Like perfervid students parked at the front of the class with our newly purchased stationary arranged neatly atop our desks, In The Top One loves learning; we can’t help ourselves. We may not be the brightest sparks or have that lovely circular writing that perches neatly atop the lines like a beautiful kingfisher, but we try…we really really try. In fact, we’ve been staring at the blackboard that is Nottingham Forest so hard that our eyes now resemble those of Roger Rabbit when his gaze falls upon his beau Jessica.
So this is what we’ve scrawled in our exercise book:
1. That Mancienne, eh? He's quite good. Let’s be honest, we all had our doubts, especially after spending the summer Googling, ‘Mancienne Hamburg player ratings’, which produced ambiguous results. After all, here was a player developed at Chelsea, steeped in experience in The Championship with Wolves and QPR and having now done what few other English players dared to do, upped his tools and dropped them abroad in the demanding and respected Bundesliga. Yet no one else seemed to want him – there must be a problem. But Stuart Pearce knows what he’s all about, and we do too now: fleet footed, composed and reads the game better than an Oxbridge graduate in literature. On top of that, he’s a leader too, having been thrown the fabric that wraps around the bicep. Indeed, our love for Mancienne is deep and true.
2. When Newcastle United came into our playground, chatted up attractive girls and walked off with Karl Darlow and Jamaal Lascelles, leaving us with only a stick of chewing gum in recompense, we were a little sad. Even though both players snuck back to us, we wondered whether they really wanted to be here: they’d been to the big school and probably just wanted to come back and tell us all about how great it was while holding down our faces in the mud.
But not a bit of it.
Even though we’re still not happy with the stick of chewing gum, we are very happy that Darlow and Lascelles are not only back with us for the year but that their minds are clearly not elsewhere. Darlow’s performances, especially the one against Sheffield Wednesday, have been joyous, ensuring that advice from fans along the lines of going back to Newcastle very quickly, like the one we heard at Bolton, will be kept to an absolute minimum.
3. It is a little odd, and maybe even slightly uncomfortable, to exist in a universe in which a club that has seen the likes of Roy Keane, Stan Collymore and Stuart Pearce swirl in and out of the revolving door, have it writ large in the record books that the player who has commanded the largest fee is Britt Assombalonga, signed from League 1 Peterborough United. This is the part that dictates that mention of millstones, necks and albatrosses must be made in relation to such a fee for a striker. Sure, he’s a little raw but there are signs that maybe, just maybe, he might just be worth the wonga.
Such a fee demands goals; tick. But the early signs are that he offers more than that (and to be honest, I’d bloody expect him to). He has operated both in tandem with Matty Fryatt and also as a lone target in away games, and in either case, he has proved a handful. Always available as an outlet, he can run the channels and has that canny ability of making the ball stick when it comes to him. And the goals too. Did I mention the goals? Since the moment at Bolton when he carved his first notch on the bedpost, his confidence has grown. The City Ground’s reputation as the striker’s graveyard might, just might, be over.
4. Talk of lucky beanies, David James up front and stodgy sideways passing was aplenty during the summer. But Pearce is proving to be more tactically adept than most supposed or dared to dream. In-game tweaks such as those employed away at Bournemouth after watching his team get swamped in the middle of the park in the first half have been duly noted. It would be churlish not to mention the role of Brian Eastick here too: he looks to be a wonderful appointment.
5. For all that Pearce has played down mention of the old ‘Psycho’, it’s still there. Escape is futile. He can’t help himself.
6. Remember the great plague that ran amok through the City Ground for the best part of last year? Well an antidote seems to have been found and administered. Now that everyone’s chomping at the bit, Pearce has those supposedly ‘nice’ headaches to contend with (although, show me a ‘nice’ headache and I’ll show you a composed looking Dan Harding strolling nonchalantly up the wing – neither exists in this life). Currently Jamie Paterson, David Vaughan nor Ben Osborn can barely get a sniff of action and one wonders where they might even fit in this team. More than anything though, this underlines the impressive depth of the squad, as thick as the walls of Castle Black. A year ago, the thought of losing Simon Cox and Jamie Mackie would mean meltdown, but their loss (Cox permanently and Mackie on loan, both to Waitrose FC) barely registered a pen wobble on the old Richter scale.
7. Cognac, crisps and a Magnum. This is how In The Top One kicked back and enjoyed the general arsery that is Transfer Deadline Day. The whole staying up well beyond the big slam of aforementioned window, trawling through the list of confirmed deals in the hope that we’d missed that all important signing of someone, anyone…that wasn’t us. Not this time. The players were already in the bag and doing the business.
We did feel a little nauseous from the combination of our chosen treats though: not a good mix.
8. We still have Djamel Abdoun though. No matter how hard we close our eyes and wish it away, it remains the truth. No matter how many times we search the squad list of Panathinaikos or Apoel, he’s still with us.
9. For all the optimism, one thing makes us feel a little bit sad: little Jamie Paterson is not currently allowed to play with the big boys. His little jinks, tricky dribbling and angelic, cherubin face is sorely missed, even though we fully understand why this is the case at the moment.
10. See that depth of squad we were banging on about? Well, see it and raise it with our versatility too. We seem to be up to our necks in options. Jack Hunt can play either side, as can Eric Lichaj (and if all else fails, we’ve still got Danny Fox or Dan Harding to play full back). But that’s not all: Fox is so cunning that he can also play centre-back – and quite well too. Andy Reid and Henri Lansbury can play either defensive midfield or attacking midfield – it’s all the same to them, they don’t care. And of course, Chris Cohen can play absolutely anywhere; he’s awfully versatile.
And we haven’t even mentioned Greg Halford.
11. Our love for Cohen is beyond that of our love for Mancienne. We often lay awake, cursing the current Mrs. Cohen and waking ourselves, shouting out, ‘CHRISSSSSYYYYYYYYYY!’
We’ve also learned that after all the left back flim flam, he is a midfielder after all: a complete one.
12. There have been doubts (remember all those weird rumours about depression?) but Henri Lansbury’s return from injury has been mighty, with two goals in as many games. If he stays fit, he could be the best player in the Championship this season and the jubilation on him finding a Bic to sign a new contract will be more than justified and recognised by anyone outside the walls of Nottingham.
13. Also the kits. We have really good kits. Like, proper good ones.
14. The spirit of He Who Shall Not Be Named lives on in the niggling, time wasting and ‘game management' tactics that were evident at Hillsborough. We distinctly recall Lansbury adopting an irregular wide role on the wing opposite the dugout; we wondered about the wisdom of this but then lo and behold, a moment later, his name went up – time for a shower. But maybe this is the norm, the way things are in the dog eat dog world of The Championship.
15. There are much sterner tests to come, least of all, the test of how the team reacts to defeat (it’s gonna happen). But the signs are positive: poor away first half performances against Bolton and Bournemouth resulted in four points and improved second half performances. A backbone appears to be evident.
16. Paul Faukner’s appointment as chief executive is, frankly, not that exciting. But if it means that the club no longer finds itself on a court list for failing to put more coins in the meter or actually sells a player for money rather than allowing him to run down his contract and leave for free, then although still not exciting, we feel that this would generally be a good thing.
17. Finally, the club has taken steps to improve its relationship with the fans and unclog those lines of communication. The forthcoming event in which 150 season ticket holders will be selected to meet Faulkner, Pearce and Cohen and pose questions is a welcome and long overdue one. Even if the most interesting thing we do learn from this event is that Chris Cohen is indeed human and not an almighty god, it doesn’t really matter since it is the thought that counts.
Besides, In The Top One would be far too scared or love-struck to even contemplate facing up to Pearce or Cohen.
No doubt we’ll learn much more between now and Christmas.