A decent start all round

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Following Nottingham Forest’s 1-0 victory over Bristol City on the opening day of the campaign, Reds manager Sean O’Driscoll was asked by the local media how he felt about his team’s ‘good start to the season.’ O’Driscoll responded by saying one game does not represent a ‘start.’ Instead, we should see how the club are doing after ten games.

Having now played those ten games in the Championship, the international break has provided an opportunity to assess how the side is shaping up under new management.

Forest currently sit 12th in the league, three points off the top six with three wins, five draws and two defeats to their name. Having been in the manager’s job a matter of months and brought in twelve new players, O’Driscoll can be pleased with the work he’s doing and the start the team has made.

Forest enjoyed the longest unbeaten run in the division of six games, which was only brought to an end thanks to a 2-1 defeat against Neil Warnock’s Leeds at Elland Road. In the three games prior to that loss, Forest showed signs of how good they potentially could be, but also displayed the traits of a side which is still gelling.

A 2-1 home success over promoted Charlton saw Forest take the game to their opponents, dominating possession and playing some neat passing football, with Lewis McGugan’s free kick giving the Reds the lead and Chelsea loanee Sam Hutchinson scoring his first senior goal to double the advantage. A late Charlton response made for a nervy finish but Forest got the job done to move up to third in the table.

Birmingham City then visited the City Ground and set their stall out to frustrate Forest, with a disciplined display which prevented the Reds from replicating their successful passing football on show against Charlton. City went 2-0 ahead in the second half and it looked as if O’Driscoll would be tasting defeat for the first time as Forest manager. However a stirring fightback, including a brilliant individual goal from Simon Cox, saw Forest rescue a 2-2 draw.

Forest also had to come from behind in their next fixture away at Crystal Palace, where Dexter Blackstock’s late goal earned a valuable point following a battling display. O’Driscoll reverted to a 5-3-2 formation and Forest struggled to get going with Palace the better side. Frustration got the better of Adlene Guedioura, who was sent off for kicking out at an opponent, meaning Forest had to come from behind with ten men, which they did to secure a 1-1 draw and preserve their unbeaten run.

It was a similar story at Leeds, where Forest’s lacklustre first half display saw them two goals down at the break, a lack of cohesion going forward and some shaky defending gifting Leeds the initiative. Despite an improved second half from the Reds, with Dexter Blackstock scoring once more, they left themselves with too much to do and the unbeaten run was over.

The following Sunday saw the East Midlands Derby against rivals Derby County at the City Ground. The game is well-known for being a full-blooded encounter and the Sky cameras were there hoping to see something similar. Derby’s gameplan was to disrupt Forest with rough-house tactics and it paid off, helped by some poor refereeing by Robert Madley. The official allowed several late, robust Derby tackles to go unpunished in the first half before brandishing the first yellow to Forest’s Andy Reid.

Just forty seconds into the second half Dexter Blackstock, who had been on the receiving end of many of those bad challenges, rose with Richard Keogh for an aerial challenge. Blackstock’s elbow accidentally made contact with Keogh’s face but Madley deemed it worthy of a straight red card and Forest were down to ten men.

Derby began to get on top thanks to their numerical advantage and eventually won 1-0 with a Craig Bryson goal. The defeat on home soil was difficult to take for Forest fans, especially as the team struggled to create many chances against Nigel Clough’s robust side.

However things picked up in the final two games before the international break. Blackburn Rovers arrived on Trentside for a Tuesday night fixture and were fortunate to go away with a point, as Forest put in a much improved display. Steve Kean had recently left Rovers as manager but they are a team boasting considerable Premier League experience, plus plenty of goals with Jordan Rhodes and Nuno Gomes up front. Despite this Forest were much the better side, passing the ball around confidently and carving out several goalscoring opportunities, the best going to Billy Sharp who fired into the side netting from close range.

Four days later Forest travelled to Peterborough United, where their record has been good in recent years. They continued that thanks to an excellent solo goal from Andy Reid, who picked the ball up in his own half, carried it forward before hitting an angled shot into the far top corner from the edge of the penalty area. Forest were again the better side and had a second goal chalked off, with the ball being deemed to have gone out of play before Jermaine Jenas tapped home. The 1-0 success was enough to lift the Reds into the top half and make up for the Derby disappointment.

Forest’s squad has been strengthened even further in recent weeks, with striker Billy Sharp arriving on a deadline day loan deal from Southampton and former Reds midfielder Jermaine Jenas arriving from Tottenham on a month’s loan.

The signing of Sharp, who in recent seasons has been a prolific scorer at Championship level with Doncaster Rovers and Southampton, was a real statement of intent from Forest. The frontman knows O’Driscoll well from their days at Rovers and provides another option up top. He is yet to get off the mark in a Red shirt, but once he does his confidence will grow and more goals will come. It was surprising to see Saints let him go following their promotion to the Premier League, so Sharp will be out to prove a point during his stay at the City Ground.

Jermaine Jenas is another signing which has surprised and excited the fans in equal measure. The former England international, who is regarded as one of the best academy products Forest have ever produced, made his Reds breakthrough during the 2001-02 season as an eighteen year old, before being sold to Newcastle for £5 million in 2002. Since then he ‘s been a Premier League regular with Newcastle, Tottenham and Aston Villa whilst making 21 England appearances.

He brings undoubted quality to a midfield which is already blessed with options, but Jenas himself said he would only drop down to the Championship to rejoin Forest. He received a warm reception as he came off the bench to made his second bow as a Forest player in the 0-0 draw with Blackburn and it’s good to have him back, even if it is just for one month.

On Saturday table-topping Cardiff City come to The City Ground, looking to extend their impressive start to the campaign. The match will be a stern test for this Forest side and a good measure of where they are. Three days later they face a trip to Blackpool who are also aiming for promotion this season, but who have fallen away from the leaders in recent weeks. Last year Forest won 2-1 at Bloomfield Road and a similar result this time around will give the team confidence that they are capable of challenging at the right end of the table.

Over the international break the likes of Henri Lansbury and Billy Sharp have had two more weeks to find their feet at the club, which will hopefully stand them in good stead for the four games coming up in the next fortnight.

Sean O’Driscoll has a selection headache in midfield with Lansbury, Jenas, Lewis McGugan, Chris Cohen, Adlene Guedioura, Guy Moussi and Simon Gillett vying for central roles, along with Andy Reid. Forest boast the third meanest defence in the league with ten goals conceded. Despite some criticisms from certain sections of the support, Dan Harding and Daniel Ayala are steadily improving with each match. Greg Halford, Danny Collins and Sam Hutchinson have all impressed with their displays so far and there is a sense that this part of the team will only get better as the season progresses.

Simon Cox has also impressed up front, having scored some spectacular goals and been willing to work hard for the team. With Sharp, Dexter Blackstock and Marcus Tudgay also in the squad, there are plenty of striking options for the manager to pick from.

Overall it has been a good start from Forest, with signs that the team are moving in the right direction. The new owners, the Al-Hasawi family have said all the right things and seem willing to give Sean O’Driscoll the time to build the team he wants. With twelve new signings and a new manager in place, most Forest supporters would have been happy with a mid-table finish before the season began. The team looks capable of reaching that target but if they can find some consistency, they may even better it.

Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up podcast member and Nottingham Forest blogger

Steven tweets at @steven_toplis

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