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!

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Oh ‘Eck! Turbulent times on Trentside – again …

18 01 2013


nottingham post‘With wealthy Kuwaiti owners and a new manager in situ, who has promised a busy January, few clubs outside the big six in the top flight have attracted so many rumours over the past few weeks.

Alex McLeish jokes that there will come a point in the future when even he finds out about Forest’s latest signings on Twitter.

But while the Reds boss says it has been a whirlwind for him, since he was appointed at the end of December,   it is nothing compared to the storm of speculation his arrival prompted…’

this is Nottingham.co.uk – the Nottingham Evening Post (online) – January 11th 2013

As I’m sitting here watching snowflakes spiralling towards the ground my first concern is whether tomorrow’s big East Midlands clash, at ‘Prideless Park’, will go ahead. If so, given the local road conditions, will I be able to get there in time for the 1.00pm kick off. Hopefully an update on the local situation will be available later today.

A much bigger concern, however, is the current state of my club. The last time I opined my ‘Views from the Trent End (Upper)…’ was in early October.

downloadBorne along by a groundswell of enthusiasm following the Kuwaiti takeover and the appointment of Sean O’Driscoll as manager I wrote, “I’ve been hugely impressed and excited by how SO’D’s team is developing. It’s very much a case of evolution rather than revolution, focussed on laying strong foundations, instilling good habits, enabling player to take more responsibility for making on pitch decisions. It’s been largely entertaining too. Football played on the floor with good levels of precision and skill – which only bodes well for the future.”       

I should have known better. How naïve I was to think that the recent turbulent times on Trent-side were over.

th (1)Up until now I’ve kept my powder dry on recent comings and goings at the City Ground, over what has been a stormy four-week post-Christmas period. But on the eve of our return match with ‘Direby’ and a week away from a home encounter with Gianfranco Zola’s in form Watford /Udinese – in effect the pivotal point of our season, the time is right to speak out again.

images (9)December 26th, a festive City Ground, Yuletide joy abounds as the Tricky ‘Christmas’ Trees un-wrap Warnock’s Leeds, 4-2, to place themselves one point outside the play-off places. Reds supporters set off, homeward bound, full of good cheer, with a seasonal spring in their step, and SO’D, pleased with the second half stuffing and roasting of the visitors, completes his post-match interviews.

It’s a case of ding dong merrily on high, until Forest fans flushed with success hear the breaking sports news. Peace and joy to all men, except Sean O’Driscoll. The Al Hasawis have given their manager the Christmas sack – SO’D’s law!

The goalposts have shifted. The patient 3-5 year plan, announced following the take-over, has morphed into a more urgent one-year promotion plan and apparently the thoroughly decent and well liked SO’D is not the man! But Fawaz knows a man who can…

…Well Alex Ferguson knows a man who can and Fawaz seems to be star-struck in his presence – so enough said…

_65246314_65246313…No it’s not to be a hero’s return to unfinished business for ‘King Billy’(Davies), but everybody’s worst nightmare – Big Eck, who turned down the Al Hasawis when they came calling in August, but has had a change of heart. Cue twitters of internet laughter from Glasgow to Brum, where he is everybody’s favourite villain.

I’m willing to give anybody a chance but, oh ‘eck, another ginger, whose surname begins with ‘M’. They don’t have a great track record at the City Ground. Think Megson, McClaren – the wally with the brolly – and now McLeish!

If SO’D’s departure split public opinion, and I was firmly for him remaining – to be judged at the end of the season – then McLeish’s appointment was almost universally unpopular.

images (4)True, his CV is not all bad; in fact it was half decent at Rangers where he was in direct opposition to most Forest fans’ dream managerial appointment, City Ground  legend Martin O’Neil, who enjoyed a particularly successful spell with Celtic.

There was also a year in charge of the Scotland national side during which they narrowly failed to qualify for the Euro 2008 finals, despite an historic away win in Paris – defeating France 1-0 at the Parc des Princes.

But south of the border his record is moderate, at best.

A four-year stint at St Andrews, in the blue-nose half of the second city was something of a roller coaster ride, relegation from the top-tier, followed by an immediate return, a season of mid-table Premiership stability, and finally the sweet champagne moment of a Wembley, Carling Cup Final victory, against Arsenal, soured by a dramatic final day of the season drop into the Championship.

images (7)If that wasn’t a bitter enough pill for the Beau Brummies to swallow, Big Eck then swore his allegiance to the claret and blue half of the city. Castigated on both sides of the divide, and vilified by the Villa Park faithful for the baggage he brought with him – a perceived, negative style of play – it always seemed a recipe for disaster, and so it proved.

He kept Villa in the Premiership, by the skin of their teeth, but in so doing alienated the supporters and lost the confidence of the owners. He was shown the door, leaving as, statistically, their worst manager ever, with a win percentage of only 21.4%.

These are early days, but I have to say I’m pretty underwhelmed so far. He vehemently denies a liking for the long ball approach and says he would prefer to play a passing game, but with added steel at the back.

images (2)In his first three games, in charge from the technical area, Forest have conceded seven goals, three in the second half away at Blackburn, three in the second half in a home FA Cup 3rd round exit against lowly League 1 Oldham, and one against Peterborough. He did, however manage a first City Ground win against the Posh.

On the plus side he has displayed a degree of ‘no messing’ with regard to soon out of contract, wanting away, goalkeeper Lee Camp, dropping him from the first team and telling him to find a new club and go.

This has meant throwing young, 22-year-old, prospect Karl Darlow in at the deep end. Not a bad thing, if he is as good as the goalkeeping coach Paul Barron says, and I wish the lad all the best. I hope he grasps his chance with both hands. But where is the back-up? We were promised an experienced keeper would be on his way soon, but instead the Kuwaiti international keeper Khalid Al-Rashid has washed up and we’re now told there will be no further goalkeepers arriving. By all accounts he looks useful – but hardly ‘experienced’ in terms of Championship football.

reyesDespite promises that the squad would be strengthened, with quality not quantity, the only addition to the first team squad during the current transfer window has been the loan signing of Chilean international fullback, Gonzalo Jara Reyes, from West Bromwich Albion.

Bids have been tabled for Peterborough midfielder George Boyd and Birmingham winger Chris Burke and rebuffed as derisory. Both would be welcome additions, but it raises the question is  there as much money available for transfers as we are led to believe?

images (10)Since the appointment of McLeish, Fawaz Al Hasawi and his family have been subjected to rank Twitter abuse by a moronic minority. This is totally unacceptable. As the chairman has intimated, in response, he respects supporter’s opinions but key appointments are his to make and the money is his to spend, as he sees fit – “judge me at end of the season”. It’s a pity he didn’t have the patience to follow a similar line with regard to Sean O’Driscoll.

I have to say the more I hear about the chairman, the less I like what I’m hearing, and the more concerned I am becoming for my club. There seems to be a developing trend of saying one thing and meaning another, making out of the blue decisions and pronouncements, intolerance towards those behind the scenes who aren’t in total agreement with him, and a growing interference with player recruitment and team selection.

This week, chief executive Mark Arthur, head of recruitment Keith Burt, and club ambassador Frank Clark have all left without any explanation from Fawaz. It is rumoured that Arthur left of his own volition after Burt and Clark had been notified of their dismissals by special delivery letter and told to stay away from the players and the ground.

Arthur was not popular with many fans due to his leadership of the fabled ‘acquisitions committee’ and was held responsible for failure to recruit players that might have made a difference to King Billy’s promotion push, the manager’s subsequent departure, and the ill-fated arrival of Steve McClaren.

FOREST1_2454996bClark, however, is much revered – a popular member of the 1979 European Cup winning team, the only manager to enjoy any sort of Premiership and European success, post Brian Clough, and chairman of the club in the dark days following the untimely death of Nigel Doughty.

Following the Kuwaiti takeover it was Fawaz who said, “Mr Clark will remain with us and he will be ambassador to Nottingham Forest and he will be close by us at all the time. We really admire this man and respect him quite highly.”  So what has changed?

If he was to be dismissed, why wasn’t he told face to face and why has he been ordered to stay away from the ground – he’s a true supporter?

Fasawi’s recent ruthless actions might have been made with the best of intentions but, frankly, they appear cowardly and lack class. Forest may not have been very successful in recent years but as a club they have always been considered well run and held in high regard. Under the current ownership the good name and the future of Nottingham Forest is in the balance. I fear that we could become the next club under foreign ownership, to become a Football League laughing-stock!

I hope I am wrong and that the Al Hasawis are successful in bringing long overdue success back to the City Ground. In urging fans to get behind Big Eck and the team, Fawaz believes that  twelve more wins will see us into the play-offs, and he obviously fancies our chances.

imagesThe next four fixtures are crucial. ‘Direby’ away, and Zola’s ‘Hornets’ at home, I’ve already mentioned. They are followed by an away day at one of McLeish’s former clubs, Birmingham, and a trip to Ashton Gate, where a certain Sean O’Driscoll has just filled the vacant manager’s seat.

We could, of course, win them all and the promotion push would be up and running. It’s what every Forest fan is hoping for – but without any real conviction. Equally, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that we could lose the lot. In which case, how ironic if SO’D’s Bristol City side should call time on his former club’s challenge!