As time ticked by and with Nottingham Forest starting to lose heart, Sean Dyche could see a clear route out of the bottom three.
Yet nothing is ever easy with Everton. In a game badly lacking class and composure, Brennan Johnson showed both with a brilliant finish 13 minutes from full-time. It kept Everton in the relegation zone and earned Forest a point that ensured they stay 14th, four points above the line.
Nothing is certain in one of the tightest survival battles in years but we can be fairly sure Johnson will not be involved in too many more relegation scraps. Though an exciting game, it was desperately low-quality stuff – but Johnson still shone amid the mess.
Forest’s homegrown forward now has nine goals in all competitions this season. Though this club signed 30 players in an attempt to banish relegation through transfer market power, a player who has been here since childhood is doing more than most to keep them up.
Dyche would expect a similar impact from Dominic Calvert-Lewin but simply cannot keep his star forward fit. This was the fifth game in a row that Calvert-Lewin missed and after giving opportunities to his other centre-forwards, Dyche chose to go without one here and largely, it worked.
Brennan Johnson produced a moment of true quality to ensure Nottingham Forest of a point
They had twice trailed – initially through Demarai Gray’s penalty and then Abdoulaye Doucoure
Sean Dyche’s search for a first away victory as Everton boss goes on after defeat on Sunday
Both sides will feel as though they had plentiful chances to win the game on a tense afternoon
NOTTINGHAM FOREST VS EVERTON MATCH FACTS AND RATINGS
Nottingham Forest (4-3-2-1): Navas 6; Aurier 6, Worrall 5.5, Felipe 5.5, Lodi 5.5; Shelvey 6, Freuler 6.5 (Dennis 70, 6.5), Colback 7 (Yates 70, 6.5); Johnson 8, Gibbs-White 6.5; Wood 5 (Ayew 71, 6.5). Subs not used: Hennessey, Mangala, Williams, Lingard, Toffolo, Surridge.
Scorers: Johnson 19, 77
Booked: Gibbs-White, Lodi, Felipe
Manager: Steve Cooper 6.5
Everton (4-1-4-1): Pickford 6; Coleman 7, Keane 6.5, Tarkowski 7, Godfrey 6.5; Gueye 7; Iwobi 7 (Davies 89), Onana 6.5, Doucoure 7.5, McNeil 7; Gray 6.5 (Maupay 89). Subs not used: Begovic, Holgate, Mina, Vinagre, Coady, Garner, Simms.
Scorers: Gray 10 (pen), Doucoure 29
Booked: Godfrey, McNeil, Gray, Tarkowski, Davies
Manager: Sean Dyche 6.5
Referee: John Brooks 5
Demarai Gray was the furthest man forward and put Everton ahead with an early penalty, but with no natural frontman to mark, Forest’s defenders were puzzled. After Johnson had equalised, Abdoulaye Doucoure restored Forest’s lead and only Johnson’s fabulous second denied them the win.
It was Everton’s first point on the road under Dyche and might have provided them with a template for the rest of the season.
‘We’ve got to stamp out the mistakes but we defended well and countered,’ he said. ‘There was a lot of plusses about the performance. We know that we have to win games but you have to re-start and this showed a real step forward.’
Forest would be fine if only they could sort out their away form. The City Ground atmosphere is among the best in the league and has helped Forest stay unbeaten in their last nine matches.
The flipside is a team who go to West Ham and lose 4-0, which Cooper is determined to change. ‘We need to sort out our away form,’ he said. ‘What happened at West Ham can sometimes be damaging.
‘So it was great for us to show character and resilience and get something out of the game. The games will be like this from now to the end of the season but that’s brilliant. Let’s go.’
As the league’s lowest scorers and without an orthodox striker, an early Everton goal seemed unlikely – yet that is exactly what happened.
Dyche’s men were given a helping hand by former Liverpool midfielder Jonjo Shelvey, whose foolish challenge on Dwight McNeil presented the visitors with a penalty. Gray converted it and the one-time Leicester player milked it by sliding on his knees in front of the Forest fans.
Forest were disjointed in the opening exchanges but it did not take them long to draw level. Morgan Gibbs-White played a one-two with Chris Wood and though Jordan Pickford saved the shot, he could only palm it into the path of Johnson, who steered in the equaliser.
Steve Cooper’s side have performed admirably post-World Cup and look likely to stay up
Everton’s midfield – including Amadou Onana – frustrated the hosts for much of the afternoon
Forest’s tails were up at this point and James Tarkowski did just enough to stop Wood heading in Renan Lodi’s cross. At the other end, Everton screamed in vain for a second spot-kick when Seamus Coleman tumbled under pressure from Jack Colback.
Their frustration did not last long, however. Just before the half-hour mark, Tarkowski headed Pickford’s free-kick into the danger zone, where Michael Keane outjumped Joe Worrall.
Remo Freuler failed to track the run of Doucoure, who guided his header beyond the flailing Keylor Navas. Forest were doubly angry because they had been denied a free-kick when Gibbs-White was impeded seconds earlier.
There was a physical edge to the game throughout and it nearly spilled over after the break. After a series of ferocious challenges, Gibbs-White and McNeil had to be pulled apart, with both shown the yellow card.
Gray’s penalty was the difference after half an hour – until Johnson popped up with a late goal
Gray and Renan Lodi soon followed them in to the book and then it was the turn of Doucoure and Jack Colback to square up. Moments later, Tarkowski was lucky to be given only a yellow for a late lunge that cleaned out Lodi.
Johnson had been comfortably the best attacker on show and he demonstrated it again with a sumptuous finish to reel Everton in with 13 minutes left.
The Wales star carried the ball at the Everton back four, swapped passes with substitute Ryan Yates and guided the ball calmly into the top corner from 15 yards with his weaker foot.
Forest finished the stronger with Andre Ayew – another sub – seeing a shot parried that just eluded the onrushing Johnson. Then Johnson went for the hat-trick goal but was just off target on the angle.
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