At the end of a season when your club has been successful, the tendency is to look back on the big wins or the important games at the end of the campaign when the realisation that this is going to be your year begins to dawn. I do that as well, but I also remember the really hard fought slogs when the team aren’t at their best which are decided by a single goal against opposition that competes sternly throughout and today’s 1-0 triumph over Nottingham Forest certainly fell into that category. Forest looked nothing like the brittle early season outfit that lost Steve McLaren his job – they were a typical Steve Cotterill side except that they weren’t as prone to pick up yellow and red cards as his teams tend to be normally!
I saw in the build up to the match that Cotterill was making claims about his team being the Championship’s new Swansea because of the number of passes they completed in their win over Ipswich last weekend, but I struggled to see any likeness to the jacks today. There was a fair bit to admire about the visitors though, they defended well and limited City to very few really dangerous attacks, while their pace on the break through Findley and then substitute Anderson was always a concern – although, to be fair, nothing really came of it until the closing stages of the game.
With four wins in six games under Cotterill, Forest were probably as confident as they have been at any stage during this season and, for the second successive home game, City had to wait until around the seventy minute mark to break down down the packed defence of an in form visiting team. However, unlike the Palace game, City couldn’t get that second goal which made the closing stages so much more comfortable three weeks ago – in fact, apart from a Peter Whittingham shot which Lee Camp almost spilled into the path of Kenny Miller, it’s hard to think of a time when City even came remotely close to adding to their lead. However, in a match in which their performance never hit any great heights, it was City who managed to get the goal that made all of the difference and wins in matches like this shape seasons as much your five and six nils do.
The funny thing was that while it was hardly as if the shots were raining in on Camp prior to the goal, my mate and I both said “that goal was coming” at virtually the same time as we celebrated the breaking of the deadlock. For just about the only time in the match, City were able to build up some attacking momentum as they penned Forest back for six or seven minutes before scoring. A series of Aron Gunnarsson long throws helped in this respect, but, equally important for me was that Forest just could not get out of their own half as the ball was not sticking with their front men – the pressure that City put on them to win the ball back had so much to do with that.
After a first half in which his weaknesses in passing the ball were, again, apparent, Kevin McNaughton did as much as anyone to turn the heat up on the Forest backline. It was he who was fouled for what turned out to be the decisive free kick as Peter Whittingham (quieter today as he gets ever closer to picking up what must surely be the first suspension of his career) took advantage of a second chance to cross from just outside the penalty area to find substitute Joe Mason who, after impressing so much when he has come on previously, made his only real contribution to the afternoon by giving Whittingham’s pass the finish it deserved.
Mason might not have done too much, but it was telling that a striker cum midfield player had to be brought on to make the decisive breakthrough, because this was a game where the 4-5-1 formation, which has been so successful so far, didn’t really function that well. Although Forest didn’t play a regulation 4-4-2, Tudgay and Findley were both more strikers than auxiliary midfield players and yet, for long spells, Forest’s four matched and even bettered City’’s five in the middle of the park. Whether this was due to the effects of City having a game in midweek while Forest didn’t is arguable, but, in the first half especially, they struggled to impose themselves on the game with the man who Mason replaced, Craig Conway, spurning two of the best chances created while Gunnarsson could have done better with a header as well.
With Steve McPhail (who replaced the injured Filip Kiss) unable to maintain his impressive start to the match and Whittingham not as influential as normal, some of the passes which caused Forest most trouble in the first half came from the unlikely source of the left foot of Ben Turner. The centreback hit some lovely raking left to right passes, but this was only one facet of a performance which marked him down as our man of the match in my book – certainly in the first half when I thought he was by far our best player. Turner’s covering was excellent and he made some fine interceptions as well as, once again, revealing a surprising turn of pace which may well have something to do with why Malky Mackay feels he can ignore the claims of Darcy Blake for now.
With his back four colleagues coming more to the fore after the break, Turner didn’t need to be quite as impressive, but he is certainly looking like an excellent signing at present. In fact, it’s hard to see one duff signing Malky Mackay has made so far – Earnie I suppose comes closest. Given the rebuilding job that had to be done, it’s pretty remarkable that City sit where they do tonight after a day when results, largely, went in our favour. Malky Mackay deserves tremendous credit for putting together a squad which may not be exactly eye catching in terms of quality, but, in other ways, they are so much of an improvement on last year’s team – they are resilient, hard working, spirited and patient and you get the feeling that there is more to come from them yet.
* pictures from http://www.walesonline.co.uk/