IT was the warm-up. Something about Nottingham Forest’s warm-up wasn’t right. In the words of Billy Davies: “Our warm-up was atrocious. And I said that to them at half-time. Having watched it, I was a little bit concerned, because it looked sloppy and it looked slack.”
Let me try to describe Forest’s warm-up ahead of their game at Preston this afternoon. It featured their players gathered in a circle in front of the main stand and, to my eyes, appeared to be part can-can, part disco dancing. Today was the first time I had seen Forest this season. I can’t believe they’ve got into the Championship’s top three warming up like that every week.
This was always going to be a tricky afternoon for Davies. Having led Forest into the promotion race against all expectations, he’s now got the even trickier job of keeping them there. Having been unbeaten on their travels until January 12, they have lost all their away games since. And today, it was a trip to Deepdale.
Davies was manager of Preston for two years. He got them into the Championship play-offs twice, against many expectations. But he’s not a popular man at Deepdale.
During his time as North End manager, he had a series of battles with the board. One way or another, most of those battles were about money. In the end, Davies decided he’d had enough – and after a very public dispute with the board, he went to Derby, where his reign would also end acrimoniously.
He’s got plenty of fans at Forest, though. For the first time in years, they’re in with a shout of making it to the Premier League. Forest haven’t played there since 1999. They haven’t been close to returning since 2003, when they lost to Sheffield United in the play-off semi-finals.
They should make the play-offs this season. Maybe they’re just a little short of experience to go up automatically. Or maybe they’re just not warming up properly.
Davies expected a hot reception from the Preston fans. He was booed as he took to the dugout, just as he was when he returned to Derby with Forest in late January. He also expected North End – safe enough in mid-table – to have a bit of added bite, because of the atmosphere, because of Davies. But he expected his side to start better than they did.
“You prepare very well for a couple of days,” he said afterwards. “You talk about the great energy that Preston will get, the same as Derby, because Davies is back in town with his staff.
“There’s this euphoria around the stadium and this great desire to win the game, more than any other game in the league. My players had to face up to that. And they didn’t.
“But that’s where we are. I keep talking about this team not being ready. They still don’t know. I’ve still got players who don’t know how to play at certain times of the year, how to play at certain grounds and how to play under certain circumstances.”
Forest started badly. They might have been a goal down after 35 seconds, but North End striker Chris Brown headed wide Callum Davidson’s ball in from the left.
After that came almost 20 minutes of nothing, the football equivalent of the test card. And then Forest winger George Boyd shoved Chris Sedgwick on to the perimeter track, the referee declared it a fair challenge – and the whole game came to life.
Forest, temporarily a man up, came out of their collective shell, won a corner and started pushing men forward. And Preston, woken from their slumber, promptly broke to the other end and scored.
Ross Wallace raced on to Neil Mellor’s through pass and rolled his shot beyond keeper Lee Camp to give Preston the lead. Forest wobbled, and then collapsed. Within 12 minutes, they had conceded another two to go 3-0 down.
First Davidson drilled a penalty straight down the middle after Chris Cohen wrestled Billy Jones to the floor as they challenged for a Wallace corner. And then Matt James slammed a 25-yard shot into the top corner. The home fans loved it, chanting: “Billy, what’s the score?”
James, on loan from Manchester United, is only 18. He’s been on the bench for a couple of United’s cup games this season, and has the touch and awareness of a player who could make a career in the Premier League. Sir Alex Ferguson has loaned a promising talent to his son Darren. But I think Fergie senior will be wanting him back.
In addition to attacking his players’ warm-up, Davies used the half-time break to push Cohen from left-back into midfield, and adopt a more attacking set-up. Dexter Blackstock pulled a goal back from the penalty spot 11 minutes into the second half, after Jones had fouled Cohen.
But it was when striker Robert Earnshaw came on for Boyd with 20 minutes left that they really stepped it up. Earnshaw soon made it 3-2 by slotting in Blackstock’s through ball, and the closing stages were utterly crazy.
Blackstock had two penalty appeals turned down – the first looked a good shout, the second was clearly a dive, for which he was rightly booked – and Earnshaw fired into the side-netting when he might have just squeezed in an equaliser.
North End’s fans were delighted when the final whistle went. Deepdale’s DJ played ‘That’s Entertainment’ by The Jam over the public address system. And it was.
Darren Ferguson was a relieved man. “It was heart attack stuff, wasn’t it?” he said. “It was an unbelievable performance in the first half. We didn’t want half-time to come. It could have been more than three.
“When it goes to 3-2 with 15 minutes to go, you think: Ah, here we go.’ But we dug in and got our heads on things. It’s a great win for us. A fantastic victory.”
Davies was philosophical about the booing from Preston’s fans.
“You want to have been at Derby a few weeks ago, it was even worse,” he said. “But that’s football. I’m not the only manager who suffers that fate.
“I’m very proud coming back here, and I always will be, being the most successful manager in the club’s history.
“I know that underneath that energy and underneath that desire to win the game, there’s a huge respect.
“Sitting in their lounges and their kitchens tonight, they’ll realise and appreciate what took place, not only here but also at Derby.”
And automatic promotion? Forest are five points behind West Brom with 10 games left. They’ll need a bit of luck now. And some better away form.
“It’s never over until it’s over,” Davies said. “All you need to do is win your last five games in a row, and the whole thing changes.”
Next up for Forest is a trip to Barnsley on Tuesday. Davies knows he has to sort out the away form. And the warm-ups.