The curious case of Forest’s misfiring strikers

by , April 22, 2013

On nearly every football internet forum, radio discussion or newspaper column around the country, you will repeatedly see the call for a club to sign a 25-goal-a-season striker. It is the Holy Grail of football management and on Saturday, never was it so clear in Nottinghamshire football. Matt Green’s 27th goal of the season secured the Blue Square Premier title for Mansfield, while Nottingham Forest’s more heralded frontline toiled yet again during the 0-0 draw with Barnsley. While some teams do prosper without a goal machine, three consecutive blanks at a vital time of the season raises questions over a group of strikers that on paper, are amongst the best in the division.

‘As the news filtered through regarding Billy Sharp, I have to say I was excited. I have wanted to see a 20-goal a season striker at Nottingham Forest for a long time,’ wrote an excited Kenny Burns back in early September in his Nottingham Post column. ‘And now, with Simon Cox, they have two.’

Few Forest fans disagreed with that assessment and most were delighted that fellow striker Dexter Blackstock signed a four-and-a-half year deal during the January transfer window. In the same window the experienced (and fairly prolific) Darius Henderson was added to the mix. When Billy Davies took over the managerial reigns from Alex McLeish it seemed a certainty that goals would start to flow from this talented group.

But it simply has not worked out that way. Forest’s midfielders scored a spurt of goals during the initial six-game winning streak under Davies, but apart from two Henderson goals the strikers have often failed to have any efforts on goal – never mind reach 20 goals.
It is difficult to pin down why this has happened, but it is an important question for Davies who now needs two wins to sneak into the play-offs. Davies made his feelings known to his midfielders in front of BBC cameras recently, blaming a lack of quality from his creative players. He has also blamed a lack of width which has obviously been sorely lacking since the departure of Gareth McCleary.

I certainly think that has been an issue in the case of Blackstock and Henderson. Blackstock is not a prolific goalscorer but is a better striker than he has shown in recent weeks. Forest are hugely indebted to Blackstock whose goals in 2009 and 2012 almost certainly saved the club from a return to League One. But without crosses coming into the box, neither he, nor Henderson will prosper and both have seen their confidence drop sharply compared to recent seasons.

Billy Sharp has a just under a one-in-three record for Forest, which is decent but perhaps not what we expected. His record is actually better than he managed in his second spell with Sheffield United (8 goals in 51 appearances) but nothing like the on-in-two record he managed at Doncaster Rovers. Perhaps Sharp needs regular games as the main striker to get the most out of him. Forest now have a difficult decision regarding Sharp. Under Financial Fair Play rules it would be difficult to buy him in the summer on a permanent basis. Should Forest sign him? That is a debate I did not expect to take place after the fanfare on his initial loan signing.

Even more mystifying is the astonishing goal drought of Simon Cox, who has not netted in open play since scoring at Barnsley in October. Cox of course has a tremendous workrate which has seen him contribute 10 assists according to the Forest website. This has largely kept him in the team, but it is easy to see his confidence has waned in front of goal. Like Blackstock, I feel he will come back a better player next season – but for £2 million there is a tinge of disappointment in his return after such a promising start which included two goal-of-the-season contenders.

For me, the root of the problem has been an over-reliance on Andy Reid to play the final ball to our four troubled strikers. Without any pace in the side, most Forest attacks work towards getting Andy Reid on the ball. Many times this season – including Saturday against Barnsley – it is Reid’s crosses that lead to most chances Forest create. Billy Sharp hit the bar from one delivery and Henri Lansbury had a header well saved from another Reid cross. Looking at the season’s statistics on the Forest website this reliance is clear. Reid has 11 assists and the next nearest midfielder has just four.

Over 46 games it is too much to rely on one player. Next season I would like to see the full backs and midfielders contribute far more assists. We need more variety in our attacks and I would like to see Lansbury on the ball as much as Reid – dictating play with his obvious class and quality. Too often I have seen fans berate Reid from the terraces on an off day, while others have faded out of the game or failed to take responsibility. Whatever his faults, never once has Reid hid from the ball and without him, Forest’s play-off push would have ended long ago.

Whatever happens in the final two games, a 25-goal striker will not be the only priority on Billy’s Davies’s list of ‘recommendations’. As we have seen this season, you can have a number of big name strikers on the books, but without a varied attack with guile, width and pace, teams do not score the goals they should on paper. If Forest can find those missing pieces, one of our strikers could emulate Mansfield’s Matt Green and finally get Forest into the promised land of the Premier League.

Paul Severn