and a media frenzy around their national teams, our lads would be at the Nigel Doherty Academy, enrolling for CooperBall 101.
Never one to pass up the opportunity to be a smart arse, I couldn’t help but retort to my lovely Orange Line companion “That’s true. Except everyone we’ve signed is an international”.
And thus, the current phase of Forest fandom was born. No longer can we claim to be the underdogs or plucky scrappers. There we were, pulling away with all three points, from Stamford Bridge of all places, marvelling at the standard of players we were still yet to see. By my count, our international roster now boasts 3 x goalkeepers, 6 x defenders, 4 x midfielders and 3 x attackers. Of course, this can only be a good thing on the pitch. But if you’re a fan and you lose that underdog status, that nervous energy that the next managerial or defensive catastrophe is just around the corner, where do you go from there?
The literal answer to that question was a home fixture against Burnley, whose gilt-edged possession-based football will ensure plenty of anxiety remains this season in their particular pocket of the North West. As Forest huffed and puffed with a team that were still getting to know each other, I must admit a small part of me envied the Burnley fans: they’d been promoted as Champions playing beautiful attacking football, and their coach was sticking to those principles, come what may. If they were to go down (I personally believe they’ll survive) it will be in a blaze of glory.
As it was, Zeki Amdouni put the visitors ahead just before half time with an elegant shot from just outside the box. Then after 61 minutes, Callum Hudson-Odoi (formerly an England international and boy do we hope he gets to don the three lions again as a Forest player) curled a sublime effort into the far corner of the net. 1-1 ended up being a fair result. Not brilliant, nor terrible.
The same could be said for our next game, away at the Etihad against the reigning champions of everything. Compared with our 6-0 battering at the hands of Manchester City last season (not an away day I’ll be telling any future grandkids about), falling to a mere 2-0 scoreline felt respectable. Forest had 43% of the possession and, crucially, grew in confidence as new signings Ibrahim Sangare and, especially, Nico Dominguez began to show their quality. No longer was Forest’s away midfield cast in the role of butter for the hot knife of the Premier League’s top six.
All encouraging stuff, but hardly material for a terrace chant. “43% possession at the Etihad – you’ll never sing that”.
And so it was at our next home fixture against probably the only team who would strike up a statistics-based sing-song, Brentford. Further progress from the new signings meant that for at least twenty first half minutes Forest looked the real deal: composed, combative and rightfully assuming centre stage as the Super Sunday TV event. But then a shaky ten minutes after the break resulted in a Forest red card and a soft Norgaard goal. The already muted atmosphere fell to a hush.
Cue a classic Steve Cooper substitution: to the groans of many around the City Ground, the re-jigging of our ten men was built around the introduction of out-of-favour left back Harry Toffolo. Inspired to seize his chance, Toffolo was perfect in the tackle and topped his afternoon with an immaculate assist for the aforementioned Dominguez, who pulled the scores level on 65 minutes. Another draw. No ecstasy, nor despair.
Back down to London to face Crystal Palace, it felt like we were taking on the team Forest were aspiring to be: safely buffered from relegation, but unlikely to be troubling the top of the league either. On the face of it, the goalless draw at Selhurst Park confirmed Forest’s status in this spell as an unspectacular, competent mid-table team. However, the game was also marked by a standout performance from another new signing, Murillo. Ostensibly a centre back, he dutifully tackled, headed and kept things tidy … but there was so much more. One raking 50-yard pass to Morgan Gibbs-White was met with a sublime volley and, cruelly, the woodwork. Yet more was to come: Murillo ran the length of the pitch like a Brazilian Roy of the Rovers, weaving in and out of challenges before just falling short with a tame shot at a grateful looking Sam Johnstone. The Sky pundits purred. Todd Boehly’s chequebook got itchy.
And from there to another international break. Our players will have flown to every corner of the globe as Steve Cooper plots a route through a tricky spell of fixtures. I personally hate the expectation that many fans place on certain, so-called ‘winnable’ games (please, take nothing for granted in this league, folks) and so I approach Saturday’s home tie against Luton with a fair amount of dread. With Liverpool, Villa, West Ham and Brighton to follow, I, for one, will be ecstatic if we reach December having maintained our status as midtable makeweights.
As philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, ‘anxiety is the dizziness of freedom’ and maybe us Forest fans need that dollop or two of anxiety, the seat-of-your-pants jeopardy that has marked Steve Cooper’s first two seasons in charge, in his third. Because the only thing that can ruin our now-famous City Ground atmosphere is any sense of complacency or entitlement. Let’s rise to the expectation levels of our team of internationals and not be overawed by them.
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