At the end of the day
So…another play-off semi-final, another heavy second leg defeat after progress seemed to be there for the grasping. Forest sides seem to deal with the pressure like England players tackling penalty shoot-outs. Looking at our abysmal record in knockout situations since what feels like forever, it’s not really a surprise.
A defeat like this on the day the Tories return to power after thirteen years is the stuff existential crises are made of. Taking a deep breath and groping around for perspective leads me to several conclusions.
The first is that twelve months ago, we would have all viewed this as excellent progress for our club, and so it is. It’s been a great season, we have an able manager and a promising squad of players.
The second is that on balance, I doubt we really were the third best team in the division. Billy Davies – if he decides that this is a project he wants to see through to its natural conclusion – might wonder which is the real Forest: the one which has been invincible at home (yet managed, after not conceding at the City Ground since early February, to ship four in 25 minutes when it most mattered); or the one whose away form has been so abject, and yielded less victories even than last season. I say this partly to make myself feel better about the injustices of the play-offs, a team who squeaked into sixth on the final day beating a team cemented in the top three since Christmas, and all that!
Third, is that this side is not, as Davies has maintained all year, ready for the top flight. If it were, we wouldn’t have lost four times to Blackpool (who probably aren’t ready for it either). It would’ve ground out a result from at least one of Hillsborough, Portman Road, the Ricoh, Oakwell, Selhurst Park, Ashton Gate, Pride Park, Deepdale, Loftus Road (I could go on). It would’ve managed a goal in the 270 combined minutes played against Blackburn and Birmingham.
Fourth, what the squad of players Davies has inherited and assembled lacks is not ability but mental toughness, a toughness that would’ve halted that run of away defeats, and prevented them disappearing in the second halves of both legs against Blackpool. Next season they will also have to combat our expectations. Having come this far, anything less will feel like failure, and if we have one of our traditionally indifferent openings to the next campaign, the pressure will be on. Davies will have to prove his managerial credentials then.
But so what? Congratulations to Blackpool. They deserved it, and it would be great now to see them finish the job. The Premier League, and the game in general, needs characters like Ian Holloway to liven it up. Would be great to see him going face to ugly mug with Fergie and Arsène and their po-faced cohorts.
And I am quite fond of the Championship, with its general sense of competitiveness (even if Newcastle and West Brom were way ahead at the end) and its quaintly junior status on the BBC on Saturday nights. Nice trophy, too.
Let’s have another year of it then…