Cardiff 2 Nottingham Forest 0
Championship, January 31st 2009
"And Now You're Gonna Believe Us... ".
One moment towards the end of the second half summed it up for me. Dogging away against a fierce Nottingham Forest team, desperate to get the second goal to knock the buggers down and out, a City fan behind me shouted out passionately "C'mon Cardiff, DO YOU WANT IT?". Jay Bothroyd provided the answer moments later, slaloming around the Forest dead-legs and planting a beautiful curling shot beyond the fingertips of goalkeeper Paul Smith. The Forest players crumpled to the floor dejected, the City fans went bonkers - raving that the three points were in the bag but also cast skywards on helium clouds of euphoria - it started to hit home that something profound, long-lasting and historic was going on here.
Nottingham Forest occupy an iconic place in the heartland of British football. Fan-cuffing, whisky-guzzling, chatshow-goading mercurial genius Brian Clough dominated club football in the 70s like no other manager - elevating a provincial club to the pinnacle of British and European success (not once, but twice). It was a back-handed tribute to Forest that one of the most popular songs on the terraces back in the day was "We hate Nottingham Forest, we hate Liverpool too, we hate Man United but Cardiff we love you".
They were giants back then and it is a bit sad to see them sliding ever further away from their glory days - Forest remain the only club to have won the European Cup and to have been relegated to the third tier of their national league, their three years in League One (aka Third Division) ending with their automatic promotion last season behind our friends and neighbours Swansea City. Manager Colin Calderwood was sacked at Xmas after a disastrous start, with ex-Derby man Billy Davies being brought in with a clear and simple brief - to preserve their Championship status. Without a proverbial pot to piss in, Forest are yet another one of those sides who cannot afford to go down.
The lustre surrounding the club was tarnished just a little bit more after yesterday's Forest performance - Clough himself would have been apoplectic if he had had the misfortune to view that abomination, the antithesis of the beautiful game, every Forest player seemingly under strict instruction to kick lumps out of their stellar opponents, compounding their serial fouling with permanent backchat to referee Grant Hegley, who himself had a dismal game, offering our Bluebirds little protection against the frothing Visigoths in red.
No surprises that Forest are 18th in the Fair Play League, 49 bookings and 3 reds, as opposed to the current leaders the mighty Cardiff City on 25 and 3 reds. They beat us 25-8 on fouls today, it seemed like a lot more. One of the many gratifying things about this season has been the superb discipline of our team - we are a tough team but never dirty , and will rarely, if ever, get in the faces of officials arguing the toss about decisions which are unlikely to be changed. One more thing to be proud of.
Twenty five years on from the Miners' Strike, Forest will always face the abuse of the pick and shovel boys on the terraces in this part of South Wales - the majority of Nottingham miners having famously crossed picket lines for the duration of the strike. No chants of "Arthur Scargill , Arthur Scargill, we'll support you ever more...." today, but Ali did serenade the Forest fans with the Strawbs' "Part of the Union" just prior to kick-off.
The last time Forest visited Cardiff four years ago they were thumped 3-0 in something of a relegation clash, Thorne and Kavanagh sharing the goals - the only surviving City player from that day being Paul Parry. As the City fans celebrated from the lofty position of 21st, they taunted Forest with chants of "Going Down, Going Down, Going Down" - quick as a flash Forest responded with "So are we, So are we, So are we". And they did!
Forest travelled in numbers this weekend, over a thousand of them in the Grange End, making a good racket and adding to the atmosphere, despite being barely visible to the Grange End corner boys who had to hurl their "humorous" insults at a rather fetching green chintz curtain. By the end of the game I'm sure the Forest fans were wishing it could have been drawn across the front of the terrace so they didn't have to watch any more.
Yet again, the opposition team came in fear, packing the midfield with 5 cloggers in a forlorn attempt to frustrate, stifle and smother the game from first to last minute. It was an unedifying spectacle. For eighteen of those minutes the tactic worked. A scrappy game saw Cardiff unable to effectively deal with the Forest spoilers. A lot of the early action came down the right hand side, with Chris Burke making some decent runs down the flank. The goal came out of nothing much - a deflected shot fell to a resurgent Parry who blasted it without a moment's hesitation into the back of the net.
Minutes later City were denied what appeared to be a blatant, nailed-on, stonewall penalty, Ledley's foot taken away from him as he prepared to hammer the ball past Smith when in the clear 12 yards out - either that or he kicked the ground. Forest's only outlet was Nathan Tyson, whose speed caused a little unease but no major problems for our superb central defensive pair Johnson and Gyepes.
A game which many felt would be a cakewalk had begun to look like a real struggle until that first goal went in. The anticipated goalfest failed to materialise, despite much terrace chatter about the ending of the 3 goal hoodoo. Instead of a gear-change and a step up, City continued to be frustrated by an extremely physical Forest side, who manhandled both Ross and Jay B in particular to an unacceptable degree. Ledley and Rae struggled to get a grip in the centre but there were occasional outlets for both Parry and Burke. Ledley and Parry both had efforts on goal but the lack of any clear goal-scoring opportunities lent a slight edge of frustration to the end of the first half.
After the break Billy Davies introduced Garner and changed their formation to 4-4-2, freeing up the central midfield area marginally, which allowed Ledley and Rae to probe more effectively. Forest pushed hard for an equaliser, with Tyson determined to make a mark. He worried the City fans with a viciously struck dipping shot, and then terrified them when, after a one-on-one chase with Darren Purse (on for injured Gabor) he muscled through and headed past an ineffectual Enckelman. To the delight of City fans, ref Hegley blew up for a foul on Dazzer, a decision which seemed to inspire the boys to stride on and finish the game off.
McCormack and Bothroyd both had chances in the second half, but were repelled by keeper Smith. With just minutes remaining, Jay B drew a line underneath this untidy encounter with a goal of genuine class, his footballing wizardry outwitting the Forest rearguard, before he finished with lethal style. The on-field celebrations were passionate and histrionic, the ritual shirt-offing earning a ridiculous yellow for our cultured terrace hero, whose all-round performances have been superb over the last few weeks.
Six, nine, twelve months ago we would have conceded a late goal or two in a game like this. This was a titanic TEAM performance in trying conditions against difficult, ugly opponents. As DJ has correctly noted, the players were visibly wilting after the third game in six days, but their heroic desire and team spirit ensured a glorious outcome.
Up above, Reading, Wolves and Birmingham are shifting uneasily in their seats. It is surely only a matter of time before we overlap the drab Brummie chokers, and we have time on our side to claim that second spot - at the expense of Wolves, I reckon. The match at Molineux in three weeks now looks pivotal. Unbeaten in 13 matches, with a healthy goal difference, the meanest (joint) defence in the Championship and the overwhelming form team of the moment, Cardiff are peaking at the perfect time. With the exciting Quincy Owusu-Abeyie on board and promises of further permanent team strengthening before Monday at 17.00, Mr Grimsdale's words are starting to take on the solidity of substance - hope I don't regret it but I do now believe that Ledley will stay. After all, this ain't so much of a gamble any more.
At the very end, I turned to a random stranger on the BBT and said "Can you smell that?". "What's that?" he enquired quizzically, looking at me as if I'd just suggested he trade in his season ticket for a hospitality box at the Liberty. "That, my friend, is the smell of the Premiership..."
Paul Davies © 2009.
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