There are footballers and then there are foot #ballers. The former are industrious, endear themselves to supporters through sweat alone and, largely, make safety-first sideways movements.
The latter though, well, they get the juices flowing, they are the ones that induce that tingly lean-forward-because-anything could-effin’-happen sensation. They are the Alexander Isaks.
Just a week back Eddie Howe suggested that the Swede, United’s record signing was not yet ready to complete ninety minutes. Cue much huffin’ and puffin’, effin’ and jeffin’. Howe’s words were taken out of context (of course they were, this is football don’t you know). The point was that Isak’s absence has been lengthy and the Premier League was still new to him.
New but perfectly within his talent ceiling. Friday night stoppage time had begun, with Isak still beavering away. A header, a handball and a penalty. Kieran Trippier stood ball in arm in front of the United fans. It was a clever decoy, an attention deflector. For it was Isak who, cool as a Tynemouth breeze in February, converted. Howe would have loved to have taken credit but it was pure, radgie, Trippier nous. Captain, oh my captain.
Not one person wanted to leave come the end, the serenading of Howe and his players one of those moments worth savouring. Eventually, after Bruno roared and shirts were thrown, they departed. The hillocks of Nottingham were climbed in search of celebratory ale. What a night, the kind that football supporter-dom is made for.
Isak had levelled the scores similarly late in the first half. It was a finish of sublime technique. Having dropped off his marker, Joe Willock’s cross was just behind him. Isak adjusted. The ball struck the inside of the post and for what felt like Aeons, there was silence. Not one of the heavily inebriated away end was quite sure. And then as Isak wheeled away, came the roar. Joyful Friday night bodies flailed.
It was not just Isak’s goals that were attractive. He is a special footballer. One who glides, eating up the ground before him without actually looking like any effort is required. Eyes are rubbed to make sure what is seen can be believed. Feet and grass barely seem to come together. It is so fast, the brain receptors cannot process it.
Isak’s late summer arrival brought much giddiness. United’s fan base was divided into those who had seen and loved, and those who had never seen but loved the concept. A whipper-snapper of a £60 million quid striker? Yes please.
In under seven games worth of Premier League minutes, Isak has a half-dozen goals. Throw in his perfectly good, and exceptionally crafted, should-have-been second at Anfield and he is one per game. The fitness, the form, of a forward of that ilk, might be the difference between Wednesday and Thursday night TV.
This victory was crucial. Howe called it season-defining. Even in such a lengthy campaign, one of so many variables, there are tiny moments that shape things. Are United back to pre World Cup levels? Not quite. But there was once again that feeling that we barely looked flustered.
True, had felt for long stretches like another night where United would rue opportunities gone begging. Twice before the break they hit the bar. While all waited for an aerial delivery, a smart daisy-cutter of a Kieran Trippier free-kick found Isak’s dart. The strike was blocked by not one but three desperately committed Forest defenders, the ball cannoning off the bar’s underside of Renan Lodi.
Sean Longstaff too had a deflected effort smash the woodwork, this time after Felipe had hurled himself in the way. The Brazilian defender would, much later, throw himself in front of a Bruno’s hit.
And early on Willock had passed up an early shot at glory. A precise ball from the Road-Runner like Jacob Murphy was met with a run of equal precision, but alas an inaccurate finish.
Special mention too, to Elliot Anderson. The so-called “Geordie Maradona.” In the absence of Miguel Almiron (six weeks, bugger) and Anthony Gordon, Howe’s already svelte attacking options were bordering on anorexic. Take the substitutes bench: four full-backs, five if you include Matt Ritchie plus Jamaal Lascelles (doesn’t say much for Harrison Ashby, does it?!).
Callum Wilson, as he told the world on his podcast, has barely trained in a fortnight. So yes, Anderson it was, replacing ASM. The anonymous ASM. The apparently hamstrung ASM. Managerial protection?
But to Anderson. From the left – currently, according to Howe, his best position – Anderson oozed class. Inside, outside, shirt pulled? No. Next came Jacob Murphy’s high cross. Eyes fixed, feet fixed, Anderson waited. And waited. And volleyed. Keylor Navas sprung into action.
Then came a moment of pure delirium, one that ultimately proved a false dawn, but was stuff of dreams. Despite being on his arse, Isak still controlled, showed trickery and stood the ball up. Anderson rose to meet it. It was a header that would have sat nicely on another former Wallsend Boys Club graduate’s highlights reel.
The celebrations were done and dusted by the time the pixelated kill-joy screen of death was raised. If it takes the Var official and the referee such a long time to make a decision, how can the error be an obvious one? Longstaff was apparently offside. Who knows what the rule actually is. Paul Tierney himself seemed unsure. Fortunately, it did not prove costly.
Forest might argue that they were worthy of a point, but they barely laid a glove. They play in a unique way, sitting deep and countering. Home comforts are massive (20 of 26 points have come at the City Ground) and they were unbeaten in nine before Friday. It is no easy place to visit.
They were niggly, Jonjo Shelvey deciding to kick his way through the night. Quite how it took until the 92nd minute for him to pick up a booking was beyond Longstaff. “Whinge-bags” is how Shelvey described his former teammates afterwards. Howe just laughed; Steve Cooper refused to be drawn.
Tierney was exceptionally poor all round. He called a staff member from each team into his dressing room at the break to ask them to cool the lads off. But he might have been better served working out how to regain control of a game that threatened to boil over. Emmanuel Dennis will still be wondering how he got booked for nicking the ball off Trippier and breaking.
Brennan Johnson ought to have done better on the break late on, and Dennis’ goal was a moment of magic. It did only come after an uncharacteristic Sven Botman gaff, though, All was, as it usually is, well under control. But Botman had not spotted Dennis and sold Nick Pope short. Dennis’ dinked finish agonisingly allowed Botman to backtrack enough to watch it float over him. Even robots malfunction sometimes. Forget it Sven, just forget it.
There is a lot to like about Forest, despite their 29 signings. There is much that the two fanbases can relate to, as well. Both adore their managers: Cooper may not literally be able to walk on the Trent but there are thousands who would happily drown if it meant keeping him afloat.
He is likeable too, honest, and clearly a people person. Those in the club cannot speak more highly of him, and it is nice to see – given the way some operate – owners willing to stick rather than twist.
Tickets too are a mythical currency. Talked about but not seen but a decent chunk of a fanatical fanbase. One hopes they survive. It is a cracking away day, as many sore Geordie heads will attest to this Saturday morning.
Now comes United’s crucial period. The results for the last ten games, despite much negative noise, are all but identical to the season’s opening. Three wins, with the only difference being an extra defeat. 15 points then, 14 points now. Crisis? Not here ladies and gents. Some much needed R&R and then on to cup final revenge. As their north London rivals often sing, “Tottenham Hotspur, we’re coming for you.”