The heightened feeling of expectation that is generated by a place in the play-offs is one of the more curious phenomena that has come to accompany this most modern of season end jamborees. Four teams in every division take part in them, but only one can win through and win promotion but it often feels that, in the excitement of the end of season battle to grab something – anything! – from nine months of blood, sweat and tears, the simple logic of the equation that four into one doesn’t go is lost upon us. The hangover of an unsuccessful bid for the play-offs can be mixed. In the Championship this season, Cardiff City have reacted reasonably positively to their Wembley defeat at the hands of Blackpool last May. The beaten semi-finalists, however, have found the new season to be somewhat more laborious.
In the case of Leicester City, this is perhaps unsurprising. Catapulted into the play-offs in their first season back in the Championship after a spell in the relative purgatory of League One, their second season was always likely to be more difficult than last, though they can be expected to pull clear of the relegation zone. For the other beaten semi-finalists, Nottingham Forest, however, the hangover has been more mystifying. A state of what has been described as a “Mexican stand-off” is said to exist between the directors of the club and manager Billy Davies over the club’s inertia in the transfer market over the last few months, and the effect upon the fortunes of the team have been marked. An early exit from the League Cup at the hands of Bradford City has gone hand in hand with a decidedly tepid start to the league season, with just two wins and seven draws from their opening eleven league matches of the season, and the key to this can be seen in the goals scored column of the league table: just twelve goals scored in their first eleven league matches of the season.
Their opponents this evening, Middlesbrough, are arguably in an even more troubling position than Forest are. Gordon Strachan was unable to lift the team above mid-table after their surprise relegation two seasons ago and this season was proving to be even worse for the club. Whilst they have won three from six of their home matches so far this season, they have picked up just one point from six matches away from The Riverside Stadium this season and go into this match just two places above the relegation positions. Yesterday, Strachan fell upon his own sword and walked away from the club. The search is on for a new manager for Middlesbrough, and it could be the most important single managerial appointment in the the club’s recent history. A second relegation could be calamitious for the club.
That there is a sense of nervousness in the air at The City Ground this evening is understandable. October is the month during which the football season starts to properly take shape. As the nights draw in and a chill starts to bite in the air, the devil-may-care feeling of those late summer evening matches starts to surrender. The feeling that every single one of these matches matters starts to grow. Early in the season, it is easy to dismiss a lowly league position as a statistical freak, but in the Championship, where the matches come thick and fast, as October flicks over into November, clubs near the foot of the table start a scramble to avoid their current league positions becoming the normalcy of their season. One or other of these two clubs – both, in reality – need to kick-start their season, and they need to do it very soon.
So it is that this evening’s match takes the semblance of a sparring bout, with both teams taking occasional jabs at each other rather than playing flowing, easy on the eye football. Middlesbrough start the more brightly of the two sides and Leroy Lita has a couple of decent early opportunities. It feels somewhat as if the glare of the 44,000-odd eyes is weighing heavy upon the shoulders of the Nottingham Forest players but slowly, however, they start to defrost. Radoslaw Majewski curls a shot against the crossbar and the brittle confidence of the Middlesbrough team visibly starts to wear thin as the half wears on. Half-time comes with the score goalless. Forest are coming to life. Middlesbrough, while not visibly improved without Gordon Strachan, don’t look a great deal worse for his departure.
Six minutes into the second half comes the moment that defines, wins and loses the match. Lewis McGugan is fouled on the left hand edge of the penalty area. He picks himself up and drives the free-kick into the back of the net from an improbable angle. Whether he completely meant it or not is open to a degree of debate, but the ecstatic City Ground doesn’t really care. Goals have been hard to come by so far this season – they’ll take them whichever way they come at the moment. From here on, Forest start to settle into a smoother rhythm and they spend much of the remainder of the second half pushing for a second goal. Still, however, the chances are few and far between and the nerves start to kick in during the closing stages as Middlesbrough, who came south tonight with no intention of losing this match and have been playing with an according degree of caution, start to push forward again. In the end, though, in spite of late game nerves, Forest hold on with a degree of comfort and record their first win in five matches.
This win lifts Nottingham Forest to thirteenth place in the Championship and, while this has been a disappointing start to the season considering their performance last season, if they can put together a little more consistency it is certainly too soon to write off their chances of making the plays-offs. For all of the doom and gloom that has surrounded The City Ground so far this season, they are, even now, only four points off sixth place in the table. In a league in which everybody seems, as ever, to be beating everybody else, anything is possible. Middlesbrough, meanwhile, have a tiny slither of consolation tonight – results elsewhere mean that they are at least spared the indignity of slipping into the bottom three in the table. All eyes at The Riverside Stadium, however, will now fall upon the club’s chairman, Steve Gibson. Managing Middlesbrough away from the pickle in which they find themselves at present will be a massive challenge and Gibson has already admitted that he got it wrong with his last appointment. Boro supporters may reflect upon the fact that he cannot afford to do so again if their club is to retain its Championship place for next season.