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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 01/03/03, 3.00pm
Nottingham Forest
Taking part
By Ian Grant

According to the saying, it's not the winning that counts but the taking part. Which is only partly true most of the time, and not at all when next Sunday comes around.

Nevertheless, the second bit of the equation has counted for an enormous amount this season. We've taken part more vigorously and wholeheartedly than at any time since promotion to the Premiership, and it's been a wonderful and joyful surprise. Of course, you have to win at the same time, otherwise it all comes tumbling down. But we've done that too, often enough.

You get used to it, though. Last season, a performance like this would've caused all manner of optimism and enthusiasm. It would've been a landmark, even allowing for our greatly inflated expectations. Now, it almost passes by unnoticed. Almost.

Sometimes, you need to look at things afresh. My dad was at Vicarage Road yesterday, for the first time in a while...and, like taking a friend to see a favourite band or much-loved movie, it meant that I spent the first half examining our efforts with a more critical eye. In particular, you hear your own words, describing this season's vast improvement to someone who hadn't seen it first-hand, repeated and compared to immediate reality. You stop taking things for granted...until involvement in the game finally makes objective analysis impossible, at least.

They passed the test. Here, we saw everything that's characterised the campaign. Against one of the division's best sides, and in a rich vein of form at that, we were dogged and committed and passionate. Until the final quarter of the game, when Forest moved up a couple of gears and we began to tire visibly, we also appeared to be the likely victors, despite the familiar failure to convert pressure into goals. That we were eventually forced to hang onto a point is no reason to ignore what went before.

Really, the first half performance was as good as anything that we've produced under Ray Lewington. We were apparently oblivious to whatever Forest had planned for us, forcing the game to submit to the force of our will instead. The visitors' passing game was thoroughly wrecked by relentless pressing in every part of the pitch, a huge effort that seemed to spread from Allan Nielsen and Heidar Helguson to every player in the side - it would be very hard to imagine forty-five minutes that contrasted more strongly with the lazy, flabby football of last year.

When the defence did come under pressure, we played with a straight bat throughout. On a number of occasions, it appeared that we were inviting trouble by backing off, only to intervene at the perfect moment and clear the danger without unnecessary fuss. As a consequence, a side that'd scored six in its last fixture managed just two goal attempts before the break, and only one of any particular note.

And, perhaps most pleasingly, we were constructive and positive with the ball at our feet. On one occasion - after solid defence had been turned into lively attack via a combination of neat, precise passing and adventurous movement, only for Heidar Helguson to fall foul of the linesman's flag at the vital moment - our efforts were rewarded with a huge ovation from the stands, proof that the team and its supporters are more in sync than for some considerable time. We still didn't score more than one goal, of course...but it wasn't for the lack of ideas, ambition or confidence. It just didn't quite happen.

But we did open the scoring within fifteen minutes. Remarkably, it's only the third time that we've found the net in the opening quarter of an hour, an indication of the sustained effort that's often required to break down opposition defences without that extra bit of sparkle and flair. And we might've done it earlier still, as Allan Nielsen nearly pounced on Gifton Noel-Williams' knock-down in the first minute, only to be denied by a smart piece of goalkeeping by Ward.

We were smart and bright and eager, in the right frame of mind. A couple of minutes later, some lovely football summed it all up. Paul Robinson foiled the roving Harewood with a perfect tackle inside the penalty area, then Heidar Helguson knocked the clearance across to Allan Nielsen in the centre circle, and his deft flick sent Jamie Hand racing away on the right flank. Even a hopelessly wayward cross from the youngster couldn't disguise the quality of the football. A reminder that, for all the talk of effort and work-rate, we're trying to build a side that fights for the right to play and then uses it.

And, barely sixty seconds after Alec Chamberlain had rather nervously dealt with an apparently tame attempt from Reid, we got our reward. It was a super goal too, Jamie Hand receiving possession on the right of midfield and turning down easier options in favour of driving powerfully into the penalty area. That's the stuff, young man. And his cross was splendid too, hung up at the far post for Heidar Helguson to climb above his marker and dump a header past the sprawling Ward. It's the template that we need to use and re-use. In particular, all credit to Jamie Hand, whose endless harrying and chasing shouldn't be obscured by a few misplaced passes.

Arguably, we were a little unfortunate not to have improved the lead by the interval. While Forest enjoyed plenty of possession, they found no way of hurting us - we defended superbly, including a couple of crucial and thunderously committed interventions from Heidar Helguson at set plays. You suspect that he'd throw himself in front of a bullet for his manager right now. And the bullet would come off worst. Yet again, Neil Cox and Marcus Gayle looked like the perfect partnership, confident and diligent against some very useful opponents. Honestly, who could've imagined that the latter would be a candidate for "player of the season" at the start of the campaign? And without a single goal to his name too?

At the other end, we continued to spring forward with considerable purpose. Within a couple of minutes of the re-start, Gifton Noel-Williams had nearly surprised Ward with a well-struck drive at his near post, then Stephen Glass swiped a half-volley into the stand after a brief lull. Receiving Marcus Gayle's mighty fifty yard pass, Noel-Williams controlled on his chest, turned and hit a shot at Ward from the edge of the area. Then closer still, as Heidar Helguson managed to hold off defenders in a breathless and typically determined charge from the halfway line, before dragging his finish across the face of goal from the left of the penalty area. We hadn't quite managed to (re-)create that clear, inviting opening. But we were much the more dangerous side.

Inevitably, then, Forest came extremely close to equalising from our only defensive lapse. It would've been cruel, if instructive. With injury time about to begin, a long ball appeared to be a matter of routine for Marcus Gayle and Alec Chamberlain. Shepherd it back, bowl it out, go on the attack. Except that it hit Gayle on the back of the head as he attempted to resist Huckerby's attentions, leaving all three players on the ground and an unguarded net. From his prone position, Huckerby hooked the ball towards goal from twenty yards...but he missed. We deserved the luck.

We couldn't sustain it after the break, unfortunately. That's easy to forgive, though, for the sheer energy of the performance could not possibly have been maintained for ninety minutes. We'd given it everything, in the hope of reaching a less vulnerable position. As Forest began to accelerate, we struggled to keep up, a situation illustrated by a sudden rash of yellow cards for late, desperate challenges. It just wasn't to be.

Even so, it took a while. The second half stuttered into life, disrupted by an early injury to the linesman on the Main Stand touchline - the third such incident this season, improbably. And we managed to hold off our opponents, gamely battling and struggling and even, as Gifton Noel-Williams fought against the rather risky challenge of a defender to head Paul Robinson's cross at Ward, attempting to build on the lead. It wasn't that one-sided. Yet.

In the end, we gave away the advantage that we'd worked so hard for. We gave it away, as Paul Robinson mis-judged a ball down the flank and allowed Harewood to escape into the space behind him. And Alec Chamberlain probably should've done better than to spill the driven shot back towards its source...although, in fairness, it was struck with considerable force at his near post. And the defenders might've reacted quicker, beating Huckerby to the loose ball. Instead, he was able to rifle it into the roof of the net from close range, and suddenly the game was escaping from us very quickly indeed.

There's still credit to give, however. Somehow - and there was more than a little good fortune involved - we kept hold of the point, even as our opponents were tearing and wrenching it away from us. It's not a point that does us a great deal of good, perhaps...but so much of this season has been about restoring pride and so much of this afternoon was about that too. This might easily have turned into a crushing defeat. We're better than that now. Stronger than that.

The Rookery was left to peer at the far end of the pitch for the remaining minutes. Apart from a couple of speculative efforts from Jamie Hand and a late free kick from Marcus Gayle, curled over the wall and saved comfortably by Ward, we were completely unable to mount attacks of any note. While patience with Gifton Noel-Williams began to run out as he tired, the problems were much more fundamental. We were being out-played by a very decent side.

As our defending became increasingly frantic, Forest created the chances to win it. And they didn't take them, to our immense relief. Reid headed weakly at Alec Chamberlain after climbing above Neal Ardley to reach a hanging cross that'd been launched from deep. That wasn't an easy chance...but Harewood appeared to waste a golden opportunity when he found space to meet Reid's drifting centre and mis-timed the header completely, allowing the keeper to collect the ball with surprised ease. We were really struggling. But we were struggling, at least.

As the minutes ticked by at a painfully slow rate, Williams hammered in a shot from the edge of the box that, thankfully, went straight at Alec Chamberlain. Even then, the power behind it was such that the keeper could only parry it back out whence it came. Another agonising minute, and Williams was again troubling Chamberlain with a low shot from twenty yards. You wouldn't have put much money on a draw, really. Four minutes of injury time didn't help our cause at all.

We emerged at the other end, flustered and dazed and a bit bewildered. In between, Dawson had smacked a header against the woodwork from a corner, the ball falling back into the six yard box to be fought for like a winning lottery ticket. And, later still, Huckerby scrambled his way through on the left to send a low cross ripping through the heart of the penalty area to the unmarked Reid, who took aim and then excitably blazed over the bar. It seemed that the referee's whistle couldn't come soon enough. But it did come soon enough, just about.

Exhausting, then. But hugely enjoyable. And that's the best thing, I think - whatever else we've achieved and will still achieve this season, we've reclaimed Saturday afternoons from indifferent faffing about. If you leave the ground feeling thoroughly drained, slightly hoarse and pretty content with life, there's not too much to complain about. And we don't have too much to complain about right now.

It is about winning. But you don't win much without committing everything you've got to taking part. The joy of competition is back at Vicarage Road, and three cheers for that.