Football: Ball rejoices as the jigsaw fits together

Click to follow
Southampton. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Nottingham Forest. . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

HE STOPPED short of punching the air, nor did he hug the person nearest to him, but when Alan Ball gave up waiting for enquries about the player who always dominates Southampton's post-match chat he took it as a sign that his work was succeeding. 'Great, not one question about Matthew Le Tissier, and that's the first time in my seven months here,' he said with some relish.

While the manager is both a reassuring arm around Le Tissier's shoulders and a timely boot to his area of motivation, there is much more to Ball's job then reviving an exquisite talent, just as Southampton are more than a one-man show, even when it was Le Tissier's penalty, awarded after his own cunning free-kick, that saved them a point.

A more mature approach, taking the place of the hot-head tutor that undermined Ball elsewhere, is gaining its reward with a team beginning to come of age in their own right. Neil Maddison is learning to couple industry with damaging runs ahead of his strikers; Jim Magilton will keep landing passes on target until the cows come home; and while, in one sense, the spiky Francis Benali is a strange sponsorship choice for those who sell sleekly-smooth Rovers, he does make a habit of muzzling the best of the opposition with dogged efficiency.

There is also promise in the shape of the boy from Barcelona, Ronnie Ekelund, and in Richard Hall, a player Ball was more than happy to talk about on Saturday because he is more than happy that, after losing 18 months of his career with a devastating ankle injury, he has returned to reclaim his position as one of the best young defenders around. In the past week Hall has faced the combined forces of Jurgen Klinsmann and Teddy Sheringham, and Stan Collymore and Bryan Roy and come out of it with his reputation intact.

Hall could not be blamed for Forest's opener. Bruce Grobbelaar was deceived by Collymore's scruffy strike, which was in keeping with much of a game that always held the attention but saw too many promising moments strangled at birth to be thoroughly entertaining.

In brushing off Benali and the covering challenge of Simon Charlton, Collymore showed why no opposing defence will look forward to a visit from Forest's deadly twosome. There were too few such cameos and only the occasional flash of light from Roy. The Dutchman did unleash a second-half hammer from discouraging range which only missed by inches, but, as Ball later drew attention to, it was a day when the more prosaic qualities held sway.

Goals: Collymore (44) 0-1; Le Tissier (pen, 55) 1-1.

Southampton (4-4-2): Grobbelaar; Kenna, Hall, Benali, Charlton; Allen, Magilton, Maddison (Ekelund 80), Heaney; Le Tissier, Dowie. Substitutes not used: Beasant (gk), Banger.

Nottingham Forest: (4-4-2): Crossley; Lyttle, Haland, Cooper, Pearce; Stone, Phillips, Bohinen, Black; Collymore, Roy. Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Woan, Lee.

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).