There are home crowds who cheer goals less passionately than the Lower Bridgford Stand celebrated Neco Williams earning a goalkick when tackling Leon Bailey in stoppage time. But this summed up Nottingham Forest on a day they deservedly won for the first time in more than two months, denying Aston Villa a passageway into the top four of the Premier League.
Goals early in each half, set up by Harry Toffolo for Ola Aina and for Orel Mangala, gave Forest the platform to halt Villa’s free-scoring start to the season after the West Midlands side had scored 26 times in their opening 10 top-flight games, their most prolific effort since 1931.
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With the Forest owner, Evangelos Marinakis, in attendance, the pressure could have been on Steve Cooper and his players. But how they responded, the customary but vociferously heartfelt chants of “Mull of Kintyre” and “Stevie Cooper” having barely subsided when they took the lead in the fifth minute, and the manager’s punches to the crowd were cheered from the rafters after the final whistle.
For all the fact they had not won for six league games, which coincided with Villa’s unbeaten run over the same number of top-flight matches, Forest have still been loud and proud at the City Ground.
They have lost only two of their past 20 top-flight home games, and the atmosphere remains as impassioned and feral as ever.
“Today was a really good example of what we have become over the past couple of years,” Steve Cooper said. “Today was us – the supporters, the atmosphere, the ground, the players – at our finest.
“You could tell before the game that everyone was up for it. Then the players, me and the staff will respond to that. We create a really difficult atmosphere for our opponents to play in but a great one for us to play in.”
Emiliano Martínez’s error allows Nottingham Forest to take a 2-0 lead. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Getty Images
Before kick-off, both sets of players showed their support for Caiden Storry, the young bugler whose version of the Last Post, on the Sunday before Remembrance Day, finished a couple of bars early. But it was Forest who were soon celebrating.
Villa have also enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with their home crowd in a year when only Manchester City have enjoyed better results. “I know to play at home for us is amazing,” Unai Emery said. “To play away, the opponent feels the same, and tries to connect with their supporters. When we conceded the first goal, they were increasing the emotional moment to take the energy.”
Neat interplay down the left wing with Anthony Elanga culminated in Toffolo pulling his low cross back outside the penalty area. Aina arrived from right-back to crack a low shot into the bottom corner for his first Forest goal since arriving from Torino in the summer. It was also Forest’s first goal in the opening half for eight matches.
Toffolo’s recall was one of several astute changes by Cooper. He shifted away from the five-man backline used in the 3-0 defeat at Liverpool, recalling Taiwo Awoniyi up front with Willy Boly the centre-back dropping out, and Odysseas Vlachodimos impressed on his debut in goal in place of the fragile Matt Turner.
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Content to concede possession while threatening on the counterattack against Villa’s remarkably high backline, Forest protected their new goalkeeper superbly. Apart from half chances for Nicolò Zaniolo, Moussa Diaby and Ollie Watkins, Villa had very little to show for their 74% control of the ball.
Villa, so brilliant at home in their best 10-game start to a Premier League season in 25 years, had not learned from their hesitant start to the first half. It was two minutes into the second half when Toffolo pulled his cross back outside the penalty area; this time it was Mangala who let fly and, although Emiliano Martínez saved the shot, he misjudged its flight and the ball spun back over the goalline.
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“We are all human and can make a mistake,” Emery said, in the week Martínez won the Lev Yashin award for the world’s best goalkeeper after an unfortunate own goal against Luton. “It is not just the goalkeeper. I am never punishing the mistake of the players because I want to try to get confidence in everyone.”
Villa’s slick interplay reflected that of an elite team, and Bailey’s introduction at the interval offered the threat of more width and pace, but with a two-goal lead and their home crowd behind them Forest were in a place they loved. Backs to the wall, nights creeping in, the prospect of an upset against a high-end team, their beloved manager under pressure, Forest dug their heels in and saw the game over the line.