Opinion: Nottingham Forest are dark horses for promotion
Bersant Celina of Swansea City vies for possession with Ben Watson of Nottingham Forest on September 14, 2019 in Wales. (Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images)

Returning home

If anyone knows not to get carried away, it’s  Forest fans. For 20 years it’s been the same old story: early promise, followed by a managerial casualty, followed by a decline in the league table come May.

There have been, without doubt, some memorable moments: Ben Osborn’s last gasp winner at Pride Park in 2015, that Lewis McGugan free kick in 2010, or Derby County’s myriad play-off mishaps. But the overriding emotion among the faithful is one of frustration. The frustration is both at the ascension of clubs around them, and at the chronic stagnation of their club.

Nottingham Forest need Premier League football, Evangelos Marinakis - Forest’s egotistical billionaire owner - needs the Premier League.

Whilst on the flip-side, the Premier League needs Forest. It needs their history, the unwavering support and the city.

This task, though, is not one for the faint-hearted.  Even the biggest names have crippled under the pressure. Martin O’Neill, Steve McClaren and ‘Psycho’ Stuart Pearce will not exactly look back on their time at the City Ground with immense fondness, while others like Billy Davies have flattered to deceive. It leaves the charismatic Sabri Lamouchi with an opportunity to write his name into the history books, and so far, he’s making Forest fans believe.

Embed from Getty Images

Story so far

The season began with a sell-out City Ground, an increasingly frequent occurrence over the past couple of years, at home to West Bromwich Albion under the Sky Sports cameras. Matty Cash fired the hosts in front early, but the fluidity and trickery of the young West Brom squad proved too much for a disjointed Forest side with seven changes from last season’s final match at home to Bolton Wanderers.

They learned, and they moved on.

Two tricky away games ensued - a trip to Elland Road in a typically feisty encounter against promotion-favourites Leeds United , followed by a journey to the capital to face a Charlton Athletic side who had also made a bright start to EFL Championship life. It was, in both games, mastery in the art of defending that saw Forest grind out two 1-1 draws. Under the cosh for large parts, veteran Michael Dawson and hot-prospect Joe Worrall proved imperious at the back, while Ben Watson provided astute cover in front of the defence.

Yet, as well as being defensively organised and possessing physical prowess within the squad, Forest have other facets to their game. The Reds have displayed a  frightening ability in possession , culiminating most notably in two rampant 3-0 victories at home to Derby County and Birmingham City, where Forest were really able to open up and play some expansive football.

Embed from Getty Images

Although it’s only September, Lamouchi's side is oozing balance and flexibility, a trait becoming less and less available in the modern age of dogmatic managerial ‘philosophies’.

But then came two wins where Forest rocked the Championship to it’s core. The Reds made the trip down the M1 to Craven Cottage to face a Fulham side with a Premier League squad in all but name, and won 2-1. After Lewis Grabban scored a sensational pass-and-move goal within 3 minutes - where every player had a touch - the Reds were able to sit back and play on the counter. Inviting a talented Fulham side onto you isn’t always the brightest idea, but Forest were so well organised and disciplined that they were able to nullify the Cottagers’ potent attacking trio.

And it was a similar story at The Liberty. Top of the league and unbeaten Swansea City were toppled by another near-perfect Reds performance, where once again Forest played an impressive defensive game, hitting the Swans on the break for the winner. 

These wins, despite being emphatic by themselves, are also particularly seminal considering Forest’s past struggles away from home. From November last year to April, the Reds  didn’t manage a win away from home. This season,  however, Lamouchi’s men have picked up 8 points out of a possible 12 on the road, remaining unbeaten. It’s a hallmark of Forest’s new-found resilience and defensive organisation under the Frenchman. 

However, Forest’s strong start to the season has been as much to do with the manager as it has been to do with the the players. Watson has emerged as a fulcrum to that midfield, while Grabban has discovered a new-found energy and drive to his game. But the star man is João Carvalho, who despite injury troubles has certainly shown his quality.

Lamouchi is bringing fresh ideas to the club, he is filling fans with confidence unprecedented in the last five years - and they’re only seven games in. "I smell something special brewing," tweeted midfielder John Bostock. It resonated among the fan base, but puzzled others. Forest have slipped under the radar this year, evading any talk of promotion, which could be something that can play into their hands as the season goes on.