Nottingham Forest's fate at Watford changes in the blink of an eye
HANGING over the dugouts at Vicarage Road is one of many huge adverts for the computer game 'Football Manager' that are dotted around the stadium.
On Saturday afternoon, Sean O'Driscoll might well have wished he was managing on his PC, where a simple sweep and click of the mouse could have prompted an immediate substitution.
Instead of which, reality bit hard as, with Greg Halford making his final preparations to come on, Daniel Ayala was sent off and, in a single moment, the course of Nottingham Forest's afternoon was decided.
And, following a poor performance, many of those whose only experience of football management does come via their computer, began to ask fresh questions about O'Driscoll and his side.
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In truth, none of those questions were likely to be harsher than those Forest asked of themselves, amid a passionate exchange of views in the dressing room after the game.
O'Driscoll, a man whose post-match team talks had previously occasionally only stretched to a brief word on the side of the pitch after the game, this time instigated a 40-minute debrief in which the players, as well as the manager, expressed their opinions.
Because, while the turning point of the game was unquestionably the moment, in the 38th minute, that Ayala hauled down Troy Deeney to earn his second booking of the game, it was not the sole explanation for this defeat.
Some of the Spaniard's mature performances this season have belied the fact he is a still a young player, learning his game. But his naivety was exposed as Forest found themselves reduced to ten men in the very moment that they were trying to address the very obvious threat of him being sent off.
Following a string of fouls, referee Neil Swarbrick had offered a clear warning that Ayala was on borrowed time – and Forest could have no complaints when he was given his marching orders.
Nor could they have any qualms about the result, as a Watford side that was packed with energy and invention cruised to a comfortable 2-0 success. Matej Vydra had already found the net once by the time Ayala was sent off and, two minutes after his red card, he added the second, with Almen Abdi again slotting him in through the centre to beat Lee Camp.
Down to ten men and 2-0 down against a side who were fluid in possession, the second half was never going to be anything more than a damage limitation exercise for Forest. But that mentality must now continue on Boxing Day, as they look to restore some pride when Leeds United visit the City Ground.
This was a performance that raised numerous questions about Forest's promotion credentials. And they must be answered quickly.
There has never been any question of the quality in the squad, but that quality has not come to the fore on a consistent basis.
In the first third of the campaign, such inconsistency was easily explained a way. With new owners, a new manager and more than an entire team's worth of new players, things were always going to take time to gel. But now, with half the season gone, that is no longer a viable excuse.
Certainly such things were not an issue for Watford, who have undergone an almost identical experience, with the arrival of a new manager and a host of new players who, in many cases, have had to acclimatise to life in a new country, as well as at a new club.
The fact that many of the 15 loan signings at the club were familiar to each other, having joined from Serie A outfit Udinese, will have helped. Either way, things still seem to be falling into place nicely at Vicarage Road, where the home side never looked troubled.
Cardiff, currently sitting pretty at the top of the Championship table, also made 14 new additions in the summer and that has not inhibited their progress this season.
Forest's problem has never been that they are not good enough. It is that they are not good often enough.
Against Burnley, in their last home match, they did enough to secure what was a deserved, but unspectacular win. Against Brighton, they rode their luck after seeing the home side dominate the first half almost entirely, without managing to score.
But it is more a month since they were genuinely impressive; since they produced a performance that saw them at anything close to their peak of their powers – as they claimed a 2-1 win at Wolves.
Since then, Forest have produced their most unconvincing run of the O'Driscoll tenure so far, both in terms of performances and results, claiming only four points from their last five fixtures.
With four points between them and the play-off places, the situation is far from becoming a crisis. But there does need to be an improvement. And it has to be a significant one.
With Jermaine Jenas and Sam Hutchinson both back on the training pitch, Forest have no injury worries to concern themselves with. The only player who won't be available against Leeds is Ayala, who will be suspended.
O'Driscoll revealed afterwards that a few players had questioned whether quite so much focus needed to be put on the strengths of the opposition, when it came to Forest's preparations for games.
And, while it would be foolish to ignore the threats provided by a Leeds side for whom El Hadji Diouf is so often an integral figure, Forest might benefit from prioritising their own strengths instead.
Particularly at home, Forest could benefit from picking their strongest team and letting the opposition worry about them.
Radi Majewski had established himself as an important figure, prior to picking up an ankle injury at the start of November. The little Pole's passing ability and vision had been key to one of the most profitable spells of the season.
Forest have only lost once in Championship games in which Majewski has played this season – and that was in the game in which he was injured early on, at home to Millwall.
Restoring him to the side might provide more ammunition for the front two of Simon Cox and Billy Sharp, whose partnership was one of few positive points to be taken from Saturday afternoon.
Greg Halford again also provided more composure and solidity after, for the second game in a row, coming on at half time. While Forest also looked stronger once Adlene Guedioura had been introduced at the interval.
So, from the outside looking in, O'Driscoll does have plenty of options. But it is easy to play football manager, doing it for real is a different story altogether.