“USA, USA, USA…”
It should have already felt like a redemptive moment for Matt Turner as the Nottingham Forest fans chanted to offer the keeper their backing just before the penalty shootout began. Just a few minutes later, that satisfying feeling will only have been enhanced after Turner made the vital save as Nuno Espirito Santo’s side secured a 5-3 win from the spot and FA Cup progress.
Only six days ago, Turner was delivered a very different message as the £6million ($7.6m) deadline-day signing of Matz Sels from Strasbourg underlined the fact that some were questioning his abilities.
The USMNT keeper had only joined in the summer, from Arsenal, as he looked to secure the regular first-team football that he had never grasped in the capital. He will have expected a fight for his place, with Forest having also signed Greek international Odysseas Vlachodimos from Benfica. What neither man would have anticipated is that by January, Forest would be dipping into the transfer market again, with neither of these two new arrivals having made the number one spot their own.
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Nuno — himself a former goalkeeper — handed Sels an immediate debut at Bournemouth last weekend, to offer an indication that he views the Belgian international as his first choice. But with Sels not having signed before the first meeting FA Cup with Bristol City, he — along with fellow new signings Gio Reyna and Rodrigo Ribeiro — was not eligible to play in the replay.
This gave Turner an opportunity. Not one, perhaps, to win his place back — but to prove a point at least.
On that front, Turner did not stand alone. This was a night when Nuno would have learned something positive about a few of his backup options.
Forest had planned to offload Divock Origi during the January window, with the striker having made little impact on loan from AC Milan. His wages made that difficult, even despite significant interest from MLS.
But, following the hamstring injury suffered by Chris Wood, the dynamic has changed, with the former Liverpool man having gone from being way out of the first-team picture to suddenly being a potentially useful backup option while Wood is sidelined for between six and eight weeks.
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Origi picked the perfect moment to score his first Forest goal, guiding home from close range as he attacked a powerful header from Felipe, who had connected with a Morgan Gibbs-White corner.
We also got a glimpse of an alternative tactical approach from Nuno, who reverted to the three-man central defence that he had favoured for the majority of his time at Wolves. At the other end, the forward line saw Origi and Anthony Elanga fielded as wider forwards, with Gibbs-White sat slightly deeper. If Forest do ever find themselves without Taiwo Awoniyi and Wood, that is a forward line that could work without a traditional out-and-out No 9.
It is not a criticism to say that Origi occasionally looked exactly like a player who had played only 180 minutes of Premier League football this season. But, while sometimes rusty, he also had other moments of promise, hammering another opportunity narrowly wide.
With Wood sidelined, Awoniyi still recovering his match fitness following a groin injury and 18-year-old Ribeiro lacking first-team experience, Origi could be a vital alternative amid a demanding run of fixtures that will now — happily — be added to by an FA Cup fifth-round home tie against Manchester United on February 28.
And the same can be said of Turner, who Nuno admitted might have had cause to feel sorry for himself, given the change in dynamic.
His penalty save, as he dived low to his right to keep out Sam Bell’s effort, grabbed Turner the headlines. But he had made some important saves before that to ensure the game went to penalties in the first place.
“It will give him confidence. We know it will not have been easy after the decision we took to change in the Premier League but his response has been professional,” said Nuno, when asked about Turner’s performance.
All four of Forest’s keepers — Sels, Turner, Vlachodimos and Wayne Hennessey — travelled to Bournemouth and warmed up before the game. The mood between the quartet looked entirely positive as they exchanged friendly high-fives and hugs.
Turner’s 17 Premier League appearances had seen him concede 28 goals from 80 shots on target, with a save percentage of 67.5 per cent. He has made obvious mistakes — but there has also been misfortune. “Everything that could possibly have gone wrong in certain moments has gone completely wrong,” said Turner in an interview with ESPN. “Sometimes, as goalkeepers, you might get away with one or two things and it feels like this season, I’ve gotten away with zero. It’s tough to take.”
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But Bristol City had eight shots on target at the City Ground and Turner was only beaten once by a composed finish from Jason Knight after he had initially pushed a driven shot from Andy King onto the post. Almost every Forest player rushed to congratulate him after the shootout was won.
Neither Origi nor Turner are likely to start when Newcastle visit on Saturday but while both have had a frustrating time at Forest, last night they demonstrated that they might still be useful. “These players give us options. We are trying to manage what we have. It is important to have as many options as we can,” said Nuno.
Forest’s win was a ground-out victory, one earned by all 16 players who were utilised — including 18-year-old winger Joe Gardner, who looked lively and fearless on his first-team debut as a substitute. But it was also a vital one as it gives Forest something positive to play for beyond their fight against relegation. Both in the promotion season of 2021-22 and in the subsequent survival push, runs in the FA Cup and the Carabao Cup helped maintain momentum and belief.
This has been more of a cup crawl than a run, with replays and extra time required to get past both Blackpool and Bristol City. Nuno will be grateful that there are no replays in the fifth round — but also happy with the thought that he has the depth to cope with such challenges.
(Top photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)