‘Where do you think Forest will finish this season?’ I can’t remember how many times I was asked that over the weeks leading up to the new season.
Even during pre-season when games against Olympiacos, (and their Block 26 Ultras), in their iconic Karaiskakis stadium, and fixtures against mid-table Premier League opposition Crystal Palace and Europa League regulars Real Sociedad at the City Ground. Despite a win against a strong Crystal Palace side (where much of the Palace squad that featured went on to beat Manchester United at Old Trafford 2-1 a few weeks later), I still had severe doubts about the team’s mentality to be able to push for a top six playoff spot for a number of reasons.
Reports of a ‘bust-up’ at the Nigel Doughty Academy between the previous manager Martin O’Neill and the players threw the fanbase into a division of opinion, the immediate appointment of the under-the-radar French manager Sabri Lamouchi called the boardroom staff and ownership into question and the transfers from clubs such as League One Bolton Wanderers and second to third division sides around Europe did little to spark initial excitement of the new season.
Off the back of a mixed pre-season and given the collapse of the promotion charge during the previous campaign, myself, and much of the fanbase were wary of going into games with an overpowering feeling of confidence and the dejected feelings around the failure to finish in the top six last season still lingered in fans minds.
West Bromwich Albion were up first, a side very unlucky to miss out on promotion via the playoffs to a resurgent Aston Villa last season. We took the lead at the City Ground within ten minutes, and the nerves were momentarily blasted away, new optimism filled the air. Shortly after, the old problems came back to haunt; weak goalkeeping, defensive players wandering out of position to leave vulnerabilities in the back line for all to see, to name a few. The scepticism I had was proven right at full-time, with an opening day loss of 2-1.
At this point, many of us thought that the season would just peter out like all the campaigns since relegation from the Premier League in 1999, in utter disappointment albeit a few playoff appearances.
However, a stunning mentality change was in the works behind the scenes. The turning point, Leeds United away (the most exciting away day in the calendar for most Forest fans, including myself). The fightback to score, albeit a scrappy goal, within the electrifying atmosphere of Elland Road and escape with a point was absolute robbery.
From then on, the campaign has been an absolute joy to follow up and down the country, from travelling down to Craven Cottage, the home of Fulham (the team also favoured by mainstream media to achieve automatic promotion) and snatching all three points, to absolutely destroying the East Midlands rivals Derby County in the Football League Cup 3-0 which set up a tasty third round tie at the Emirates Stadium against Arsenal.
Going back to the original question of ‘Where do you think Forest will finish this season?’ I’d love nothing more than to write with confidence the answer of ‘Top six contenders and maybe even a sustained attempt of breaching the automatic promotion places’. But this is the Football League Championship, the most unpredictable league of football in the world. The team at the top has every chance of losing to the team at the bottom 4-0.
But after twenty-plus years of Nottingham Forest being outside the top flight of English football, I’m going to still approach the winter months with a degree of caution despite the amazing run of form, and take every game as a difficult game. But every win brings us closer to dining at the top table that is the Premier League, and each win makes all us Forest fans smiles just that little bit wider.
By Sonny Reed