Ben Brereton proved his manager right on Saturday, when he curved in Forest’s fifth goal in stoppage time against QPR. Prior to making the trip to Loftus Road, Aitor Karanka had labelled the youngster as a “strong character” as the striker begins to take on greater responsibility for goal scoring with Daryl Murphy and Apostolos Vellios struggling to provide viable alternatives upfront.
Whether through illness, injury, lack of fitness or tactical reasons, Forest’s two other first-team strikers have been absent from training and matchday squads recently. Vellios and Murphy have struggled to be in contention, leaving academy graduate Brereton as the only option up front against Reading recently, whilst Vellios did make his way to the bench versus QPR.
Brereton’s goal significant, not for its bearing on the result, but rather its style and what it will mean to the young forward. January signing Lee Tomlin made it three goals in two games, as his confident finishes either side of half-time put the Reds two goals up away from home. He then turned provider as fellow new boy Joe Lolley put away a fantastic strike, which would prove vital as a weak QPR cobbled together two deficit-cutters.
Tomlin and Lolley had combined well in Forest’s previous two outings, and already look like the standout captures after the club brought in ten new players in January. After pulling the strings at Middlesbrough, Tomlin joined up with Karanka once again in a loan transfer that saw winger Jamie Ward move in the opposite direction to Cardiff. Swapping Ward for Tomlin is a significant upgrade, and marks an impressive deal that would surely only go ahead if Neil Warnock was the man on the other side of the table – with Ward exactly the type of player he will love working with.
Brereton burst onto the scene just over a year ago when he began his professional scoring career with a late City Ground goal against Aston Villa. In his press conference ahead of the QPR game, Brereton spoke of the difficulty in trying to live up to such an emphatic start to his career. A relatively low frequency of goals for a first-choice striker in the Championship would usually be concerning, with missed chances keeping even Brereton himself up at night. Talk of a ‘goal drought’, however, would be a very simple way of looking at his season so far.
Brereton said himself that he is “unselfish”. He contributes to games and plays well despite a continuous flow of goals. The relatively experienced youngster is showing great consistency in taking the ball with his back to goal and turning to kick start attacks. The player himself knows that more goals will come with age, and that lovely finish at Loftus Road will be very welcome as Forest increasingly look to him to lead the line.
With little competition up top at the moment, Brereton’s situation contrasts to that of many other positions in the Forest squad. After a wave of new signings, competition has intensified in many areas of the pitch. Selection options are especially prevalent now in the full-back and goalkeeping positions, but Karanka maintains that players who work hard will get their chance.
Karanka also spoke of selection issues elsewhere on the pitch. At right-back, the Eric Lichaj red card away at Burton has made way for Tendayi Darikwa to step up once again this season. Karanka has been impressed and pleased with how he has performed on the pitch, but pointed more to his attitude and displays in training:
“Ten is a good example that if you train in the right direction and you are ready, then the chances will arrive.”
“He always trains really well and tries his best, even when he wasn’t playing.”
Karanka does not envisage a situation where Lichaj and Darikwa will occupy both full-back spots however. Lichaj has played steadily at left-back many times for Forest, but Karanka stresses that “now we have other alternatives. We have ben Osborn on the left, we have Fuentes, if Mancienne, Worrall or Tobias [Figueredo] are fit maybe Fox can play again as left-back. Unless the physio says I don’t have players, I don’t think Eric will play there.”
Karanka stresses that Darikwa demonstrates to other players that they can find their way into the team. Goalkeeper Jordan Smith “is not happy now” since being pushed from a regular starter to out of the quad by new incoming Costel Pantilimon and Stefanos Kapino. Karanka says “look at Tendayi” – one day he is out of the squad, but with continued hard work one day he finds himself back in.
When he arrived at the City Ground, Karanka continually stressed three buzzwords in his pressers. “Pride”; “winning”; and “intensity”. After a spate of rather depressing score lines and performances, the Spaniard dropped them from his pre-match briefings. The ‘intensity’ seems to have finally arrived, and if it continues, Forest will be on course to bring back a ‘winning’ mindset and re-establish ‘pride’ amongst a squad saturated with the potential to do something.