If one could have scripted a first Nottingham Forest goal for Taiwo Awoniyi, it would have been written exactly as it played out at the City Ground.
Despite home debut heroics, Awoniyi is in constant danger at Forest
The Nigeria striker is off the mark for the Reds, but in a squad brimming with competition and trying to beat the drop, the pressure will be relentless all season long
No one cared, of course. They all count as long as the ball goes in off a legal body part and, in any case, Awoniyi’s righteous effort deserved the good fortune that accompanied it. His home debut showcased the Nigeria international’s most endearing qualities: infectious work ethic, muscular earnestness and an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, all underpinned by a beaming smile and unwavering belief.
It was an important moment of arrival for Awoniyi, who waited fruitlessly for years to make his bow on English shores. His barren preseason form was a concern, and no doubt contributed to Steve Cooper’s decision to leave him out for the trip to Newcastle on the opening day.
However, for the visit of West Ham, there was nothing for it but to give the raucous home support a proper glimpse of their strapping no.9. The performance, and the goal to crown it, added up to a “dream” home debut.
The fact that he pulled it off in the midst of the chaos that is the Nottingham Forest dressing room was doubly impressive. In a bid to re-tool the squad for the challenge of Premier League survival, owner Evangelos Marinakis has now had 16 players through the door. It is possibly the most audacious bid ever launched to avoid the drop, even with the caveat of the squad starting from the barest of bones.
Everyone can agree that, in an ideal world, this is far from the best way to conduct transfer business, but few will begrudge Marinakis: the circumstances are hardly ideal.
However, Forest’s strategy has been interesting. After initially doing much of their business in the German market, ostensibly with an eye toward value for money, their second wave of recruitment has seemed to target Champions League calibre players and established Premier League performers, from the likes of Remo Freuler and Houssem Aouar to Che Adams and Emmanuel Dennis.
It makes for an odd blend; the expectation seems to be that the injection of quality will create an uber-competitive atmosphere within the squad, thereby driving excellence and making survival an even likelier outcome.
It could very well work, of course. However, if it does, the inevitable outcome would be, ironically enough, a player like Awoniyi ultimately losing his spot in the starting lineup. After all, what is Dennis if not made for that split-striker role on the left that, by virtue of the tactical set-up, Awoniyi currently plays? Think about it: it does seem like Forest have already signed a replacement for their former record signing in the same window, doesn’t it?
Unless Cooper intends to alter a system he has come to be defined by, Dennis can really only play in either of the two positions upfront. One is occupied by 21-year-old Brennan Johnson, a player in whom Nottingham Forest have invested quite a bit of belief: he only just signed a new contract with the club this summer, and is one of the club’s few hold-overs from their successful promotion campaign. The other is currently the property of Awoniyi.
Not only is Dennis manifestly a more skilled player than both, but he has Premier League pedigree to boot. In all honesty, but for concerns over his attitude, he likely would have gone to a team at a higher level. Awoniyi’s application and personality are in his favour, but that will only be relevant as long as he continues to score goals; Johnson’s status as a local lad is in his, and will almost certainly earn him more patience.
Understanding this, and realising that, even now, Nottingham are trying to push through a move for another striker (Neal Maupay has been linked), it is apparent that Awoniyi will never be able to sleep with both eyes closed.
His goal last weekend will have come as a relief, but he must be under no illusions: it was merely the first of many he will need in order to ward off the competition all season long. There can be no self-doubt, no droughts; not for a team that has bet big on its top-flight status, not when there is a slew of more proven forwards waiting their turn on the bench.
That is a whole new world of pressure. Welcome to the Premier League, Taiwo—pressure is what it’s all about.