Back in formation
By Olly Du Croz
Fact: Nobody can touch us when we play like this.
Question: Can we play like this again on Saturday?
For now, however, let's forget about the question of consistency. Nothing less than a fine (possibly unbeaten) run to the end of the season will secure a playoff place for the Golden Boys, but this is the time to appreciate a Watford performance which reaffirmed the belief that we can be a frighteningly good side.
All the worries and concerns of a frustrating few months were dispatched as our fearsome foursome up front overcame Forest to earn a thoroughly deserved three points. With Wooter and Mooney supplying the width - along with Gifton and Tommy Smith playing with energy and imagination in the middle - our fellow playoff hopefuls form Nottingham didn't have a prayer.
Let's not forget that it was on the very same day (April 3rd) two years ago that we started our memorable unbeaten run which kept going for the remaining eight games of the season. And then three little extra matches afterwards, of course. Reference to that run-in is worth a mention, but we shouldn't dwell on it as that is in the past and too much looking over our shoulder could affect a very exciting and potentially equally productive end of the 2000/01 season.
We were a threat from early moments when Wooter and Smith were using their significant pace to the full, right through to Mooney's breakaway goal to make it 3-0 when Forest pressed in the second half. Who cared how we won on Tuesday night, to be honest. But the feast of attacking play that unfolded was a very welcome bonus.
While scoring three goals is all well and good, to keep a clean sheet could be the most important aspect of the night's performance. Not since mid-January's away win at Sheffield United had we kept the opposition out for the entire ninety minutes. The main reason for that was - despite Forest's misses which show why strikers Stern John and David Johnson are behind Chris Bart-Williams in the club's goal-scoring charts - all four of our defenders kept their focus and looked genuinely convincing about really wanting to keep the ball as far from Baardsen's goal as possible.
A report I read in the paper on Wednseday said how Forest had started with two wingers to take on Watford's "suspect" full-backs. Robbo and Cox both performed well enough to make that reporter re-assess his opinion of them. Equally impressive were the captain and his young apprentice in the heart of the defence. Big Darren looks to have re-found that presence that scared a few strikers off the park early in the season.
So - after too much general waffle - to the action...
Gifton's goal was made by the work of Smith as the young striker beat the off-side trap and raced clear of the defence. After looking up to check the linesman hadn't raised his flag - and then popping off to put an order in for his half-time cuppa while the Forest defence woke up - he advanced to the by-line, spotted Gifton racing into the box and planted a lovely cross on the head of the big man who nodded back across the keeper and into the net.
A lively atmosphere in the Rookery - how could we be quiet with the yellow shirts running at us with ambition on regular occasions? - certainly made enough noise to make Graham realise what he's going to miss next year. But with him sending teams out to play like this I'm sure we'll miss him too.
The second half started with exactly what we needed: a goal to give us more of a cushion before panic set in and we got too irrational. I'd like to say it was an absolute classic, with Cox's beautifully flighted free-kick picking out a towering leap from Mooney at the back post who unleashed a bullet header...but that's not exactly sticking to the facts. In truth, Cox hit a free-kick along the ground which should have been cleared with ease. Luckily (isn't it great to have luck back on our side?) it took a deflection off a Forest boot and fell to Mooney. The rest was pure Tommy, as he placed it low into the net for a finish of brilliant simplicity. 2-0.
The next goal, however, wrapped up the game. And it was even more typical of our magnificent top scorer. Running onto a through-ball, the challenging defender never stood a chance of getting close to the ball as Mooney went into single-minded mode (not that he had anyone in support) and when he's looking for a goal it's normally best not get in his way. Nodding the ball into his path, he advanced on Beasant's goal and squeezed the ball between the ageing keeper and his near post. At 3-0, we really could relax.
Forest did have chances. Whether they were before or after our third is irrelevant (well, I've forgotten anyway) but John's flashing header was inches wide with the keeper beaten and Johnson should have done far better with a couple of off-target shots. But with that lead - as I mentioned above - it was heartening to see the defence so determined to keep a clean sheet, which will do Baardsen's confidence the world of good as well.
With the adventurous formation, with Wooter and Mooney playing as wingers in what can only be described as 4-2-4, we are looking like a side full of goals again. Nielsen and Palmer (who I haven't mentioned yet but were both superb) put in the work of at least two players each to make the system work, giving a solid platform to build on with protection in front of the defence and even joining in the fun further up field when we were flooding forwards.
So, can we do it again on Saturday? Well, going with the reasoning that there can't be endless false dawns in such a short space of time, I've got to be confident that we can.
Bring on Palace. With the Taylor-made army in this form, they don't stand a chance.