How Nottingham Forest, this storied old club, had waited for a moment like this, as they edged out West Ham to savour their first Premier League win in 23 years. As the public address announcer christened the turnstiles at the City Ground open an hour and a half before kick-off, his voice cracking a little as he welcomed Forest supporters into this throbbing stadium for a top-flight game once more, it offered a reminder of the sense of occasion.
An absorbing and fiercely-contested match only ramped up the electric atmosphere, the prematch palpable. Both teams saw goals disallowed and Declan Rice had a poor second-half penalty saved by Dean Henderson as Taiwo Awoniyi’s first Premier League goal ultimately proved the difference. West Ham could count themselves unfortunate given they also twice hit the woodwork.
Forest, then, are up and running. As the old adage goes, strikers do not care how goals go in and Awoniyi’s first in Garibaldi red was scruffy to say the least. The goal stemmed from Harry Toffolo’s surging run and cutback for Jesse Lingard, whose shot was tame enough for Ben Johnson to block, but on the verge of half-time Awoniyi was in the right place at the right time to open his account following a £17m move. Lingard, who turned down West Ham in favour of a move to Forest this summer, started brightly but this gutsy Forest performance was about the collective, a team understandably still gelling. Steve Cooper turned to the Forest fans and clenched both fists. “I talked to the players about how there were probably three generations of supporters here today, one who remember the really good old days,” said Cooper, dedicating victory to supporters who could not get their hands on tickets.
In an open letter the Forest chairman, Nicholas Randall, told how the club has no plans to make up the numbers on their return and given how hard it is keep track of the flurry of incomings – the purchase of Neal Maupay looks set to take their spending north of £125m – they do appear to mean business. The France midfielder Houssem Aouar is also close to signing. “I really hope everyone is looking into why we have had to make so many signings and not just put the narrative ‘Forest have signed loads of players: why?’” Cooper said. “There has been a real rationale behind it and [it has been] a real necessity. We would have loved to carried on with the squad from last year and added a few players but it was never going to happen. We are still in that process of becoming the team and the squad that we want to be.”
Forest showed an intent on the pitch, too. Eight of their summer recruits started here, including Orel Mangala and Awoniyi, both of whom were substitutes last weekend. West Ham, by contrast, looked very familiar but for naming two goalkeepers on their bench. Awoniyi provided a welcome focal point and Mangala displayed touches of class, drawing gasps as he half-volleyed a pass wide to the lively Neco Williams, who late on cleared off the line to deny Kurt Zouma an equaliser. Only the water breaks midway through each half brought calm to a frenetic game.
David Sullivan, the West Ham co-owner, arrived at the ground in a royal red Rolls-Royce but some Forest supporters took another mode of transport: arriving by boat on the River Trent. The buzz was palpable on an afternoon brimming with lasting images; captains Joe Worrall and Rice standing side by side in a cramped tunnel; the Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis, in a white open-necked shirt, praying for a VAR check to go in their favour before Brennan Johnson’s strike was disallowed; Henderson blowing kisses to the stands after saving low to his right to deny Rice from 12 yards; the sheer noise as Born Slippy, the Trainspotting anthem, blared pre-match. It seemed something was bubbling from the moment Awoniyi won an early corner and David Moyes’s face was etched in frustration as he replayed their oh-so-nears. “We made enough chances to score the goals but we didn’t take them,” he said.
West Ham were denied the opening goal after the referee, Robert Jones, was encouraged to visit the VAR monitor, with the former Forest forward Michail Antonio clearly barging into Mangala off the ball in the seconds before Saïd Benrahma slotted into the bottom corner. Pablo Fornals cracked the underside of the crossbar 23 seconds into the second half and shortly after the hour Benrahma curled a free-kick against almost the identical part of the goal frame. Then came West Ham’s best chance, when Scott McKenna was penalised for handball following a VAR check for preventing Tomas Soucek from sweeping Benrahma’s cutback into the net. Rice stepped up but Henderson, in front of the watching Gareth Southgate, went the right way and saved. “I know Dec’s favourite side [on penalties] as I’ve trained with him before [with England],” Henderson said. “I stuck with what I knew and luckily he put it there.”
As the Forest supporters gleefully declared before and after the final whistle: Forest are back.