Forest must use strong squad to turn draws into wins

by , November 13, 2012

In 1959, Nottingham Forest lifted the FA Cup with the same 11 players starting in every round. I had the fortune of meeting the goalkeeper Chic Thomson on several occasions and he regularly told me how this team of ‘journeymen’ came together to become more than the sum of its parts. When Roy Dwight went off injured in the final at Wembley, no substitute could come on to replace him and Forest held on desperately to protect Thomson and secure a historic 2-1 win. Organisation and strong resolute defending was the key for this small group of players as they made history lifting the one trophy that eluded the legendary Brian Clough.

In today’s game has changed beyond all recognition from that of the 1950s. It is clearly a squad game, with most Premiership sides carrying two or more full teams. Spurs with four senior goalkeepers is one example that springs to mind. So, it was with great excitement that Forest put together a squad of depth and flexibility that was the envy of many fans in the Championship.

After a third of the season, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Sean O’Driscoll is in the process of implementing a passing style that is still bedding in. The positives are that we have been competitive in every game, including the 1-4 defeats to Wigan and Millwall. The all-new defence has been shaky at times but statistically is one of the better backlines in the league, a massive achievement in my opinion considering that fact that due to injury the same four has rarely started two consecutive games.

However, with the money spent there is a tinge of disappointment with our league position. Ten points from the top is not a massive chasm at this stage, but it cannot grow much wider if we are looking to challenge. In my opinion we are not utilising the squad anywhere near enough – whether it be making decisive substitutions during games, rotating the side to give players a rest, keeping squad members involved or exploiting weaknesses of opponents.

One player that needs highlighting is Dexter Blackstock. In our number 23 we have a seasoned centre forward and an all-round target man that would walk into most Championship sides. He has been a great servant to us and proved his immense value last season in away games at Birmingham and Leeds, netting four crucial goals that went a long way to keeping us up. I am a huge admirer of the hard-working Simon Cox and the proven Billy Sharp, but the three forwards need to be rotated far more to suit the opposition or the style of game. For example, against Millwall, the two smaller strikers had a tough time against the man mountain Danny Shittu. Blackstock is a huge asset and needs using far more proactively.

Later in that game, almost unforgivably, O’Driscoll failed to bring on Lewis McGugan until we were 3-1 down and the game was gone. Again, the same happened days later against Middlesborough, with over £2 million worth of talent coming on with two minutes to go – too late to make any impact. To me, we have a great (and expensive) bench which we are not using to any real effect. The top teams can bring on players like Javier Hernandez to turn games, even though they have a settled first team but still rotate to keep players sharp and hungry.

O’Driscoll is doing a great job implementing a sustainable philosophy at Forest, but he seems too scared to lose games. That is understandable in the hire-and-fire culture in the Championship, but apart from Jermaine Jenas he seems to lack the confidence to bring anyone off the bench in a tight game. That could backfire over 46 gruelling games and may cause disharmony with players who feel frozen out. Perhaps better to lose a game and win one with three points for a win rather than become the dreaded ‘draw specialists?’

A big squad is a new challenge for O’Driscoll. I am not a Doncaster season ticket holder, but perhaps there was more of a Forest 1959 spirit at the Keepmoat, where he trusted his slim, tight squad to carry out his instructions – even if some were ‘journeymen’. However, at Forest the resources are much deeper and he will perhaps see a better return from the likes of Andy Reid, Chris Cohen, Billy Sharp and Simon Cox if they are given more of rest and really pushed for their place. Maybe then our owners will begin to see more of return on their investment as we move up the table and start to bring the good times back to the City Ground.

Follow Paul Severn on Twitter: @paulsevern7