Left Brian: February 2024

Words: Gareth Watts
Monday 26 February 2024
reading time: min, words

What's been happening at Nottingham Forest the last few weeks - the trials and tribulations of Nottingham Forest's fight to stay out of the relegation zone continues. Gareth Watts reports...


There have been plenty of times in the past month, when I’ve feared that Nottingham Forest are sleepwalking their way to relegation.

One reason this sleepwalking analogy keeps nagging at me, is as a spectre in blue from a few miles down the A46. Weren’t Leicester City too good to go down this time last year? After all, they had James Maddison, Youri Tielemans, Harvey Barnes: established, exciting, Premier League players who went through the motions for the plummeting Foxes but now look amazing for a different club a year later.

Another thing that worries me is the way some of our fans have unquestioningly embraced, or dare I say, fetishised our highly-talented Brazilian centre back Murillo. Don’t get me wrong: I get it! He’s just 21, well-built, comfortable on the ball and can make one-off tackles and sweeping passes that can rival Taylor Swift for Instagram likes. But, for me at least, that’s the problem. Each game he’ll do something spectacular to catch the eye and convince us all ‘he’ll be worth £100m in a year’s time’. The reels and social media hyperbole flows. And yet, he’s been at the heart of one of the leakiest defences in the league. What’s the point of being the first name on the team sheet if it’s a losing team? Pass me a Werther’s Original for what I’m about to say, but: social media traction means nothing in the league table. And he may well develop into the world-class player the hype is promising. But what good will that be to us if we’re admiring him in a Real Madrid shirt on our phones, from the away end at Plymouth, Stoke or Sunderland?

At the back end of January we were completely overrun by Arsenal, whose two goals could easily have been five. We’re perilously close to the relegation zone, with the threat of a points deduction hanging over us. But it’s Arsenal, right? Points we weren’t expected to win. And look, there’s a shiny new Taiwo Awoniyi back from the recovery room, bundling in a consolation goal to make it 2-1. Big Taiwo is back - we’ll be fine!

As the transfer window closed, there were even more soothing reasons out there to keep us fans nicely tucked up in our slumber. Number one, if you’ll excuse the pun, is that we needed (yet another) new goalie and so we bought in a supposedly safe pair of hands in Belgian international, Matz Sels. The safe, mid-table, season begins now!

And, well, it kind of did: we deserved to get something away at Bournemouth with a beauty of a finish from Callum Hudson-Odoi to level after 45 minutes, after a disastrous start which saw us fall behind to a Kluivert goal after just 5 minutes. We performed well, the only disappointment really coming from our failing to capitalise (yet again) from the opponents going down to ten men. Nevertheless, we came home from the south coast with a point.

Back at the City Ground, a cup replay reflected that we couldn’t beat mid-table Championship side Bristol City in 210 minutes of football. A 1-1 result on the night resulting in a penalty shoot-out in which Forest, thankfully, triumphed. Should this be an alarm bell that wakes us up? Of course not, we’ve drawn Manchester United in the next round and so we can stay snuggly under our big club duvet.

Our next outing in the Premier League was against Saudi Arabian ciphers Newcastle United. We lost 3-2 at home. Wake up! But no, because there was a brilliant Elanga goal, another beauty from Hudson-Odoi and a refereeing decision to blame… no matter that Guimaraes and Schar wandered in and seemingly scored goals on a whim. We had Murillo looking good at the back. And our AfCON players are returning soon. We’ll still be fine, right?

West Ham next and finally something to shut a naysayer like me up: a clean sheet and a very convincing win. Unsung hero Neco Williams was awarded man of the match for his marauding up and down the right wing; Awoniyi turned and finished brilliantly at the end of the first half, Hudson-Odoi completed an excellent team move at the end of the second. The team had clicked. I could stop worrying about whether or not Murillo was just an ‘Instagram’ player.

Until, that is, we played the next football match. At Villa Park, the hosts picked their way through Forest’s defensive chaos to help themselves to three goals in just over half an hour. Watkins and Douglas Luiz capitalising on the fine work of Leon Bailey on the right. Forest gave fans hope with goals either side of half time, though Niakhaté and an exquisite Gibbs-White finish, before further defensive calamity gifted Villa their fourth and that was that. A 4-2 defeat and we’re nearly in March. As I write, we’re four points above the drop zone, with a suspected six-point deduction still to come.

That deduction: still in the abstract, not real, like a bad dream.

And maybe there’s one more reason I choose the word ‘sleepwalking’. This time last year, under Steve Cooper, the verb would be ‘clinging’, ‘fighting’ or ’scrapping’. Players and fans alike were galvanised by the desperation of the situation. Rarely have I heard a bigger cheer at the City Ground than when Forest won a throw-in against Manchester City. It wasn’t pretty, but needs must and we acted as one. Everyone knew their role and we could combine the grit and determination of, let’s say, Joe Worrall, a man that would literally throw his body on the line for the Forest cause, with very little Insta-traction to show for it. And, to state the obvious, we did get a point against the treble-winners City, we did beat Brighton and we did beat Arsenal to secure safety. What I wouldn’t give to get some of that spirit back at the City Ground tomorrow.

They say necessity is the mother of invention and yet I’m not sure all the Forest players, or even the Forest fans, quite realise how necessary it is that we need to pick up points now. Continue to sleepwalk and it might be that when we do wake up, we’re being outfought at Kenilworth Road or, even worse, at Bramall Lane.

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