Birmingham loss caps off a difficult week for Nottingham Forest boss, who has much to ponder
HAVING plunged himself into a cauldron of fire at Birmingham City, Alex McLeish must now decide whether he wishes to continue to expose himself to the burning spotlight of life at Nottingham Forest.
On Saturday, the Scotsman refused the chance to enter the unfamiliar territory of the away dug-out at St Andrew's via a secluded back passage and instead 'fronted up' to a fierce storm of abuse from a group of fans who once held him in high esteem.
The resulting long walk down the side of the pitch will have felt like miles to McLeish, who responded to vitriolic taunts about his parentage, his loyalty and even his hair colour, with broad smiles and cheery waves.
The "gingers", he said afterwards with a rare smile on a difficult afternoon, "will one day rule the world". It not potential world domination, but how long his reign at Nottingham Forest will last that is of more significance this morning.
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That tense stroll down the side of a football pitch in the West Midlands may not even have been the biggest challenge of his weekend, as he spent yesterday deciding whether he still has the motivation and drive to continue his testing journey with Nottingham Forest, or whether it is time to walk away.
Whatever happens, the sense of dignity and decency that McLeish conducted himself with on a tumultuous afternoon is unlikely to disappear.
What will be telling is whether, when he arrives at the Nigel Doughty Academy this morning, his intention is to take training as normal, or to offer a few more waves, in the form of a clutch of goodbyes.
On Saturday, on the face of things, McLeish was giving little away. This was one of those days, however, where what went unsaid had every bit as much meaning as what was voiced.
At one stage during an intriguing post-match press conference, McLeish uttered a knowing laugh as he sarcastically asked, 'We are not actually going to talk about the match, are we?" after being asked what had gone wrong on the pitch.
What could not be escaped was the fact that what went wrong on the St Andrew's pitch was intrinsically linked to the equally public failures off it, which have led McLeish to the point where his future at the City Ground is the subject of a very personal debate.
A wise betting man might have predicted the plot that was about to unfold, as one of the three men at the centre of a trio of failed Forest transfer bids stepped up to provide a timely reminder of what they had missed out on.
Chris Burke, a former player of the year at Birmingham, has not apparently been at his best for much of the current campaign. But he found his form dramatically when it mattered most on Saturday, to help cap off a miserable afternoon for McLeish.
Forest had made an even contest of the first half but, when they momentarily switched off, with Guy Moussi failing to put Burke under pressure, the winger took full advantage, cutting on to his left foot to let fly with a powerful, spectacular, dipping shot that found the back of the net off the underside of the bar.
And, in the 80th minute, after Gonzalo Jara and Henri Lansbury had been left in the wake of a twisting run from Nathan Redmond, it was Burke who was on hand at the far post to emphatically convert his fellow winger's driven cross and bag his second of the game.
Billy Sharp did pull one back from the penalty spot in injury time but, by then, it was all too late.
Make no mistake, this was far from one-way traffic. Indeed, Forest probably had the better of the chances during the game.
But, while Birmingham had £4m keeper Jack Butland between the posts, for the first time, Karl Darlow's inexperience was exposed, as Forest's own highly-rated rookie was caught out of position for the first goal.
Butland, at just 19, may be younger than Darlow, but his experience includes an international cap, as well as more than 50 appearances for Birmingham and Cheltenham. His quality shone through as he made vital saves to deny Chris Cohen twice, Greg Halford, Sharp and Darius Henderson.
Forest rightly have high hopes for Darlow, who is regarded as being an outstanding prospect at the City Ground. But, with hindsight, the change of heart over signing an experienced keeper, following the departure of Lee Camp, was perhaps the first sign of things to come.
Forest went from trying to sign players of the calibre of Rob Green and Lukasz Fabianski, to suddenly putting their faith in an untested keeper.
Yes, that will have been partly inspired by Darlow's undoubted potential. But, had they been able to get deals done for Green or Fabianski, the 22-year-old would still be waiting for his opportunity now.
All the optimism and hope brought about by the desire to see an exciting young player that has come through the ranks flourish – and he still can, following an encouraging start to his first team career – merely glossed over the first of a series of failures during the transfer window.
After that came Burke, Stephen Ward of Wolves and, most notably of all, the transfer of George Boyd, which Forest pulled out of, remarkably, over issues with his eye test.
That, added to the departures of Mark Arthur, Keith Burt and Frank Clark – which McLeish was not briefed about – and subsequent disagreements over transfer policy, have all added up to the situation Forest find themselves facing today.
That being the very real prospect that they could be about to have to start the search for their fourth manager since July.
Although, if McLeish does decide to walk away, the number could rise to five, with John Pemberton and Rob Kelly likely to take temporary charge in the short-term.
And the next challenge on the horizon? A trip to face Bristol City.
Whoever is at the helm for Forest, whether it is a resolute McLeish or somebody new, there is no doubting one thing – while Burke demonstrated what Forest are missing out on by scoring two goals on Saturday, there is another man who will be even hungrier to write an equally predictable script at Ashton Gate.
Just over a month since his Boxing Day sacking, there is probably nothing Sean O'Driscoll – who has already brought some stability to the Robins – would like more than to add to the sense of growing crisis at his former club.
The season began with talk of a push for the Championship title. But the only title Forest are vying for at the minute is with Blackburn – for the unwanted position of being the most ridiculed club in the division.
And, if McLeish does decide to move on, Forest might just gain the upper hand.
Other Championship results: Blackburn 2 Bristol City 0, Blackpool 1 Barnsley 2, Crystal Palace 2 Charlton 1, Derby 3 Huddersfield 0, Ipswich 4 Middlesbrough 0, Leeds United 0 Cardiff 1, Millwall 0 Hull 1, Peterborough 2 Burnley 2, Sheff Wed 3 Brighton 1, Watford 2 Bolton 1.