Issue An evening to savour or get out the way?

As told by Jason Mckeown

Driving back up the M6 towards Skipton after Bradford City’s opening day defeat at Shrewsbury Town, a convoy of Nottingham Forest supporters’ coaches crawled by the other way. The passing of ships in the early evening night carried a certain symbolism – for in recent years both clubs have been travelling in very different directions.

It wasn’t that long ago that City v Forest was a regular league fixture. First in Division One from 2001; then, after a one-year break caused by City getting relegated first, in League One. A pair of fairly big fishes tredding in choppy lower league waters, struggling to recover from calamitous falls. Each club specialised in under-achievement, and struggled to adapt to the fact recent Premier League glory days probably wouldn’t be re-lived anytime soon.

But while City sunk another league, Forest resuscitated and now return to Valley Parade for this League Cup tie a big Championship gun looking to avoid a giant-killing. The differing fortunes have much to do with finances and Forest’s stronger fanbase – no need for cheap season tickets to entice supporters to the City Ground, even at their lowest ebb. Yet the fact things can change relatively quickly offer hope for City that they too can follow Forest’s journey of revival.

Now which way up should this map be?

The Notts Forest supporters were travelling home from Burnley on Saturday night following a 1-0 defeat. Ah Burnley, remember when we used to be able to look down on our neighbours from just over the border? But then the Championship is now bursting with teams that not long ago we considered ourselves well above: Doncaster, Hull, Scunthorpe, Swansea, Barnsley – and let’s not even get started on Blackpool.

City have not so much been driving in the slow lane, watching others overtake them, as stuck on the hard shoulder with smoke coming out the engine.

Perspective in football is always changing. And it’s nights like this – rather than Saturdays like the one coming up when Stevenage come to Valley Parade, where it hits home how much City have faltered over the last 10 years. Four years ago City travelled to Forest on the opening day of the season as equals, the narrow 1-0 defeat which occurred offered few clues to the great chasm which has since developed. 59 league places separated the clubs at the end of last season, it’s a long way back.

After the disappointment of Saturday, Forest’s quick return up North to Valley Parade this evening is probably looked upon by Peter Taylor as an unwelcome hindrance. The City manager returned from Shrewsbury with plenty of food for thought and, for the first time since he took over last February, faint criticism from some fans over his team selection and tactics.

The flaws of his 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation at the New Meadow were expertly exposed by Graham Turner’s strong outfit and, despite the success City enjoyed from this approach at the back end of last season, there are calls for a return to 4-4-2. But against such strong opposition as Forest, albeit as the home team, it will be a tough dilemma to abandon or stick with the extra defensive benefits the so-far employed tactics offer.

Do City have a go this evening, take the game to quality opposition in an attempt to get them on the back foot? Or is it better to prioritise containing players of the calibre City won’t face during the bread and butter league campaign? Does Omar Daley’s return from suspension encourage Taylor to play two out-and-out wingers to supply crosses for two central strikers, or would that risk a central midfield two ending up over-run by a team known for passing the ball?

A year ago McCall was slated for playing 5-4-1 at the City Ground, though the then-City boss was already in a position where whatever he attempted to do would be criticised by a section of supporters. The surprising level of dissent shown towards Taylor by some fans in the away end on Saturday, and on Message Boards in recent days, would suggest  he’s not in the ‘can’t lose’ position this nature of cup tie would normally represent. A poor showing tonight, and the criticism may get louder.

With such uncertainty over what formation Taylor will play and the possibility of resting players, it would be wasting mine and your time to try to predict tonight’s starting line up. We may see a struggling-for-fitness James Hanson rested up. Both Louis Moult and Jake Speight impressed when coming on from the bench on Saturday, and one or both may get the chance of a full debut alongside Gareth Evans.

Daley is likely to be given a first outing of the season, either up front in a three-man attack or as a wideman. Light relief on Saturday came from a heated argument between two City fans in the second half, triggered by one angrily questioning why Taylor didn’t bring Daley on. When the other person sought to  point out the obvious – the Jamaican was suspended – the exasperated retort was “Yes I know, but why doesn’t he bring someone on like Daley!” The debate raged on about how Taylor didn’t have such an option, and suddenly the importance of Daley in City’s promotion bid became evidently clear.

Also in line for a first appearance is Luke O’Brien. Alongside Zesh Rehman a scapegoat for many fans last season, the duo’s absence saw Scott Neilson and Luke Oliver take over the roles of being singled out for abuse and may now be dropped. Luke still has a lot to offer this club – and after Robbie Threlfall’s dismal performance on Saturday, perhaps even as a left back again – but faces a difficult fight to claim a regular spot. Zesh and Shane Duff may also earn a start. Michael Flynn is nearing a return to fitness, but it’s questionable whether he or Tommy Doherty will be risked from the start tonight.

Like City, Forest go into this season having to cope with heightened expectations following their over-performance in finishing 3rd last season. Manager Billy Davies is robbed of five players due to international call ups – including £2.65m Welsh striker Rob Earnshaw. That may allow one-time City loanee Dele Adebola a rare start, who should receive a warm reception on his first return.

Last season against City, Davies opted to play several first team players. Chris Cohen and Paul Anderson ran the show that evening; though after going onto become key players in their ultimately failed promotion bid, they may now have been elevated to the status of needing to be rested ahead of a home game with Leeds this Saturday. Their exclusion would increase City’s chance of causing an upset.

Tonight’s game will be a useful exercise in how City measure up to one of the best sides in the Football League – and how much progress there has been towards bridging the gap over the last year. But while a cup run will be welcome in this season especially, Taylor is likely to be prioritising Saturday’s game with former club Stevenage. A repeat of that famous win over Forest in 1995 will be most welcome, but only if it helps the team in their quest for promotion like it did that season.

But ultimately we should fear defeat this evening and the start to the season becoming worse before it gets better. A year ago after losing at the City Ground McCall declared “the season starts here.” Taylor may end this evening uttering something similar.