Forest’s chaotic win at Bramall Lane was their season in microcosm

Forest’s chaotic win at Bramall Lane was their season in microcosm
Forest’s chaotic win at Bramall Lane was their season in microcosm

The story of an entire season, wrapped up in the microcosm of one dramatic, draining rollercoaster of a Premier League game.

Nottingham Forest have put their fans through an emotional wringer over the past nine months.

But never more so than at Bramall Lane on Saturday, where, in the space of 100 (with stoppages) dramatic minutes of football, Forest managed to encapsulate many of the reasons why they found themselves teetering on the precipice of a return to the Championship before then taking a massive step closer to top-flight survival.

Following the play-off final win at Wembley in May 2022, Ryan Yates celebrated promotion in front of 37,000 jubilant Forest supporters by lying on the pitch and ‘swimming’.

The chant of, “If Yatesy scores, we’re in the Trent” — the river that flows past the club’s City Ground stadium — had become a constant during that promotion season. Away against Blackpool, the wording was changed from the Trent to “the sea”; during games in London, it became “the Thames”.

Almost two years on, the midfielder was able to finally replicate that moment after the final whistle against Sheffield United, where the celebrations, while limited to dry land, felt no less significant.

They may well have needed a lifeguard under Trent Bridge on Saturday night.

Forest supporters have had to wait a long time for academy graduate Yates to score his first Premier League goal — this was his 59th appearance — but he picked the perfect moment to get it, after making his 200th Forest appearance against last weekend.

At the end of the game, Danilo and Ola Aina physically dragged Yates out in front of the away end, forcing him to take his moment in the spotlight. The joy on the faces of his team-mates told a significant story. Yates is a popular figure in the dressing room.

But, amid the delight, there will also have been relief. Because for 45 minutes, the story had threatened to be very different.

Forest’s first-half performance underlined everything that has been the catalyst for their second straight fight against relegation: fragility, missed chances and frustration.

The half-time score was 1-1. But United could have been 3-1 ahead. It could also easily have been three each.

Murillo and Willy Boly somehow managed to be individually brilliant in the heart of defense, while simultaneously being at the center of a back four that repeatedly parted like the Red Sea, long before Yates was ready for his pantomime dip.


Ryan Yates finally scored his first Premier League goal (Rich Linley – CameraSport via Getty Images)

Forest’s approach in the transfer market has, understandably, caused surprise in the past two years.

In their first three windows back in the top flight, they invested £250million ($313m) in 42 new signings. In January this year, they added another three recruits to the tally. But amid the chaos, there have been some hugely cunning investments.

Forest feel Murillo — signed for £11million from Brazilian club last August — is now worth at least £70m.

It is hard to escape the notion that Boly — who cost an initial £2.25million when he joined from fellow Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers in that first post-promotion summer — had not been sidelined for so long with injury this season, Forest would have been in a much healthier position already thanks to his composure and experience. This was only Boly’s fourth start since Nuno Espirito Santo, his former manager at Wolves, was appointed in December.

Again, the scoreline could have been anything in that first half. United had a half-time expected-goals (xG) figure of 1.81 and at least four clear chances. They had nine shots on goal in those opening 45 minutes, three of which were on target and four that were blocked.

The home side opened the scoring after Gonzalo Montiel lost his footing and slid into a clumsy challenge on Ben Brereton Diaz, another Forest academy graduate, who duly converted from the penalty spot.

The fact United did not score again was particularly down to the stubborn determination of Murillo — he blocked three shots and made five clearances, four interceptions and two tackles, at least two of which were goal-saving — Boly and goalkeeper Matz Sels.

Both Matt Turner and Odysseas Vlachodimos had found themselves in the spotlight for the wrong reasons in the first half of the campaign, as the goalkeeper position proved to be a worrying Achilles’ heel for Forest, despite a £20million investment to sign the United States and Greece internationals last summer.

It is a positive sign that Sels, a Belgium international, has rarely been the focus of attention, since signing from France’s Strasbourg on the winter window’s deadline day for £5million. But he made three big saves to keep Forest in this game, at a time when the fans in the far end would have been watching through their fingers.

The fees paid for Murillo, Boly and Sels all look like good value. But the £3million, with another £2m in potential add-ons, invested in Callum Hudson-Odoi on the final day of last summer’s window increasingly appears to be an outstanding bit of business.

The 23-year-old has now scored seven goals in his 18 Premier League starts and nine sub appearances for Forest, comfortably eclipsing the four he got for his previous club Chelsea in 32 league starts and another 40 games off the bench.

The exciting thing is that you sense Hudson-Odoi will only get better; that there is more to come from a man once considered one of the brightest talents of his generation as he won three full England caps as a teenager in 2019.

Almost every goal he scores comes from the same blueprint: collect possession wide on the left, cut inside, produce some nifty footwork to position yourself for a right-footed shot, then fire the ball across goal and inside the far post. Defenders surely know what is coming yet, somehow, they still cannot stop it. United couldn’t, and Hudson-Odoi was unlucky not to add to the goals he scored either side of half-time with further similar moments.

With those two goals, I have transformed the mood from one of trepidation and fear into one of hope and optimism. Such has been the pattern for Forest for months. It has been a season of wild extremes.

Last May, Forest beat Arsenal at the City Ground in their penultimate game to be mathematically safe from relegation. over another London club when they host Chelsea on Saturday — without taking anything for granted — would achieve the same.

However, Forest is still waiting to discover the outcome of their appeal hearing over the four-point deduction they received in March for breaching profit and sustainability rules (PSR). News of that is not expected before Tuesday.

Second-bottom Burnley will join United in relegation if Forest are handed two or more points back — and it feels unsavory that their fate could be confirmed in this manner. But Forest can only focus on their own situation.

Yates has pledged that he will go for an actual swim in the Trent if safety is secured. Which would be a welcome end to a season during which, for long periods, Forest looked as though they were destined to sink.

(Top photo: Rich Linley – CameraSport via Getty Images)

 
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