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)
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…
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.’
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.
It 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.
As 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.
It 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.
The 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.
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.
His 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!