In November, a 4-0 home defeat to the hands of Leeds United was one of the lowest points in Nottingham Forest’s season. On Tuesday night came one of the highs as the Reds gained glorious revenge, running riot at Elland Road to secure a memorable 7-3 victory.
The result was remarkable given Forest’s struggles in front of goal this season, despite improved results in recent weeks. The fact that Leeds won 4-1 the last time they hosted Forest and are now managed by Neil Warnock – a man Forest fans have loved to hate down the years – makes the victory all the more sweet.
It is the first time Leeds have conceded seven at home, the first time Forest have scored seven on the road since a 7-1 demolition of Sheffield Wednesday in 1995 and is a victory which moves Forest seven points clear of the relegation zone. For those who like stats, the 3-7 scoreline cropped up in Forest’s 37th league game of the season and it came the day before what would have been Brian Clough’s 77th birthday. An omen perhaps?
From a Forest perspective, the performance could not be more different to their last outing a week before when they were beaten 1-0 by bitter rivals Derby County. That match at Pride Park was a completely dour affair, with both sides doing their best to avoid playing football.
A major gripe of that Derby defeat was Forest’s reluctance to keep the ball on the floor, instead resorting to belting it upfield whenever possible, which only kept inviting their hosts to pile on the pressure. Had the Reds tried to play some passing football they may well have found some success. They did it at Elland Road and reaped the rewards.
Radoslaw Majewski had become somewhat of a forgotten name at the City Ground since Steve Cotterill took charge, but the Polish midfielder was a surprise inclusion in the starting lineup on Tuesday night, coming in to replace suspended striker Marcus Tudgay. Many fans have been clamouring for the skillful Majewski to be given another chance by Cotterill, to bring his passing ability and creative influence to the team. He wasn’t necessarily the most influential man on the field at Elland Road, but he gave the Leeds defenders something different to worry about in his attacking midfield role whilst helping Forest to play a passing game.
Majewski’s inclusion was the only change to the starting eleven which faced Derby, with the 25-year-old playing in an advanced berth behind lone striker Dexter Blackstock to make up a five man midfield. The system gave the Reds defensive steel whilst allowing the attack-minded players to cause Warnock’s side problems.
Having fallen behind after five minutes despite a good start, many Forest fans were fearing the worst but Adlene Guedioura soon changed the mood, as the on-loan Wolves man hit a thunderbolt from 35 yards to equalise just two minutes later, a goal well worth looking up. Forest continued to play with a confidence not seen at Pride Park, as they were keeping the ball on the deck and having the better of the game. It cast aside any thoughts that Cotterill’s side would repeat the ugly performance seen a week previously, trying to matching the often direct nature favoured by Neil Warnock’s teams.
Deservedly 2-1 up at the break thanks to Garath McCleary, Forest extended their lead early in the second half when Dexter Blackstock nodded Andy Reid’s left wing cross into the net, then followed an incredible sixteen minutes of football which produced five goals. Leeds hit back through Luciano Becchio and equalised two minutes later thanks to Michael Brown’s excellent strike. ‘Here we go again’ was a phrase running through the minds of Forest fans everywhere, as another good away performance would no doubt end up turning into a nightmare.
However this was different. Two minutes after Brown’s leveller, McCleary was played into space down the right and unleashed a tremendous volley over Andy Lonergan to make it 4-3 to the Reds. The wonderful technique from the Forest winger makes it another must-see goal, Van Basten-esque! Over the next fifteen minutes McCleary scored two more to take his tally for the evening to four and send over 1,000 travelling Forest fans, plus the thousands more listening to the radio at home in Nottingham, into delirium.
By the time Dexter Blackstock made the score 7-3 with ten minutes remaining, Leeds supporters were streaming towards the exits while Reds fans were wondering if it was all some wonderful dream. The unexpected result is not only a scoreline which will make the rest of the Championship stand up and take notice, it also shows that Forest have got the quality in their ranks to avoid the drop into League One.
Several of the team impressed on the night, but the man grabbing the headlines following the win is Garath McCleary after he got on the scoresheet four times. He has been given an extended spell in the side by Cotterill and is now finally showing his ability on a consistent basis after previously struggling to make an impact at the City Ground.
McCleary has been a Reds player for four years, having been signed by Colin Calderwood in 2008. The former Oxford trainee impressed scouts whilst playing for non-league Bromley and after a trial with Forest, the club paid £25,000 for his services. He made his debut against Carlisle United in League One in March 2008 and netted his first Reds goal in a vital 2-0 win against the same opponents a month later, as Forest eventually won promotion back to the Championship later that campaign.
Prior to this season, McCleary was mainly used as a squad player, with many of his Forest appearances coming off the bench. When he was given a chance in the team, either starting or as a substitute, he showed promise but was often lacking that crucial final product. With pace, skill and trickery in his locker he always looked a decent prospect, but it seemed as if he would never quite make the grade at Championship level.
However Cotterill is the first Forest manager to give McCleary a lengthy run of first-team games and his faith in the 24-year-old is paying off. McCleary has quickly developed into a major attacking threat, creating goals for the team and finding the back of the net himself. Before his four-goal heroics at Elland Road, he had scored nine goals in 117 games – five of them this season. That £25,000 investment looks like a bargain now, but McCleary’s contract is expiring in the summer so the club has to offer him a new deal, and quick.
Favourable results both on Saturday and Tuesday now see Forest seven points clear of the bottom three, with a game in hand on most of their rivals. In-form Brighton and Hove Albion visit the City Ground on Saturday and the Reds will no doubt be buoyed by the magnificent seven against a Leeds side who still harbour hopes of a play-off spot.
Steve Cotterill deserves much credit for the Leeds success. There are many fans, myself included, who’ve felt the former Portsmouth manager has failed to deliver since taking the Forest job in October, but he got his tactics and team selection right on Tuesday. Having witnessed the poor display at Derby, he encouraged the team to play in a style which suited them and will hopefully stick with a winning formula from now on. If he does keep Forest in the Championship then he will have utlimately done his job for the season.
Tuesday’s result should rightly be enjoyed by the team, fans and everyone associated with Forest, but more importantly it should act as the springboard for the team to go into a tough run of fixtures with renewed optimism. After the Brighton match, successive away trips to Leicester City and Crystal Palace follow, plus a televised home fixture against fellow relegation candidates Bristol City a week later.
The manner of victory at Elland Road also highlights the inconsistencies which have continually blighted Forest’s survival hopes all season, especially in recent months. Good displays against Birmingham City, Coventry City and Millwall have been undone by equally poor ones in the matches with Doncaster Rovers and Derby County, to name but two. Ideally the Leeds success will give players the belief to produce consistent displays, which will lead to them taking the points needed for survival from their remaining games.
But for now let’s celebrate one of the best performances seen from a Nottingham Forest side in the last fifteen years. It has been a tough season for the club with very little to shout about and Tuesday was a truly memorable night. Hopefully, there are more reasons to be cheerful to come between now and the end of the campaign.
Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up podcast member and Nottingham Forest blogger
Steven tweets at @steven_toplis