It seems Neil Lennon has been subject to harsh words from some Forest fans, certainly I heard a few comments – and indeed, have heard reports of similar from pretty much all areas of the ground on saturday. Whilst the Gills game for me wasn’t the best I’ve seen him, he still made a good contribution to the overall performance.
This isn’t exactly without precidence – Forest fans – or rather, significant numbers of Forest fans – seem to have a real blind spot for the function of the holding midfielder type role. And it’s not a particularly new phenomenon either – older fans might remember a certain twice-European cup winning captain receiving similar criticisms.
Now, Neil Lennon’s job in the team is to sit infront of the defence, to take the ball from them, and give it to someone else. He is also there to break up midfield play and protect the defence – dropping in to cover should a defender break forward, as Chambers and Bennett in particular do quite often, even Wilson and Wes had a foray or two forward on saturday.
It can seem illogical that say, Wes will pass the ball six yards to Lennon, who’ll give it 10 yards to Clingan, or maybe Cohen will pass 6 yards to him only for him to play it on a few yards to say, Chambers. But if you think how often we used to lose the ball in midfield last season, you’ll start to appreciate that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing the simple stuff right.
Those of you thinking “well, he captained Celtic in the Champions League – why isn’t he marauding from box to box, putting in crosses and shooting at goal!” rather miss the point. Lennon is an enabler for others to do that. Ask Cohen whether he’d rather play with Neil, or whether he’d prefer a player like himself – and he’ll pick Lennon every time, because the holding role gives the likes of Cohen or Clingan the freedom to do the more creative stuff.
Notwithstanding the fact he’s by and large fulfilled the holding role very well, Lennon also provides us with great leadership on the pitch – something that was definitely lacking before, epitomised by Breckin getting the captain’s armband really – whilst I’m not as scathing of Brecks as some fans, a leader he most certainly is not. Lennon is – and his presence visibly gives confidence to our younger players.
I’m not surprised some fans don’t “get” Lennon, but am surprised at the rapidity of this lack of comprehension being vocalised in the ground. Whilst Gary Holt was mostly terrible, he was subject to levels of criticism and abuse that far outstripped his ineptness – and whilst I feel confident Lennon is better equipped mentally to deal with it, he shouldn’t have to.
Whilst I’ve certainly not held back on critising Smoulds on occasions, it should be recognised that he’s actually spotted a fair few problems we had last season, and addressed them in his signings – not all of whom he’s had the good fortune to be able to utilise just yet:
1. We lost the ball with alarming regularity in midfield – this is where Lennon comes in, a classic holding midfielder – won’t do anything spectacular, but will break up play, help the defence, and will distribute the ball to a red shirt. Tick.
2. We looked weak at left back – Bennett has, ironically, improved this season for me – but Smoulds brought in Lockwood to strengthen here, and he’ll now have to fight to get his place as Julian seems to be staking a claim for keeping it regularly – good for him! Tick.
3. We lacked creativity in midfield – now Sammy being injured was a factor in this, but when playing with Holt he did have to cover defensive duties more too. Lennon has freed Clingan up to be much more adventurous. We have also signed Cohen, who looks frankly excellent – and Davies, who will hopefully prove as impactful. The fact that even without Davies available Commons has found himself dropped to the bench is testimony to the options we now have in midfield.
4. We had no right-sided midfielder – now Smoulds dropped a bollock on this one anyway, by releasing Southall without a replacement. He also should’ve known better than thrusting Moloney in to play there – but he did sign Davies, who of course then got injured. I think Sammy does okay there, but would prefer to see backup to Davies incase of injury. Although the new 4-3-3 formation worked very well, it will be interesting to see if it does so against more challenging opponents.
Whilst there is always room for improvement, and whilst I know from long experience that Forest fans will ALWAYS find something to moan and grumble about, this ludicrous slating of Neil Lennon is nonetheless frustrating. This season I do get a sense of togetherness from the squad, and a willingness to make amends for past disappointments, so as fans I’d like to see us play our part in that too.