Football: After the sand, a light tanning

Nottingham Forest 0 Arsenal 1 Keown 34 Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 26,021
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The Independent Online
BIG RON got lost on the way to the dug-out and Forest couldn't find their way to goal. That said it all about day one in the latest adventure of the man hired to perform impossible jobs, with the pounds 750,000 bounty for doing so here likely to prove as elusive as Forest's goalscoring chances did yesterday.

Maybe being confronted by the meanest defence around - with one of that number Martin Keown scoring the winner - was an unfair test of their attacking potency, particularly with arguably their two most influential players, the flu victim Steve Chettle and the suspended Steve Stone absent, but all the evidence was that it will take more than this self-styled Red Adair to achieve the resurrection necessary here.

This, remember, is a team who have won three games all season, one of their victims being Leyton Orient in the Worthington Cup. It is likely to take more than the acquisition of Carlton Palmer from Southampton, but the pounds 2m Atkinson reportedly has to spend does not buy an awful lot these days. Never mind Ron flying in from Barbados, it will take the import of a handful of Ronaldos from the Copacabana beach to raise Forest to the quality necessary to stave off relegation; and it will require every inspirational ounce of Atkinson's acumen to conjure up a position of safety.

Atkinson had arrived in the city at only 11am, and met up with the players and his No 2, Peter Shreeves, at the team hotel. So his first view of his Forest team performing was little more than a watching brief. Before the game Atkinson had spoken of the "just one victory" it would take to "give the players some of the confidence they have clearly lost in themselves".

In truth, they rarely looked like achieving that as Arsenal, even well below their best, contained their hosts comfortably for all but a period immediately after the break. "It's not an easy one this, but if it was I wouldn't be here," Atkinson said. "Peter concentrated on the tactics and I told them what I was looking for, which was that they've got to scrap it right to the death, and to be fair they've done that. I thought there were decent performances by several players." He added, desperately searching for points of optimism: "It would have been even worse if our rivals had won, but at least nobody's made an impression and got further away from us today."

Earlier, it was not the most auspicious of starts as Atkinson, well-wrapped in camel-hair coat, and more Friar Tuck than Robin Hood these days, made his way to the dug-out, winking, nodding, and waving to the crowd, with a swagger that suggested "Just leave it to me, pal". But as he sat surrounded by a phalanx of photographers and television crews, it was pointed out to him that he was occupying the visitors' dug-out. That holiday tan suddenly turned a redder hue as he made his way back along the touchline to his correct position.

For the first few minutes he sat impassively, with Shreeves relaying his instructions from the side of the pitch like a tic-tac man working with his bookie. But increasingly Atkinson became animated, and with good cause, as Ray Parlour and Lee Dixon both threatened Dave Beasant's goal. For the visitors, who have just strengthened their own squad with a former African player of the year, the Nigerian international Nwanko Kanu, it was back to the good old days and that familiar cry of one-nil to the Arsenal. At least it was once Keown had scored with a curious downward header from Emmanuel Petit's corner which somehow bounced over the head of the statuesque Pierre van Hooijdonk standing on the line.

The return of Arsenal's captain Tony Adams, Dennis Bergkamp and Nigel Winterburn from injury more than compensated for the loss of the suspended Patrick Vieira. They proved as tough an initial examination as Atkinson could have feared, and for much of the game Dave Bassett's allsorts were made to look decidedly inferior by the champions. Still, the home side were carried along by a buoyant, expectant City Ground crowd, and after the break were unfortunate not to equalise when Andy Johnson struck a post and Van Hooijdonk failed to profit from the rebound.

Atkinson may have left behind palm-fringed beaches, but he arrived to find sufficient sun and sand down by the Trent to evoke fond memories of his holiday. Whatever else the new manager makes of Forest's ills, the fact is that two-thirds of the City Ground pitch is hardly conducive to a passing game, with the ball constantly being held up on a false surface. "The pitch was terrible. It was impossible to play on," said the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger. "We dropped a little physically in the second half, and I was worried, but we showed a lot of fighting qualities when under pressure."

Soon after Keown's 34th-minute winner, a subdued Bergkamp played Nicolas Anelka through but the young Frenchman possibly dwelt a little too long and Beasant blocked his effort. For all the ferocity of Forest's late rally, it was Parlour who might have settled matters more convincingly in the closing minutes, only for Beasant, much praised by Atkinson, to prevail once again.

It doesn't get any easier for Forest, three points adrift of their relegation- haunted rivals. The next home game matches them with Manchester United. "It looks as though they have gone off the boil," Atkinson quipped, with more than a trace of irony.