As you may have noticed, real life sometimes gets in the way of being able to write blogposts, so we hand over to our correspondent Steven Toplis to review a turbulent season:
On Saturday the curtain was brought down on Nottingham Forest’s season with a 2-0 home victory over already relegated Portsmouth. There was a feeling of relief that an eventful campaign was over, not to mention the fact that the Reds avoided joining their South Coast opponents in the depths of League One next season.
The fact Forest have been in a relegation battle tells only part of the story of a campaign which has seen managerial changes, a new chairman, not to mention the tragic death of the club’s main benefactor. It has been one of the most tumultuous seasons in the club’s long history.
On June 12th 2011, manager Billy Davies was sacked and Forest were immediately reported to be in talks with former England boss Steve McClaren regarding the vacant manager’s position. Within days he was unveiled as the man who would hopefully take the Reds one step further than Davies could, into the Premier League after two successive, dramatic defeats in the Championship play-offs.
McClaren began reshaping the squad, bringing in Jonathan Greening from Fulham, veteran midfielder George Boateng, former Blackburn frontman Matt Derbyshire and ex-Reds winger Andy Reid. Guy Moussi penned a new contract with the club, while Dele Adebola, Robert Earnshaw, Paul McKenna, Nathan Tyson and Kelvin Wilson all moved elsewhere on free transfers. The club’s Achilles heel of years gone by – a permanent left-back – did not arrive though!
Forest were placed among the favourites for promotion, alongside the likes of relegated West Ham United and big-spending Leicester City and as the Reds lined up on the opening day of the season there was some excitement amongst the fans at what the season could bring. A drab 0-0 home stalemate with Barnsley was perhaps a pre-cursor of what was to come.
In August Forest played five league games, winning one against Doncaster Rovers, drawing with Barnsley and Leicester at home and losing twice, to Millwall at the New Den then finding themselves on the wrong end of a 4-1 scoreline to Sam Allardyce’s West Ham in front of a disgruntled City Ground crowd.
The only highlight of the opening month of the season was a thrilling Carling Cup tie against neighbours Notts County, the first competitive Nottingham derby in 17 years. Notts could – and probably should – have won the match but with the score 3-2 to the visitors, Wes Morgan slammed a 25-yard drive in off the bar with the last kick of the game, to take the match into extra-time and silence the thousands of Magpie fans behind the goal in the Bridgford Stand. Forest prevailed on spot-kicks and two weeks later, won 4-1 at Wycombe Wanderers to set up a third round tie at home to Newcastle United.
Back in the league a 3-2 defeat at Southampton was then followed by the big early-season fixture, Derby County at the City Ground. Despite going a goal ahead through Andy Reid and finding themselves playing against ten men after Frank Fielding was sent off, Forest allowed the visitors a way back into the match. Jamie Ward scored a controversial equaliser as Chris Cohen lay stricken on the turf with a serious knee injury that would signal the end of his involvement for the season, before Jeff Hendrick sent 6,000 travelling Rams fans into raptures as he netted the winning goal eighteen minutes from the end.
Three days later, Alan Pardew’s Newcastle United were on Trentside for the Carling Cup tie which ended up a thriller, as Forest took the game to their Premier League opponents. However goals from Robbie Findley, Matt Derbyshire and Marcus Tudgay would not be enough as Fabriccio Coloccini nodded the winning goal deep into extra-time to send Newcastle through 4-3.
Forest, who had been resolute defensively for the previous two seasons, were shipping goals with an alarming consistency, following up a 1-0 success at Watford with a 5-1 hammering at the hands of Burnley at Turf Moor to leave the Reds a point above the drop zone and increase the pressure on Steve McClaren.
Ishmael Miller had arrived towards the end of August, signed for a £1.2 million fee from West Brom, but Dutch winger Wesley Verhoek pulled out of a £2 million move to Nottingham at the eleventh hour, citing homesickness as his reason.
As the fans becoming more disillusioned with their side’s poor form, a small minority decided to stage a protest against the board before Forest’s next home match against Birmingham City. As 200 or so supporters chanted outside the City Ground gates for Chairman Nigel Doughty and Chief Executive Mark Arthur to exit the club, even they would have not predicted what would happen on that Sunday afternoon.
Despite an improved performance against the Blues, Forest’s defensive woes came back to haunt them as they succumbed to a 3-1 defeat. Boos rang out at the final whistle and it would prove to be the end of McClaren’s 112-day reign at the City Ground, the 50-year-old resigning from his post after the match, blaming the club’s failure to back him in the transfer market. What was more surprising however was Chairman Nigel Doughty’s decision to step down from his position that night.
Forest legend Frank Clark was appointed chairman and on October 17th, Forest had a new manager, former Notts County boss Steve Cotterill, who joined from Portsmouth on a three and a half year deal. The appointment was seen as an underwhelming move in the eyes of many supporters, but the new man got off to the best possible start.
Cotterill won his first match in charge, a 2-0 Tuesday night home win over Middlesbrough at the City Ground, before beating Blackpool 2-1 at Bloomfield Road the following Saturday thanks to goals from Wes Morgan and Radoslaw Majewski. Defeats to Hull and Portsmouth were sandwiched between home wins over Reading and Ipswich Town, and it seemed as if Cotterill’s motivational skills had got the team back in form as they moved away from the drop zone.
However Forest were about to embark on a dreadful run of form, as they failed to win any of their next seven games and failed to find the back of the net in all of them. The Reds lost 1-0 at Cardiff City before being outplayed on their home turf as Leeds United put four past them, as the Reds failed to turn up on the night.
A much-improved performance at Brighton followed but the Reds were unluckily beaten 1-0 in Sussex to further cement themselves in the bottom three. A poor showing against Crystal Palace was punished with another home defeat, before Forest claimed a point on the road at fellow strugglers Bristol City.
It was becoming clear that Cotterill was struggling to work with the squad he inherited. He did address the left-back issue by bringing in Manchester City youngster Greg Cunningham on loan. The manager’s job was always going to be a difficult one after what had gone before, but Cotterill was appointed having gained a reputation for working well on small budgets and getting the most out of limited resources.
Forest’s disappointing end to 2011 continued as they lost a further two home games in succession, to Peterborough United and Cardiff. On Boxing Day former Reds loanee George Boyd came back to haunt Forest as he netted the only goal of a drab game to send Darren Ferguson’s side home with the points. On New Years’ Eve it was a similar story as Kenny Miller’s second half header saw Cardiff win 1-0 after a poor Reds display.
After failing to give the fans much to shout about over the festive period, Forest entered 2012 three points adrift of safety, sat 22nd in the Championship table. A year earlier they had just hammered Derby 5-2 at the City Ground and were well on their way to forging another play-off push.
The sharp decline in fortunes in such a short space of time was a major disappointment, but could the New Year bring new impetus and optimism to a poor season? Only time would tell….