“This run has given us a clear indication of where we are compared to the top teams in the division. Our level of performance hasn’t been too far away from theirs, but their resilience at one end and quality at the other has been much better than us.”
They were the words of Nottingham Forest manager Chris Hughton following his side’s 3-1 home loss to Brentford back in December – the latest defeat in a run consisting of six losses from seven games, leaving them level on points with the relegation zone and one place above arch-rivals Derby County.
In November, back-to-back home wins over Coventry and Wycombe saw Forest head into the third international break of the season with real optimism, and you felt that their next six games would give them a real measure of where they were under Hughton, who was continuing to place his feet under the table at the City Ground.
Defeats to promotion contenders Bournemouth, Swansea, Reading, Norwich and then Brentford soon brought them right back down to earth. The effort was there in strands, but the quality on show and cohesion between one another was badly lacking, and a minority of fans, particularly on social media, were slowly beginning to lose patience with Hughton. Forest were nowhere near the level of these teams in hot pursuit of Premier League football, despite being in their shoes less than 12 months ago.
Two months on, the mood on Trentside has very much changed.
Wins over Coventry and Wycombe, on the road this time around, have seen Forest return to their best and produce arguably two of their most complete performances under Hughton’s tutelage thus far. The gap between themselves and the bottom three hasn’t increased as much as they would have liked, but their eyes are placed firmly on the teams above them, rather than the ones over their shoulder.
Against Coventry, they arrested a barren run which lasted over a year, showing character and grit to come from behind to win a game for the first time since the 19th of January, 2020. Their trip to Adams Park on Saturday saw them possess that much-needed quality in the final third, too. An expert lob from Glenn Murray with only seven minutes on the clock sent them on their way to a vital three points, with Anthony Knockaert rounding off a fine team move later in the afternoon, sweeping an effort into the top corner.
It would be unfair to say that Forest haven’t improved under Hughton in that three-month period, even if their league position hasn’t changed dramatically and the threat of slipping into danger is still prevelant.
This aforementioned turnaround is down to several reasons, but a message that has been bled out of it is that patience is a virtue.
Hughton always needed time to firmly get to grips with his group of players. He arrived at a club which had just bolstered its playing squad with 13 new faces under his predecessor, Sabri Lamouchi. A congested fixture list has also taught him lessons about his players first-hand, for better or for worse.
The manager has also had a January transfer window to help him imprint his mark on the squad. Get rid of those players who have failed to make an impact, and make his own signings to tweak things slightly. It’s early days, of course, but Filip Krovinovic, James Garner and Glenn Murray have already made a positive impact, with the latter scoring a brace in the 3-0 away win at Wycombe last weekend.
The pessimist will say that Forest have been in this position before, following wins over the same two sides not so long ago. The difference is that, three months ago felt very much like an experiment, which would end up presenting us with a rough estimation of where Forest were compared to the ones chasing promotion – one which they failed badly.
This time around, however, there is a sense that Forest have a clearer identity, and a real platform to build on an impressive run of late. They have lost only one of their last 10 league games, and seem to be playing with more purpose in every area of the pitch.
This weekend, they take on AFC Bournemouth, who are also a very different side to the one that beat them at the Vitality Stadium three months ago. There has been a change in the dugout, with Jason Tindall recently being relieved of his duties, and as is the common nature of the Championship, their results have been fluctuating. Forest went into their previous clash with the Cherries as real underdogs, but this weekend, they will line-up against the South Coast side with their tails firmly up in the air.
Forest are by no means the finished article just yet, of course. Coventry and Wycombe are newly-promoted Championship sides, and the tests Bournemouth, Swansea City and Blackburn will provide in the next three games will be a lot tougher. The onus is on the Reds to continue their good run, and start stamping their authority on games right from the off, as they did at Adams Park last weekend.
Forest fans need no reminder of how the 2019/20 campaign culminated in heartbreak, but compared to the final few months of last season, the end to this one looks like it will have a very different feel to it.
Monday marked one year since the Reds defeated Leeds United 2-0 courtesy of Sammy Ameobi and Tyler Walker’s stoppage-time finish – a result which had the City Ground bouncing, and a win which saw Lamouchi’s men move to within a point of automatic promotion places.
Fast forward a year, and the talk of promotion still seems very much fanciful. Occurrences in the last week, though, have given Forest fans hope of a strong end to the season, where a top-half finish could well be on the cards.