Baffling. Inexplicable. Extraordinary. Unimaginable. Four words that could be used to describe Nottingham Forest’s failure to secure a play-off place on Wednesday night, and words that could also be used to encapsulate what has been an enthralling 2019/20 EFL campaign.
It has been a long old season for every EFL club, and within that season, Nottingham Forest have been right up there in the race for promotion from the Championship. After seeing Leeds United end a grueling 16-year exile last week, the desire to do so themselves after 21 years would have been greater than ever heading into the final game of the season.
On Wednesday night, Forest prepared for their clash with Stoke City at the City Ground needing only a point to confirm their place in the play-offs, having been unable to do so after going winless in their last five outings.
They could even lose and still end up booking their place in the play-offs come the end of the night, with Swansea City having to overturn a five-goal swing and win away at Reading.
In this crazy, long, eventful season though, fans have learnt to expect the unexpected, and Forest fans, who have witnessed their side crumble in similar positions in recent years, could have been forgiven for feeling slightly pessimistic.
It was 9:19pm and it was 3-1 at both the City Ground and the Madejski Stadium – the right end of the results for the Swans who were leading in Berkshire, but the wrong end of the result for Forest who were losing.
When Wayne Routledge headed in Swansea’s fourth goal in stoppage time to record a 4-1 win, in an instance, Forest, who had occupied a play-off place since the 29th of December, had only five minutes left salvage a top-six finish.
It wasn’t to be, though, and as the Reds piled forward, Stoke made them pay. James McClean raced through on goal, and his low pass across goal was bundled into the Forest net by Nuno da Costa. Forest’s play-off dreams over as quick as you can say “counter-attack.”
Players were left in tears, dejected as they lay down on the City Ground turf. Sabri Lamouchi was visibly devastated in his post-match interview, trying to summarise what he had just seen from his players, and fans, quite rightly, were left astonished and furious with their side’s result and all that came with it.
Wednesday night will haunt Forest fans for a lengthy period of time. They will have to cope with the flack that comes their way from Leeds United and Derby County supporters over the next few days, weeks and potentially months, and ultimately, a chance of winning promotion back to the top-flight is no longer there.
Forest have undoubtedly endured a much-improved season compared to those in recent years, but that positive feel-factor will rightly be erased from their minds for the time being, and instead, a blanket of disappointment and anger will take over.
It’s hard to look past the negatives given the way they threw away their play-off place with minutes of the campaign left to play, and the owners, the board and Lamouchi will look to dissect what exactly went wrong, not just last night, but in the final run-in.
With great disappointment comes raw emotions, and plenty of fans have voiced their anger at Lamouchi, with some even urging the club to part ways with the Frenchman after a disastrous end to the season.
Whether that is the right decision for the club going forward or not, is another question.
Eyebrows were raised when Lamouchi was announced as Martin O’Neill’s replacement just 18 minutes after the Irishman’s departure in the summer. An unknown quantity, correct. Another Philippe Montanier? Maybe.
But Lamouchi, after picking up just a point against Leeds and West Brom in the first two games of the season, quickly led Forest up the table and in an around play-off contention. They sat themselves inside the promotion places for just under 75% of the season, which suggests they deserved to be there in more ways than one.
But ultimately, after matchday 46 when nothing else matters, Forest have missed out on a promotion spot in the cruelest of ways, and that is something Lamouchi will have weeks, months to pick the bones out of.
Lamouchi has undoubtedly adapted to life as a manager in England really well indeed, though. The Championship is quite clearly a tough nut to crack, and many who questioned the lack of experience of the former Rennes manager in the summer would have taken that league position in pre-season.
After a first season in England, Lamouchi will have learnt a lot about managing Forest and managing in the Championship, and this summer, he will be keen to overhaul his squad, dust himself down, and try to guide his side to a high a league position as possible in 2020/21.
There were waves after waves of positivity on social media last month as Lamouchi put pen to paper on a new deal. Before this sickening blow in their bid for promotion, fans were left feeling optimistic for the future, believing in the club’s vision going forward.
Last night may have been devastating for the Reds, but on the whole, the club have made huge strides of improvement both on and off the pitch, and now is certainly not the time to be rash when making any decisions about people’s future at the club.
His substitutions and tactical decisions may have raised more than one eyebrow on more than one occasion this season, but on the whole, the air of positivity around the club this season has been tranquil and refreshing.
The dust will settle, the wounds will heal, and Lamouchi will know what mistakes he has made over the course of the year, and more importantly, what needs to be done to take the famous Garibaldi up into the Premier League next season.