Nottingham Forest have more reasons than most to know that one goal can be enough. They have won two European Cups with 1-0 victories and, once again, they can savour the scoreline. Even if Taiwo Awoniyi’s scrappy strike will not be remembered for as long as the greatest moments in Trevor Francis’ and John Robertson’s careers, he provided another moment in Forest history. After a 23-year absence from the top flight, the Nigerian got their first goal back in the Premier League, securing a maiden win this millennium.
As West Ham struck the woodwork twice, missed a penalty, had a header cleared off the line and a goal disallowed, Forest’s lone strike could have come in a thrashing. Yet if they rode their luck, they also made it.
A reshaped squad, with 14 signings and counting, offered the first indication that an outlay in excess of £100 million is constructing a side to stay up. Newcomers appeared upgrades for a club on the up. Forest, an anomalous presence in the Football League for 23 years, had been outclassed at Newcastle last week but started to look at home in the top flight.
They were football’s blast from the past, overcoming West Ham in the blistering heat. Awoniyi established himself as the successor to Chris Bart-Williams, who scored Forest’s final top-flight goal in 1999. One of the substitutes that day, Dave Beasant, is 63 now, which underlines how long they have been away.
A far younger goalkeeper, Dean Henderson, marked his home debut with a penalty save and a string of terrific stops. Orel Mangala showcased a fine passing range in midfield while Moussa Niakhate’s City Ground bow was curtailed when he went off injured, he had been a reassuring presence at the back.
Each was among the eight summer additions who started for Forest, compared to none for West Ham. It speaks to David Moyes’ struggle to sign, though with four newcomers on the bench, he is taking his time integrating them. Steve Cooper has no such luxury and he drew commitment and cohesion from a collection of strangers.
On his first start, Awoniyi turned himself into the headline act. The scruffiest of goals was nevertheless a fair reflection of the former Union Berlin striker’s threat. Powerful and purposeful, he had the muscle and pace to trouble West Ham, all allied with a directness and a willingness to carry on running. A looping header could have brought their first goal back at this level. Instead it came when Jesse Lingard scuffed a shot, the ball bouncing in off Awoniyi. That it was Lingard, who West Ham wanted, who they had made a generous offer, added to their annoyance.
It amounted to a well-timed intervention by Awoniyi. His status as Forest’s record signing may not last long and they had signed another striker, in Emmanuel Dennis, even before he made his first start. His display amounted to a compelling case to build the attack around him. Alongside him, Brennan Johnson seemed to have added a symbolic strike: Nottingham born, two years after they dropped out of the Premier League and son of a former Forest favourite, he dinked a shot over Lukasz Fabianski, only to be ruled offside.
And yet the majority of the goalmouth action occurred nearer Henderson’s net. West Ham could consider themselves luckless. A little more precision could have brought five goals: instead they are yet to open their account for the season.
Briefly, they thought they led. Said Benrahma capped a counter-attack he started by slotting in a shot from Declan Rice’s defence-splitting pass. Forest complained Michail Antonio had flattened Mangala in a juddering collision and referee Robert Jones, who had initially given the goal, changed his mind and chalked it off after looking at the monitor.
Thereafter, West Ham’s search for an equaliser encompassed similar efforts that rattled the bar, from Pablo Fornals in open play and Benrahma from a free kick, with Henderson picking himself off the ground to paw away Tomas Soucek’s header on the first occasion.
The fine saves were not confined to him: if it was a goalkeeping competition, Scott McKenna performed his best Peter Shilton impression with a wonderful save to deny Soucek. The problem was the Scot was playing centre-back and, after reviewing a replay, Jones booked the Scot and gave a penalty. Yet Henderson has a reputation for excellence from 12 yards, West Ham lack a high-class spot-kick taker since Mark Noble’s retirement and Declan Rice’s effort lacked conviction.
The impression it was not their day was reinforced when the indefatigable Neco Williams hacked Kurt Zouma’s header off his own line and Forest could party like it was 1999.