Nottingham Forest made it 12 games unbeaten with a 1-0 win away at league-leaders Middlesbrough.
Jamie Ward’s second-half goal, brilliantly assisted by Ben Osborn, was enough to earn Forest a memorable victory on an afternoon when they limited their hosts to very few opportunities.
Dougie Freedman selected Ward as his team’s lone striker, supported out wide by Osborn and Oliver Burke. Gary Gardner lined up alongside Robert Tesche in central midfield, while Michael Mancienne guarded the centre-back pairing of Matt Mills and Jack Hobbs.
Ryan Mendes, Nelson Oliveira, Dexter Blackstock and Chris O’Grady offered attacking outlets from the bench.
The first chance of the game fell to former Forest loanee Daniel Ayala, whose tame header from a corner dropped wide of Dorus de Vries’ post.
Forest were set up to play on the break and as a result the hosts were having most of the ball. The Reds’ first glimpse of goal came on 18 minutes when Ward robbed Boro centre back Fernando Amorebieta of possession and crossed the ball low into the area. Central midfielder Adam Clayton got back to slide in and divert it behind for a corner.
Ward and Amorebieta clashed again on 24 minutes and the Forest man entered the referee’s notebook, followed six minutes later by Eric Lichaj after he brought down George Friend.
Bookings were proving to be the most notable incidents in a half of limited opportunity for both sides. Clayton was the first Boro man to be punished by referee Frederick Graham after he hauled down Osborn in midfield.
The resultant free-kick presented Forest with what would be their best chance of the half. Gardner drifted the ball to the back post where Mills rose highest to head it low into the middle. Hobbs was the beneficiary but he couldn’t make proper contact with his shot and the chance was gone.
As half-time approached the hosts were left frustrated when Emilio N’Sue’s cross just evaded Christian Stuani in the area. Minutes later, the hobbling Friend was replaced by Tomas Kalas.
After such a disciplined first-half display, few observers would have predicted a Forest goal courtesy of right-back Lichaj. But that’s almost what they got on 41 minutes when the American advanced forward to receive a neat flick from Ward. Had his control been sharper Lichaj would have had a golden shooting opportunity but he took too long and a Boro defender came across to quell the danger.
Boro boss Aitor Karanka made his second change at half-time, sending on Adam Forshaw in place of Stewart Downing.
But it was Forest who began the half in the ascendancy. Ward tested the water with a shot from range that was easily dealt with by Dimi Konstantopoulos, but The Reds quickly regained possession and worked the ball to Osborn on the edge of the area. The midfielder got the ball out of his feet quickly and lashed it goalwards with his left foot. His shot crashed off the post and the hosts were able to clear.
It wasn’t long until Middlesbrough had the woodwork rattling at the other end. Lichaj brought down Forshaw, conceding a free-kick in a dangerous shooting position. With his back to goal, Albert Adomah rolled the ball to the nearby Grant Leadbitter, who flicked it up for himself and sent a dipping volley over the wall. The ball came back off the bar and the score remained 0-0.
Amorebieta was the next man in the book when he tripped Burke in full flight with almost an hour on the clock.
Boro were coming back into the game more as the half wore on, however, and they perhaps should have taken the lead on 67 minutes. Forest held their shape well to keep their hosts at bay until the home side worked the ball to Adomah on the left. He dinked the ball to the back post where Nsue ghosted in unmarked. Somehow, from around five yards, he headed it over.
And that missed chance proved to be even more damaging for the home side as they fell 1-0 behind moments later – and what a goal it was.
Ward’s deft touch sent Osborn away down the left. Burke, steaming into the area from the right, looked to be his only crossing option but Osborn had the vision to cut the ball back for Ward on the edge of the ‘D’. The former Derby man controlled it superbly and curled the ball beautifully into the bottom corner, giving Konstantopoulos no chance and sending 1100 Forest fans into delirium.
With 15 minutes remaining Bojan Jokic entered the book for a foul on Stuani. Freedman then made his first change, sending on Oliveira in place of Burke. Ward drifted over to the right but was soon replaced by Mendes.
Forest’s final change came on 89 minutes, Kelvin Wilson replacing Gary Gardner as Forest switched to five at the back.
But it could have been 2-0 as the clock hit 90, Oliveira’s shot from the edge of the area looping up off a Boro defender and, fortunately for the hosts, into the arms of Konstantopoulos.
With seconds of normal time remaining, Mendes broke away and threaded the ball through for Oliveira. The forward had the pace to beat his defender and, instead of taking the ball into the corner, he opted to shoot instead. His effort was saved but there was no time for the hosts to counter as the game ended 1-0 to Forest.
Forest: De Vries, Lichaj, Hobbs, Mills (c), Jokic, Mancienne, Gardner (Wilson 89'), Tesche, Osborn, O.Burke (Oliveira 77'), Ward (Mendes 84')
Subs not used: Evtimov, Cohen, Blackstock, O'Grady
Goal: Ward 70'
Bookings: Ward 24', Lichaj 30', Jokic 76'
: KonstantopoulosMiddlesbrough, Nsue, Ayala, Amorebieta, Friend (Kalas 40'), Stuani, Leadbitter (Kike 81'), Clayton, Adomah, Downing (Forshaw 46'), Nugent
Subs not used: Mejias, De Pena, Fry, Kike Sola
Bookings: Clayton 35', Amorebieta 59'
Referee: Fred Graham
Attendance: 24,975 (1,100 away)