Paul Taylor: Nottingham Forest need to learn to win ugly
IN just a few months, Sean O'Driscoll has already succeeded where his two immediate predecessors failed. He has installed a sense of stability and optimism at Nottingham Forest.
Steve McClaren's tenure was doomed from the start, as he failed to agree a blueprint for success with the club hierarchy, leading to a squad that was unbalanced and divided.
And, in defence of Steve Cotterill, his challenge was merely to clean up the resulting mess and steer the club away from relegation. The job he did cannot be under estimated at a time when survival, rather than stability, was the order of the day.
But it was also one that went unfinished. When O'Driscoll picked up the reins in July, he inherited a squad without a back four of any description and with a surplus of strikers. When you consider things in those terms, the progress Forest have made in less than five months is already impressive.
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But, while O'Driscoll may already have eclipsed the two previous men to have occupied the manager's office, his next task is to install some of the qualities in his side that Forest possessed under Billy Davies.
As managers, the two men could hardly be more different. Davies was a controversial, noisy, politicised figure who it seemed always had an agenda – which was normally the self-promotion of Billy Davies.
But, beneath all the bluster and bravado, was a manager who knew how to get success in the Championship.
And the starting point was always simple; the foundations always the same. Forest, before anything else, worked hard, won their physical battles and were hard to beat.
After that, they played football. Flair, guile and entertainment were the icing and the cherry on the cake.
O'Driscoll, as a man and a manager, could not be more different. Considered, calm and collected, when he talks it is nearly always about the team and their ethos, rather than being motivated by self-promotion.
As December arrives on the horizon, Davies would have been noisily vocalising the need for numerous new signings; complaining that his squad lacked depth or quality.
O'Driscoll, in contrast, urged caution, warning the addition of too many new faces – and particularly the wrong ones – might upset the sense of cohesion and unity in his squad, in January.
While, on the pitch, Forest, when at their best, have played some of the best football witnessed at the City Ground since they were challenging for promotion under the Scotsman.
At times, their fluid, progressive style has, in many ways, even been far superior to the Davies era.
O'Driscoll's loudest talking is done through the football his side are capable of playing on the pitch.
And, against Cardiff, Barnsley, Middlesbrough and Wolves, Forest have looked like a side equipped to challenge for promotion; one packed full of invention and attacking menace.
But, there has also been inconsistency and dips in performance levels.
At the heart of those, there has been one common denominator.
When Forest come up against sides who let them play their positive brand of attacking football, they flourish. But when the opposition turn the game into a physical battle, they expose Forest's Achilles heel.
At Portman Road on Tuesday they were out muscled and outfought. It was only the fourth time Forest have lost in the league this season and, each time, the plot has been a familiar one. Stop Forest playing and they struggle to find a 'Plan B'.
In September, Leeds battered Forest into submission – although another controversial display by referee Andy D'Urso didn't help, as he chalked off a goal from Dexter Blackstock and failed to send off Jason Pearce in a 2-1 loss.
D'Urso was at it again when he awarded a soft penalty against Forest at Ipswich, perhaps attempting to correct his mistake in not sending off Lee Camp for a handball and foul as he rushed out his box in the first half.
Forest can also claim a sense of injustice in the sending off of Blackstock, for an alleged elbow, in the 1-0 defeat against Derby back in September although, in truth, they were still ground down by another strong, physical side.
And that was certainly the case last month, as the battering ram that is Millwall swept into the City Ground and rampaged their way to a 4-1 win.
Under O'Driscoll, Forest have made remarkable progress. They are a side on the cusp of challenging for promotion.
But, if they do want to take that final step, on top of being proponents of the beautiful game they must also learn how to win ugly.