The East Midlands derby – Big Eck’s Reds growing in stature…

22 01 2013

sp-mcleish-getty“…it was a positive end to a difficult week.

The players showed tremendous character, and it was nice to stop Derby’s winning run.”

“I am pleased we got something from the game, but disappointed it was not three points.”

“I thought the referee had a terrific game, he showed all his experience. He didn’t bow down to all the noise from the home fans. That can be intimidating for referees.”

“I think these guys have a good chance of climbing further up the table but I would like to have an even better chance by adding new players.”

Alex McLeish – ‘Big Eck’ – (Nottingham Forest manager)

download (1)The chill factor was high, around Derby’s Pride Park Stadium, and old football pals, Clough and Taylor, were eyeing the fans’ arrival with icy stares, before the eagerly anticipated, early Saturday kick off. Despite significant snowfalls earlier in the week, under-soil heating would ensure the pitch was fit for play and an army of support staff had cleared the white stuff from the surrounding concourse and approach roads, ensuring supporter safety.

Derby were more than keen for the game to go ahead and why wouldn’t they be? The match was a 33,000 sell-out, the Rams were on a roll with three consecutive home wins, and victories in the last three East Midland derby encounters tucked under their belts.

As the countdown clocks ticked on, the gathering crowd was visibly thawing, fired with pre-match bravado. By the time the players emerged from the tunnel, the Pride Park cauldron was bubbling with expectation…

images (2)It had been another difficult week at Nottingham Forest, where club chairman Fawaz Al Hasawi continued to show his ruthless streak with three out of the blue sackings (notified by recorded delivery letter) hard on the heels of the Boxing Day dismissal of, previous manager, Sean O’Driscoll.

New man in charge of the team, Alex McLeish, seemed as bemused as everybody else at the multiple sackings of chief executive Mark Arthur, head of recruitment Keith Burt and club ambassador Frank Clark. But Big Eck, no stranger to off the pitch turmoil, had seen it all before and assured reporters the players would remain focused, ‘The world is still turning and they have to get on with it.’

Derby v NFFC - Champ- 19.01.13 - (1-1)It was therefore a relief to leave Pride Park with something to smile about, but that smile might have been broader. At the end of a hard-fought ninety minutes it finished all square, a 1-1 draw, but could have and should have been a Forest victory. They were the better team, played the better football, and had the better chances to win the game.

If either the first half effort from Simon Cox, that cannoned off the crossbar, substitute Dexter Blackstock’s downward header, from six yards out, that bounced up and over, or the Sharp turn and shot, late on, that whistled a whisker wide of post, had rippled the back of the net, Forest would have deservedly travelled back along the A52  with all three points, the Brian Clough Trophy and local bragging rights.

Derby had opened the brighter of the two East Midlands rivals, but Forest steadied themselves, after a nervy start, gradually easing their way into the game. After Cox rattled the Derby bar the visitors visibly grew in confidence playing, increasingly, on the front foot.

cohenIt was following a concerted period of Forest pressure that the ball fell invitingly to Chris Cohen. But as, Derby defender, Mark O’Brien shaped to block the anticipated volley, the Forest midfielder’s ‘fresh air shot’ unwittingly wrong footed him. The ball sat up nicely and Cohen was able to complete a composed finish, at the second time of asking.

It was a sweet moment for the Forest player in his 300th league game, since joining the Tricky Trees from Yeovil Town, and sixteen months after rupturing his cruciate ligament against Derby at the City Ground.

It looked as if a single goal would be enough, with Forest looking in complete control during the opening exchanges of the second half. That is until the diminutive Simon Gillett, normally so reliable when receiving and passing the ball on in difficult areas of the pitch, made a mistake that will haunt him for years to come.

jamie-ward_2456504bAs tireless Derby striker Conor Sammon, ever a chaser of lost causes, bore down on Forest’s holding midfielder he took one touch too many and was caught in possession. Sammon slipped the ball invitingly into the flight path of Jamie Ward, buzzing up on his shoulder, and the waspish winger stuck away Derby’s only clear-cut chance of the game, stinging Gillett for his uncharacteristic error.

At that point, I admit to fearing the worst. But Alex McLeish surprised me, with his bold changes, and rose considerably in my estimation. I was fully expecting a defensive substitution and an anxious final half as a rejuvenated Derby mounted a grandstand finish.

Instead, Big Eck introduced a third striker. Soon to be out of contract Dexter Blackstock, subject of  mischievous pre-match rumours about a likely bid from Derby, was thrown into the fray, and the powerful Guy Moussi brought into centre midfield, a like for like substitution for Gillett who was wobbling a little after his fatal mistake.

Subsequently it was Forest who pressed forward for the winner, the Rams defenders who were engaged in last-ditch defending, and the supporters in black and white willing referee Mark Clattenburg to blow the final whistle.

article_1d446006b0153cf4_1351455046_9j-4aaqskIt might not have been a great spectacle, local-derby matches rarely are, but it had been a full-blooded, high tempo affair, and Clattenburg, so often a  controversial official, on this occasion drew wisely on his Premiership experience, allowing the game to flow and keeping the lid on things. There were no ‘howlers’, no red cards and for the first time in the last five meetings between the sides both teams finished with a full complement of players.

How different from earlier in the season when an inexperienced, ‘fast-tracked’, referee, Robert Madley wilted in the pressure cooker City Ground atmosphere, allowing Derby to get away with illegal challenge after illegal challenge and then, having been conned by Derby captain Keogh into red-carding Dexter Blackstock for a spurious elbowing incident in an innocuous aerial challenge, allowed the game to spiral out of control.

downloadThe East Midlands derby is far more than just another local rivalry. Despite fairly tame beginnings, there is now a genuine hatred between supporters. The seeds of such intense animosity were sown as late as the 70’s when Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, having picked up the 1st Division Championship and taken Derby to a semi-final of the European Cup, walked out of the old Baseball Ground on a matter of principle. It wasn’t too long before Cloughy washed up on the banks of the Trent, albeit via a couple of short stays at Leeds and Brighton, and the rest as they say is history.

images (1)Reunited, Clough and Taylor, the dynamic duo, brought unprecedented success to the City Ground and a 1978 League title followed by back to back European Cup victories still sticks in the craw of Derby supporters.

In more recent years, the comings and goings of a string of players and managers who dared to cross the great divide, and in so doing kissed the badge of both clubs, has only served to add further fuel to the fire – one which continued to blaze even in Saturday’s sub-zero temperatures.

The bitter acrimony reached an all-time low last season when Forest, battling for Championship survival, visited Pride Park shortly after the untimely and tragic death of Chairman and lifelong Forest supporter Nigel Doughty, to be greeted by vitriolic chants (from a significant minority of Derby fans) of, ‘Where’s your chairman gone?’ and ‘You’re going down with your chairman!’

I have to say, on Saturday, I was ashamed of an equally distasteful Forest chant (referring to a recent tragic news story) ‘You sheep sh*gging b*stards kill your own kids.’  There should be absolutely no place in football banter for this type of sick ‘humour’.

But, to end on a brighter note, Alex McLeish won quite a few Forest fans over on Saturday. Big Eck needed a good performance from his team and a decent result, to indicate that he is beginning to get to grips with the job of challenging for a top six finish.

Gonzalo-Jara-Jamie-Ward-Derby-v-Nottingham-Fo_2888146His players delivered for him on most fronts and this performance suggests the Reds are a team starting to grow in stature. They looked well-balanced, played with greater width, using both flanks to better effect, and defended more resolutely. They posed a constant threat at corners and set pieces, and there were a number of encouraging performances, notably, Henri Lansbury in midfield, Gonzalo Jara at full-back and young goalkeeper Karl Darlow, who in only his second Championship outing seemed totally un-phased by the hostile atmosphere – in fact he seemed to relish it.

All very promising signs ahead of a must win home game next Saturday. Bring on the Hornets!


The Brian Clough Way…

19 03 2012

The Brian Clough Way:

‘If God had wanted us to play football in the sky, he’d have put grass up there.’

‘If I had an argument with a player we would sit down for twenty minutes, talk about it then decide I was right!’

“I gave my players a version of the same message at ten to three every Saturday: ‘I would shoot my granny right now for three points this afternoon.’ They knew how important it was to give everything in the cause for victory. That’s why my granny enjoyed more lives than my cat.”

‘I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.’

Brian Clough (1935-2004)


Last Tuesday I drove the a stretch of A52 that links Nottingham and Derby, the ‘Brian Clough Way’ – named in honour of  the controversial, outspoken, football genius who managed clubs in both cities. 

It was my first visit to Derby’s Pride Park Stadium. The match, originally scheduled for February, had been called off due to heavy snowfall. In previous years I had never been able to secure a, highly sought after, ticket for this away fixture between fierce East Midlands rivals. That I had managed to do so, this season, says a lot about Forest’s current dire predicament. 

As a spectacle, it will not live long in the memory. Whole hearted hoof ball, with neither side able to put together the type of fluent passing move that would have had Old Big ‘Ead purring. There were precious few attempts on goal and the game had nil-nil written all over it.

That is until the fifth minute of time added on, following a serious looking leg injury suffered by Derby’s Nottingham born captain, centre-back Shaun Barker.   

Forest, down to ten men, following the 90th minute dismissal of striker Marcus Tudgay for a second yellow-card offence, were harshly penalised for ‘foot up’ against Jonathan Greening, as Ben Davies ducked into the ball.

Derby substitute Jake Buxton, climbed highest to get a head on the resulting free-kick and, somewhat fortuitously, the Rams found themselves celebrating a first double over the Reds since the 1971-72 league championship winning season, under Clough senior, 40 years ago.      

In his match report, ‘The Independent’ sports correspondent, Phil Shaw, referred to ‘bad blood’ that exists between the Tricky Trees and their woolly backed local rivals.

Certainly red-blooded fans were left harbouring further grudges following a string of totally inappropriate chants from a, not insignificant, minority of home supporters, about the recently deceased Forest chairman, Nigel Doughty.

The Pride Park club was somewhat less than proud of those ‘black sheep’ who had forced them into making an official apology for the, ‘Where’s your chairman gone?’ and, ‘You’re going down with your chairman,’ taunts directed at visiting players and supporters.

Disappointingly, ‘our Nigel’, Clough the younger , chose to sling a deaf-un, shepherding his Derby flock from any criticism with the derisive post-match claim that he had not heard any offensive chanting.

Increasingly, it seems, the former Forest ‘number 9’, who ran out for the Reds on 403 occasions – scoring 131 goals, shows no regard or respect at all for his old club, since taking charge at Pride Park.         

It’s a pity the ‘young man’ didn’t see fit to chastise the offenders in a way his old Dad would undoubtedly have done. BC wasn’t averse to clipping a few ears, as I recall!

It is certainly not overstating the case to say that the current enmity existing between the two sets of supporters has never been quite so so pronounced. But it wasn’t always the case…

Back in the early/mid ‘60s Derby were a lowly, second-rate, second division outfit (some would say they still are) before a certain brash upstart of a young manager, one Brian Howard Clough, and his trusty assistant, Peter Taylor, set about assembling a Rolls Royce team out of spare parts. It was to become something of a specialism.

At that time Forest were flying relatively high in the old first division and local bragging rights were all centred on derby games against the Filbert Street Foxes, Leicester City.

I well remember the weekly letters page in the Nottingham Football Post of that time (sadly a casualty of the electronic media age) published regular correspondence from the mysterious ALF (‘Ardent Leicester Fan’) winding up his Trent-side adversaries.

I watched my first ever local derby from the old Popular Side terrace (now the lower Brian Clough Stand), wedged against the white-washed perimeter wall, as Forest took on Leicester in front of 47,188 City Ground fans. It was 1966-7, the Reds were marching towards European qualification (for the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup) as League runners-up – their highest ever finish, at that time.

There was no Tricky Tree on the shirt in those days, but two Royal Stags, taken from the city’s coat of arms. Forest won 1-0 thanks to a cheeky opportunistic goal from my boyhood hero Ian Storey-Moore, who cleverly headed a low bouncing ball beneath the advancing figure of Leicester’s World Cup winning keeper Gordon Banks.   

By the 1969-70 season Forest’s bubble was not flying quite so high and ‘Cloughy’ was becoming an increasingly noisy and irritating neighbour, the bleating Sheep having gained promotion and, very much, a team in the ascendency.

When I took up my position alongside the mud heap that was the old Baseball Ground pitch, it was more in hope than anticipation that Forest could cause an upset in the first top flight meeting between the two clubs since 1906.                                

But for once Old Big ‘Ead, or young big ‘ead as he was back  then, came unstuck and was made to eat his provocative pre-match words.

It was Storey-Moore again, who rose highest, in the cloying penalty area, to head an early Forest corner into the roof of the net, steadying red and white nerves, and Barry Lyons (an under-rated right-winger) late in the game, who fired low into the corner, to seal a 2-0 victory, sending hordes of black and white scarves flocking towards the exits.

The following 1970-71 season, having lost two successive City Ground derbies, Storey-Moore was the goal scoring scourge of the Baseball Ground again, along with mid-fielder Paul Richardson, as Forest pulled off a surprise 2-1 win, under floodlights.   

I would suggest, the first seeds, of the current animosity that exists amongst Forest supporters towards Derby, were sown in the 1971-72 season. The Rams were in their pomp, winning the League Championship. The Reds were relegated. Derby completed the double over Forest, but it would be 40 years before they did so again  – hence their immense relief and joy last week.

However, what upset the Reds faithful most was how Clough and Taylor, in their inimitable fashion, set about trying to capture the jewel in Forest’s toppled crown – Ian Storey-Moore.

It was already bad enough that Alan Hinton (left-wing) Frank Wignall (centre forward), both with international caps to their name, and Terry Hennessy (a cultured Welsh centre back and inspirational Forest captain) who had all worn the Garibaldi with distinction, were now plying their trade with Derby.

Forest fans had accepted, that with relegation looming, Storey-Moore would be on his way to a top club – but please, surely not to them. However that nightmare scenario seemed to be playing out, when pictures of a smiling IS-M appeared, plastered all over the back pages of the Sunday papers, being paraded around the ring, by C&T, and introduced to Baseball Ground crowd fans, as their newly captured prize Ram.

Fortunately the Forest man had not yet put pen to paper and a last-ditch bid from Manchester United diverted him up the road to Old Trafford. It was a narrow escape. I consoled myself with the thought that my hero never really wanted to move along the A52 anyway, but was being driven in that direction by a Forest board keen to cash in wherever they could. I suppose we’ll never really know.

But how could either set of fans then, have known that three years or so down the line, the winds of fate would send Brian Clough breezing into the City Ground, hell-bent on making Direby (and Leeds United) pay for allowing what they’d once held slip through their fingers.  

Having stepped away from the dark-side, born again Brian took up the mantle of Messiah, bringing with him his faithful disciple Peter. BC, seemingly, could walk on the Trent. He certainly resurrected Forest, raising them to heights that will never be revisited and re-igniting the flames of rivalry with his former club which still rage to this day.

So much of that ‘bad blood’, which Phil Shaw referred to, can be traced back to BC, the greatest manager that both teams and sets of supporters have ever known. When he was against you – you hated him. When he was for you – you adored him. Simple as that really.

And which of his teams did BC love the best? Well I think we know the answer to that one – don’t we? 

Derby was a brief infatuation that promised much but ended, in bitter acrimony, with a walk out and a slamming of the door. 

Forest was an enduring, eighteen year, love affair which bore two European Cups and countless Wembley occasions, before fizzing out and drowning in tears – ending in a whimper not a bang.       

Cloughy, a huge Sinatra fan, just like Ol’ Blue Eyes, always did it his way. Football won’t see his like again. Thanks for the memories.