When Billy Davies returned as Nottingham Forest manager at the start of February, few would have predicted the impact he has had at the club after a few weeks at the helm.
One draw and six straight wins from his first seven games in charge represent a dramatic turnaround in the club’s fortunes. The Scot began his second spell in charge with Forest 13th in the table and six points adrift of the playoff places. The unbeaten run that’s followed has moved the Reds up to fifth place, one point ahead of seventh placed Brighton & Hove Albion, who they face at The City Ground on Saturday.
When Alex McLeish left Forest on February 5th after just 40 days in charge, the club’s season looked as good as over. The former Aston Villa and Birmingham City boss had struggled to make an impact at Forest, winning only one of his seven games in charge and struggling to get the players performing to their full potential. The Reds had fallen away from the top six as a result.
Billy Davies has come in and got the team firing. He has not made any additions to the squad or made any noises about wishing to add to it, as he was prone to doing during his previous spell as boss, but he has managed to get a talented squad performing to their best, which the results back up.
After a 1-1 draw with Bolton Wanderers in his first match in charge – which arguably should have ended in a victory for Forest but for Adam Bogdan’s excellent performance in the Bolton goal – Davies’ first win came as Forest thrashed Huddersfield Town 6-1. Radoslaw Majewski netted a first half hat-trick against the Yorkshire side and then carried that goalscoring form into the following matches.
The midfielder netted in Forest’s next two games, the 2-0 win over Charlton Athletic and a 1-0 televised victory at Sheffield Wednesday. His improvement in form under Davies earned him a recall to the Poland national team, playing in their World Cup qualifiers against Ukraine and San Marino.
Another midfielder who has improved since Davies’ arrival is Henri Lansbury. The £1 million summer signing from Arsenal had initially struggled to make an impact at Forest due to injury, but since regaining full fitness and being given regular gametime by Davies he has put in some impressive performances. He netted the second goal at Charlton and also scored twice to help Forest beat Wolverhampton Wanderers 3-1 on March 9th, a result which took Forest into the playoff places.
Lewis McGugan has also upped his game since being reunited with Billy Davies. He has had to settle with coming off the bench but he has made an impact, scoring against Wolves and also netting the winning goals against Ipswich and Hull City. McGugan is a naturally gifted player, who has often been criticised for his attitude and application in the past. He enjoyed his best campaign under Davies in the 2010-11 season and even his teammates took to Twitter to joke that “dad” had come back to look after him.
McGugan’s strike at Hull was significant, as it secured victory for Forest against a genuine promotion contender. Despite going unbeaten for six games and winning five of them prior to the game, some observers had argued that Davies’ Forest were yet to face a side at the top end of the table and that the real test would come at the KC Stadium on March 16th.
George Boyd, whose proposed deadline day move to Forest was reportedly cancelled due to a failed eye exam, opened the scoring for Hull and celebrated in front of the Forest fans by mimicking wearing glasses with his fingers. Despite this setback, Forest dug in and equalised through Darius Henderson early in the second half. With six minutes remaining McGugan latched onto Billy Sharp’s pass to fire home and secure an impressive 2-1 win against Steve Bruce’s second-placed outfit. The result will have made the clubs around Forest in the table stand up and take notice.
The team as a whole have improved under Davies’ guidance, which is a key factor behind Forest’s rapid rise up the table. The defence have stopped leaking goals and look far tougher to break down, the midfield is creating chances and the strikers, whilst not scoring many themselves, are working tirelessly to keep hold of the ball and create space for the attacking midfielders to utilise.
Chris Cohen has done well at left-back since being moved there by Davies. Cohen has spent the majority of his six-year Forest career playing in midfield, filling it at left-back on occasion, but he has adapted to the role in the past seven games admirably. Cohen always plays with great energy and it is this which allows him to bomb forward to support the attack, but also means he can get back to perform defensive duties when required.
During the side’s unbeaten run Darius Henderson is the only striker to have found the net, but the work-rate of the frontmen – whether it is Henderson, Dexter Blackstock, Simon Cox or Billy Sharp – have provided ample opportunities for the midfielders to score.
The Forest squad is lacking a winger or two who can provide pace and width, so Davies has opted for a 4-4-2 diamond formation, with Adlene Guedioura anchoring, Lansbury and Majewski ahead of him and Andy Reid playing behind the front two. This setup has got the best out of the midfielders currently at the club and allowed Forest to enjoy good spells of possession during games. Forest are playing some attractive passing football, much like they did during Davies’ previous tenure as boss.
Off the field, several changes have taken place in the past month. John Pemberton departed his role as performance development coach following Davies’ arrival as expected, while press officer Fraser Nicholson and other staff members have also lost their jobs. The club are yet to comment on these departures, presumably for legal reasons, but it looks like these exits are part of the restructuring of the club behind the scenes.
One positive move has been to bring back Ian McParland as the club’s Under-21 coach. McParland left Forest in 2007 after spending a decade at the club as coach, which included a spell as joint-caretaker manager in 2006. He was a popular figure at the City Ground and it is good to see him return. Hopefully in his new role he can help many of the club’s young players bridge the gap between the Academy and first-team in the future.
In recent years several clubs in the Championship have picked up form late in the campaign and gone on to win promotion, most notably Reading, Blackpool and Swansea City. Forest have put themselves in a great position to do something similar with their run of form, but considering where the club was at the beginning of February, to be fifth in the table as it stands is a tremendous achievement from the manager and players. The big task now facing them is to stay in the top six.
Forest will equal a club record of seven straight league victories – set in 1922 – if they beat fellow promotion contenders Brighton at the City Ground on Saturday afternoon. A bumper crowd is expected for the match, which could prove pivotal in deciding where the Reds finish this season. Victory would pull them further away from Gus Poyet’s side, who will no doubt provide stern opposition, while defeat would continue to leave the race for the playoffs wide open.
However, with confidence high on Trentside there’s no reason why Forest can’t collect all three points and equal that 91-year-old club record in the process.
Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up’s Nottingham Forest blogger
Steven tweets at @steven_toplis