Championship Play-Off Final: Michael Owen’s View
In Saturday’s Championship clash at the City Ground, between Nottingham Forest and Bristol City, all the attention will be on the hosts after an eventful start to 2019 – but the visitors look underrated.
This will be Martin O’Neill’s first home game in charge of Nottingham Forest.
The appointment of a club legend, who starred in the 1979 and 1980 European Cup wins under Brian Clough has certainly had an impact on the ticket sales for this match, with a full house expected.
🔴 Sell out on Saturday!
There is set to be a fantastic atmosphere on Trentside as #NFFC fans have snapped up all of the tickets available to see Martin O'Neill's first game in charge of The Reds against Bristol City. pic.twitter.com/D81MbuR6UP
— Nottingham Forest FC (@NFFC) January 17, 2019
It would be wrong to define this as entirely a sentimental appointment, because O’Neill has achieved some good things as a manager – he led Celtic to three titles plus a UEFA Cup Runners-Up spot and Aston Villa to top four contention in the Premier League.
However, it is difficult to see him joining had he not had that prior connection to the club, because his record in recent years leaves a lot to be desired.
His tactical approach meanwhile, appears to be standing the test of time.
Under Aitor Karanka, Forest were far from a long ball side – they had a nicely balanced midfield with Jack Colback, Adlene Guedioura and Joao Carvalho all offering qualities in and out of possession.
The downturn in form over the last six weeks had much to do with Karanka not feeling the backing of the board, despite having overseen significant progress up until December.
If the dispute between Karanka and the board had been down to control over transfers and the Director of Football model, then why would chairman Nicholas Randall appoint as confrontational a character as O’Neill?
It could be a political tactic to distract fans from the poor treatment of Karanka, but fans will be happy when the team is putting in strong performances and they will do that when they are well-coached.
On recent evidence, Karanka is far better qualified to get the best out of that group of players than O’Neill.
Lee Johnson has a complex relationship with Bristol City.
During his playing days at Ashton Gate, he was a slightly divisive figure – around half the fans felt he was a limited midfielder while the other half believed him to be the key man holding things together.
In many ways, that mirrors his time as a manager, where there’s still two groups within the fanbase and the one that is most vocal is influenced by results, while the other group sway closer to the middle-ground.
Intriguingly, the form has always been either very good or very bad, too.
Six weeks, the Robins were enduring their customary rough patch with seven defeats in 11 but a 1-0 win at Birmingham in early December proved one of the results that has catalysed a nine-game unbeaten streak.
At St Andrews, they displayed a certain adaptability that has not always been associated with Johnson’s teams.
The Robins scored via Famara Diedhiou following a set piece and defended their penalty area stoutly as Adam Webster, a bright young centre-back, began a run of impressive individual performances.
That was followed up by a 2-2 home draw with Norwich, in which wide man Callum O’Dowda and midfielder Marlon Pack shone in a game they perhaps ought to have won.
Most recently, Johnson’s tactical switches proved the difference in a 2-1 triumph over Bolton, with substitutes Matty Taylor and Chelsea loanee Kasey Palmer netting two second half goals in quick succession.
Interestingly, the head coach has cottoned onto the recent trend of using goalkeepers in a creative sense, with Finnish stopper Nikki Maenpaa’s long-range distribution being particularly impactful.
O’Neill has rarely had the imagination to adapt to the modern game in quite the same way.
The drama at Forest, with Karanka leaving and O’Neill coming in, will create an emotional atmosphere which might hinder the players more than it will help them.
The attention and pressure on the hosts means Bristol City, on their customary (winning streak), can quietly perfect their game plan.
Bristol City to win 19/10