Whatever will be, will be… (we’re not going to Wembley)
While Forest fans leaving Bramall Lane were thinking they had somehow slipped through a time warp into the 1970s as they stepped from the inaptly named Jessica Ennis Stand into an ugly scene of street scuffles and police inaction, Andy Reid was probably thinking he had been transported back to May 15, 2003.
Reid, of course, was part of the Paul Hart team who were agonisingly dumped out of the play-offs on this ground on that date. With the fans singing about Wembley (admittedly it may have been the Millennium Stadium in 2003, but you get the idea) and starting to plan their trip to the capital (Cardiff is a capital city, right?), Forest once more managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and once again it was the Blades dishing out the pain. All it needed was a Des Walker own goal to complete the deja-vu, although you could argue Dorus de Vries’ clanger makes up for it.
That play-off game sadly set the tone for Forest’s next decade when no fewer than three more times would the Reds fall at the play-off semi-finals stage – indeed, we invariably seem to throw it away in the second half of the second leg. And now our best chance of going to Wembley in the FA Cup (albeit thanks to the infuriating policy of holding the semi-finals there) since 1991 slips away in similar fashion.
Why does history keep repeating on Forest? Why can we never fully grasp these opportunities? It might be a case of ‘boo hoo, get over yourselves’ as every team has chances of glory that they throw away – this year’s FA Cup draws have, as they did for Wigan last season, opened up a path to the final that many unfancied club would, erm, fancy. We’re not the only team currently nursing wounds and cursing our luck.
But Forest seem to have turned not getting to Wembley into an art form. Like England and penalty shoot outs, every campaign seems to end in the same inevitable finale. English footballers’ inability to score from 12 yards has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with each new generation that steps up to take those agonising kicks remembering the legacy of Stuart Pearce, Chris Waddle, Gareth Southgate, Paul Ince, et al.
Perhaps Forest have a similar problem now with big games. Every play-off semi-final defeat heaps pressure on the next one. Billy Davies seems to have a reputation among some of his critics for producing teams that choke on the big day – our failure to beat Leicester on the final day of last season being another example – but he was able to guide Derby successfully through the play-offs in 2007, so it can’t be all his fault.
Nevertheless it must be argued that on several occasions this season Forest have squandered a lead late on in games. Or rather failed to capitalise on a lead to consolidate a win. Certainly in Davies’ previous reign Forest did have a habit of grinding out results, particularly away from home. This time around he’s tended to make attacking substitutions to try and extend a lead, but Forest’s inconsistent strike-rate has scuppered this strategy. Davies’ calls for more fire-power during the transfer window still ring true and Rafik Djebbour hasn’t yet shown he is the answer to our problems in that area.
Maybe Forest simply aren’t equipped to succeed this year. The system Davies has been setting them out in recently is a temperamental one – when it works it is explosive, but frequently it misfires. Like a gun, all the parts must be working in perfect order or only the person firing it will get hurt. With key components Chris Cohen, Henri Lansbury and David Vaughan out injured for the rest of the campaign, I do suspect Forest are beyond repair.
It’s hugely frustrating as this Forest squad is arguably the most talented since Dave Bassett’s promotion team of 1997/98 and certainly the most promising since Paul Hart’s youthful side. I still think, with the players left, we can remain competitive this season, perhaps cling onto our play-off place until the end, but I don’t hold out much hope of promotion. We’ve got strength in depth and certainly enough midfielders to cover for those injured, but a successful football team at any level needs key players performing at their best, not back-ups plugging the gaps.
Sunday’s result is going to take the wind out of our sails. If we don’t bounce back immediately against Leicester on Wednesday, this could be the week that ruins our season, with a tough trip to Burnley rounding it off. I’m an optimist and I’ll still be clinging onto hope as long as Forest can feasibly make it, but I’m also a realist and sometimes you have to accept that things aren’t going your way.
Forest should have beaten Sheffield United. We should have been considering our chances of beating one of two Championship rivals in the quarter finals. As things stand, that dream is over and we’re back to ‘concentrating on the league’. In some ways that’s a good thing – the manager knows that his job safety relies on league position, not cup progress. League position now requires the Reds to put yet another second-half heartbreak behind them and they might end up stronger for it.
The song ‘Que Sera, Sera’ is all about fate. It says that whatever the future holds, it’s not worth worrying about because we can’t control it or predict it. But Forest do have a degree of control over their own fate. In a highly competitive division and with injuries robbing of us key talents, the odds are now against us. Still, that Bramall Lane deja-vu reminds us that when the odds are in our favour, things have a habit of going wrong.
Whatever happens this April and May, I’m determined not to let myself plan any trips to Wembley until our name is being printed on the programme cover. But now the odds are against us, somehow the idea of Forest laying their play-offs daemons to rest seems more realistic. After recent set-backs I’m lowering my expectations for this season, but the lower your expectations the more likely you are to be pleasantly surprised. This might mean Forest can surprise me by proving me wrong. Then again, they might do it by topping their previous efforts at spirit-crushing collapse. They’d certainly have to go some…