A win over Huddersfield today would secure the title for Nottingham Forest’s Under 21s, and Jimmy Gilligan has praised the players’ ‘unbelievable’ form which has taken them to top spot.
The Terriers are Forest’s only rivals for first place in Professional Development League Two North but go into today's match at the Nigel Doughty Academy (kick-off 2pm) five points behind the leaders with only three matches remaining.
Victory for The Reds, who have only one match to play after this afternoon, would put them out of reach and cap a magnificent season made possible by the side’s recent 14-match unbeaten run.
That run was ended by Huddersfield in a 1-0 defeat earlier this month, blowing the title race open again, before Forest returned to winning ways with a 1-0 victory at Birmingham on Tuesday.
And, speaking in the matchday programme, Gilligan believes the recent Huddersfield defeat may actually have had a positive impact on his side’s efforts to secure the title.
The Under 21s coach said: “It was an unbelievable run of 14 games without being beaten. Nobody ever wants to lose but sometimes I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a bit of a setback. It gives us a bolt, a shock, and says ‘hold on a minute, this is not as easy as we think it’s going to be.’
“Without making excuses, the lads have played so many games in a short space of time and you’re half expecting to be beaten at some point. They were fantastic in the way they bounced back at Birmingham on Monday with a solid performance on a very hot day.”
Few could have envisaged the season panning out so successfully after a bright start to the campaign was punctured by four consecutive defeats, the last of which coming in a 5-1 loss at Cardiff City in mid-October.
But The Reds didn’t taste defeat again until they faced Huddersfield at the start of April, winning 11 out of their 14 matches in the meantime, and Gilligan heaped praise on his players for the professionalism they showed in turning their form around so dramatically.
He said: “The four defeats earlier on in the season were probably a wake-up call to the players. We said we needed to be better, more professional.
“I have to give credit to every player who has been a part of it. They’ve taken on board what’s been asked of them, listened to us and been prepared to work very, very hard. We’re trying to develop them as young men and that’s been a big learning curve for them this season. There has been a massive shift on the training field in how they work.
“They’ve got their rewards with the run they’ve been on and that has ended up with them reaching the play-offs, which is a fantastic achievement.”
Should Forest end the regular season at the top of the league they will host the runners-up of the Southern division in a one-legged play-off match, with a place in the national final up for grabs.
And, while his immediate focus is on securing the title, Gilligan is looking forward to seeing his squad tested in a play-off format.
He said: “We’ve still got two games to go and we want to finish off as best we can, but the play-offs will be two cup finals as such.
“It’s a great thing for a young group of players to look forward to and, as coaches, Jake Wigley and I are looking forward to seeing them play in those situations.”
For Gilligan himself, it’s been quite a season. On top of his Under 21s duties he has been called upon by Dougie Freedman to assist with the first team.
And, although it means days off have been at a premium for him, Gilligan wouldn’t have it any other way.
He said: “I love coaching, being on the grass and in and around football, so for me not to have too many days off is not a problem.
“The gaffer has been fantastic by asking me and Jake to help out on matchdays and he listens to us. I’ve learnt a lot from him and Lennie Lawrence.
“That’s really important because as a coach, even my age, I still believe I’ve got a lot to learn and it’s nice to be in that environment.”
Supporters can read the full interview with Gilligan in edition 22 of this season’s programme. Those without a copy can download one here.