Many thanks to Steven Toplis for this summary of the many ups and downs of 2011.
2011 has been quite a year for Nottingham Forest. During the past twelve months the club has had three managers, two chairmen, been on a push for promotion to the Premier League and fought an ongoing battle to avoid the drop into League One.
At the turn of the year, Forest were 8th in the Championship having thrashed Derby County 5-2 at the City Ground in their final match of 2010, sitting a point off the play-offs and with three games in hand on sides above them. As 2011 draws to a close they are in the bottom three with a minus 19 goal difference, attempting to claw their way out of relegation trouble. What a contrast.
On New Years’ Day Forest hosted Barnsley at the City Ground but went 2-0 down after a poor first half display. However in the second period they kept their 30-game unbeaten home record intact and earned a 2-2 draw thanks to Lewis McGugan’s penalty and Nathan Tyson’s strike.
Two days later they won 1-0 at Ipswich Town then 12 days later, completed an amazing turnaround against Portsmouth – managed by a certain Steve Cotterill. The Reds were 1-0 down with three minutes left and looked to be losing that unbeaten run at the City Ground but an own goal and a late, late header from Marcus Tudgay gave Forest three precious points as they kept up their chase for a play-off spot.
A week later, Forest travelled to Pride Park for the return fixture against Derby County, looking to get their first win at the stadium. After a tight affair, Rob Earnshaw swept home an 18-yard volley on 79 minutes to the delight of the travelling Reds fans behind the goal. Forest held on for a brilliant victory and completed their first double over Derby in 20 years, moving into 6th place in the table.
Three consecutive wins against Bristol City at home, Coventry City away and Watford on Trentside moved Forest up to second in the table, still with two games in hand on the sides below them and leaders QPR, who they would face next at Loftus Road. David McGoldrick equalised Tommy Smith’s opener for Rangers after Radi Majewski had been sent off for a reckless tackle on Adel Taarabt and Forest battled hard to earn a well-deserved 1-1 draw.
Things were looking promising, however February and March turned into frustrating months for Billy Davies’ side, as they lost one of their games in hand at Scunthorpe and, after beating Cardiff 2-1 at home in a pulsating encounter, drew three consecutive matches with Preston, Millwall and Middlesbrough. On March 5th, they lost at home in the league for the first time since September 2010, as Hull City won 1-0 to bring the 36-game unbeaten run at the City Ground to an end. Forest were down to fifth now, with their games in hand gone.
The Reds were defeated 2-1 at Sheffield United and drew at home with Doncaster, before the Reds lost their next three matches, all against promotion rivals, conceding eleven goals in the process as a usually tight defence began shipping goals left, right and centre – sound familiar?
Third-placed Swansea City beat Forest 3-2 at the Liberty Stadium, and then a resurgent Reading won at the City Ground in an incredible match. Despite Lewis McGugan’s 88th minute equaliser from the penalty spot, Luke Chambers turned a cross into his own net to hand the visitors a 4-3 victory. The following week they travelled to Elland Road to face Leeds in a match screened live on BBC One. Despite having the better of the early exchanges, Chris Cohen was unfairly sent off for a tackle on George McCartney and the Reds went on to lose 4-1. The Premier League dream was evaporating fast as fifth placed Leeds were four points better off and Reading, in sixth, had a game in hand.
However Forest lost just one of their remaining six fixtures, a 2-1 reversal away at Norwich, to beat Leeds to the final play-off spot by three points. The run included a dramatic late victory over Leicester City, a 5-1 home demolition over lowly Scunthorpe United and a 3-0 success at Crystal Palace on the final day of the season.
For the second season running it would be the play-offs for Forest, but in contrast to the previous year when the Reds finished third, supporters were relieved to be in the end-of-season lottery and Forest were considered underdogs as they faced Swansea over two legs in the semi-finals.
Two minutes into the first leg at a sold-out City Ground Forest were handed a big advantage when Swansea’s left-back Neil Taylor was sent off for a fierce tackle on Lewis McGugan, however the Reds could not make the man advantage count as Swansea held on for a 0-0 draw, enjoying good spells of possession and creating chances to score.
Forest had the ball in the back of the net through Rob Earnshaw’s header, but it was correctly ruled out for offside and they perhaps could have earned a penalty when Chris Cohen’s goal bound shot deflected off Alan Tate’s hand. However nothing was given and it was a frustrating night for the Reds as the travelling Swansea fans celebrated at the final whistle as if they were already at Wembley.
In the second leg Billy Davies surprised everyone by selecting the much-maligned Nathan Tyson and David McGoldrick up front, but it was the latter that sent a shot against the bar early on after a lung-busting run from Tyson. Swansea went into the break 2-0 having settled into the match and it seemed as if they would see the game out in the second half.
However Forest, with 45 minutes left to save their season, fought back and went close to a goal as Marcus Tudgay blazed a golden opportunity over and Lewis McGugan saw his rasping free-kick hit the crossbar. Earnshaw came off the bench and made the vital breakthrough with twelve minutes to go, racing onto Radoslaw Majewski’s pass before firing home to set up a grandstand finish.
Earnshaw nearly completed the comeback but saw his shot come back out off the post and roll agonisingly to safety, before having a penalty appeal turned down when his volley at goal was blocked by the hands of Swansea defender Ashley Williams. To compound Forest’s misery, Lee Camp came up for a final minute corner, McGugan slipped when it came out to him and Darren Pratley – the man at the centre of one of the longest-running Forest transfer sagas in recent memory – hit a shot from inside his own half which rolled into the empty Reds net and seal Swansea’s place in the final.
Heartbreak yet again for Forest in the play-offs, but this time there was a sense of pride in how the team performed, and had lady luck been on their side that night, who knows what could have happened.
As the coaches carrying the travelling Forest fans arrived back at the City Ground, manager Davies was there to meet and greet them and thank them for their support – a great gesture from the Scot. It would prove to be one of his final acts as Reds boss….