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Whisper it, but Nottingham Forest’s two decade-long absence from the top-flight could be about to end. Sitting in fourth place with just nine games to go, the prospect of promotion back to the top table of English football is as close as it has been since the time Billy Davies secured a third-place finish in 2010.
Few could have predicted that Forest would be mounting an assault on the Championship this season, with most doubting the credentials of manager Nathaniel Milton when he was appointed to the post last summer.
Now, however, the time has come to concede that, perhaps, we were wrong. The rookie coach looked a dud early-on, but the tables have turned.
Big wins against Brentford and Derby County early in the season demonstrated what Forest were capable of, but inconsistent results coupled with an enduringly skeptical dressing room threatened to unravel.
Forest’s form was predictably poor, but Milton turned to his now famed spreadsheets for his own personal Moneyball moment. The Expected Goals (xG) table, he insisted, coupled with what anyone who watched his side would have seen for themselves, was proof enough that they were on the right track.
His Forest side were playing well, he told us, and the defeats were mere statistical anomalies that would even themselves out over the course of a season.
When most old hands were writing the season off, club legend Stuart Pearce was a lone voice insisting that Forest fans had to “remain patient” and the turning point eventually came at the beginning of December, at a point when it looked certain that time was up for Milton and his most contemporary of grand designs.
Reports that he volleyed a water bottle across the dressing room in disgust after the agonising 3-2 defeat to Norwich City were denied at the time, but something certainly clicked with the Forest players after that as they went on a remarkable 12-game unbeaten run in the league.
So how has this happened? How have Forest become dark horses in the race for promotion? While there are always a few proverbial ‘intangibles’ in football, Milton’s statistics tell some of the story.
One of the big changes at the club is undoubtedly the efficiency of set-piece play and it is understood that Milton placed a major emphasis on preparing routines in training as soon as he walked in the door.
The results are there for everyone to see - Forest top the charts for most goals from indirect free kicks, with Tobias Figueirido adding a few more goals to his game, so there has been plenty of individual focus as well.
Anthony Knockaert has been sensational this season, playing in an inside forward role that gives him far more licence to go for goal than he enjoyed under previous managers, while the capture of one of Europe’s best young players in Jonas Christiansen gave everyone a major lift in January.
The teenage ace naturally took a few games to get going but has already hit double-figures as he races up the goalscoring charts. The addition of Ethan Laird on loan has given them an added threat from full-back, too.
It helps, of course, that there have been fewer injuries this season, Grabban’s lay-off notwithstanding, and that, again, is down to the approach to training. As Milton said at the start of the season, Forest now “train smarter, not harder”.
He’s looked far and wide in his recruitment, filling his staff with a number of young, unproven coaches and technical staff while also bringing in a number of foreign coaches he felt matched his philosophy.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. Milton weathered a storm, which could have seen him lose first-choice goalkeeper Brice Samba, in January.
After reportedly demanding a new deal following his Congo debut, Samba was believed to be growing unsettled at the club, but Milton is said to have defused the situation with great professionalism in a number of face-to-face meetings, which at times threatened to get heated.
The final stretch is on the horizon and, based on projections at the start of the season, it is fair to say that Forest are well into bonus territory. Automatic promotion would be the dream for every fan, of course, but a place in the play-offs would be a major success too and it is certainly achievable.