Why the Bluebirds provide a blueprint for Nottingham Forest
Cardiff City and Nottingham Forest meet this weekend in the Welsh capital. It will mark a reunion for Robert Earnshaw, but also act as a reminder of where both clubs were just six months ago.
The Bluebirds are surfing the crest of a wave with four wins and two draws from their last six games and currently pose the biggest threat to Southampton and West Ham United’s automatic promotion hopes. Forest, meanwhile, have three wins from their last five games. Their own recent move up the table started from a lower position but it appears they acted quickly enough in ridding themselves of a certain former England manager to make a timely burst towards the middle of the division. Three points rather than two shared at the Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday will make the gap either eight points or 14 between two teams who faced the same conundrum in the summer.
Back in May, Cardiff and Forest both decided to dispense with the services of the men who had led them to the Championship play-offs twice in a row. While there was a similar sense that Dave Jones and Billy Davies had both had long enough in charge of their respective clubs without managing to achieve that elusive final step into the Premier League, their respective successors were chalk and cheese.
Malky Mackay had enjoyed an impressive first full season as manager of Watford, steering a side, of whom some fans expected the worst before the campaign started, to a safe mid-table finish. He did it in style too, introducing youngsters to fine effect and getting the best out of unglamorous attacking players such as Danny Graham, Will Buckley and Don Cowie. All three exited Vicarage Road in the summer along with Mackay, although only Cowie followed him to Cardiff. With almost an entire midfield and attack to rebuild, Cowie was just one piece in the jigsaw which saw numerous additions to a threadbare squad.
Cardiff sit third at present, which is testament to the fine job Mackay has done so far. In many ways, they have set the benchmark to which Forest must aspire. Mackay demands a fierce work ethic from his players and used the summer wisely to ensure the likes of Cowie, Filip Kiss and Aron Gunnarsson would be on hand to provide it throughout the long, hard season ahead. In contrast, Nottingham Forest recruited Andy Reid, Jonathan Greening and George Boateng – experienced, but pedestrian.
The Reds took a different tack in replacing Davies and outgoing players, attracting a big-name manager in the shape of Steve McClaren but disappointing their fans in the transfer market. Robert Earnshaw’s return to Cardiff was just one of the switches that meant Forest were in need of reinforcements. Unfortunately, McClaren’s arrival at the City Ground quickly lost the feel of a fresh start. The same boardroom wrangling and appalling lack of communication with supporters that was a hallmark of the Davies era barrelled along into this season, McClaren’s appointment swiftly looking like a hasty decision.
It was a move that caused chairman Nigel Doughty to fall on his sword at the same time that his new manager became his old one. And so, a few weeks into a season which had begun with a false start, Forest were finally chugging into life with two new men on the pitch, smiling into the camera. One was former manager Frank Clark, installed as chairman. The other was new manager Steve Cotterill, installed by Clark – his remit seemingly to go back to basics in an attempt to kickstart Forest’s season.
It looked a safe appointment rather than a sexy one and Cotterill has begun life back in Nottingham, after his brief spell at Notts County, in a low-key manner. After the high-profile presence of McClaren and the spotlight of a crushing 4-1 defeat to West Ham, televised live on Sky of course, workmanlike victories are less interesting to a wider audience.
This weekend’s trip to Cardiff will provide many Forest fans with one particular flashback – to their last trip to the same ground almost twelve months ago to the day. On 20th November 2010, Forest went to the Cardiff City Stadium and came away with a 2-0 win. The goalscorers were Lewis McGugan and Dexter Blackstock, both of whom also provide points of interest this time around.
McGugan’s spectacular strike was one of many during a successful season on a personal level, but he only has two league goals so far this term and it remains to be seen whether Cotterill’s tactics can unleash his full goalscoring potential. Often shifted out to the left wing to little or no effect by his previous manager, McGugan again found himself in that position for the visit of Ipswich last Saturday.
Maybe Cotterill can look to his opposite number this weekend for an example of getting the best out of a key performer. Peter Whittingham, a former Forest transfer target, did not have a poor last season under Jones by any means but he is now returning to the stratosphere of two years ago, when a 26-goal haul made him one of the best players in the division. In truth, he has always been in that bracket but a recent run of four goals in his last four games has caused talk of his credentials as the single most talented player outside the Premier League.
The crucial point is that Whittingham and McGugan both fit the category of players that managers must make the most of. In such a tight division, the ability to force opposition teams to adapt their tactics and gameplan in an effort to nullify one outstanding creative or goalscoring midfielder on your side can often put you in the driving seat.
The main reason Cotterill has maintained McGugan’s left-wing role is his inability to call upon recognised wingers and right-back Chris Gunter was pushed up into midfield when Ipswich came to the City Ground. The return of wide man Paul Anderson from injury appears to be a shining beacon of hope for Forest supporters, but another imminent comeback seems equally pertinent. While scoring the second goal in that 2-0 victory, Blackstock injured himself and only now is he on the verge of recovery and a return to the first team. While McGugan only has two league goals to his name, Forest’s joint top scorers Ishmael Miller and Marcus Tudgay have just one more apiece. Cotterill will be glad of the added option of Blackstock in attack on the horizon.
And it is clear from the most basic of statistics that extra manpower at the sharp end of the pitch is much-needed. Forest have scored 18 goals in the Championship, which is only one more than their next hosts have managed in their eight home league games alone. Add Cardiff’s travels to the picture and Mackay’s men have hit the net 32 times in the league, with plenty of League Cup goals to boot and the prospect of a clash with top-flight strugglers Blackburn Rovers to come.
It all adds up to an intriguing acid test for the Cotterill effect and a chance for Cardiff to prove they can push the top two all the way. Despite their respective decisions to ditch managers on the basis of failed play-off attempts, Nottingham Forest would currently settle for another top six finish come the end of April while Cardiff ending the campaign in their present position would have to be marked down as a success. So will the gap between the two this Saturday evening be 11 points, 14… or just eight?