IN THE morning Trevor Francis had been talking about "quality"; in the afternoon, to his distress, he saw it make the difference.
"I would like a little more quality," the Birmingham City manager had said in assessing his team's strength in the First Division promotion battle. "Middlesbrough and Forest have got better quality players, so you get better quality from them." By compensation, he added: "I know I'm going to get a totally committed performance."
It gave Francis no pleasure to have his judgement proved correct at St Andrew's on Saturday. His team did give a totally committed performance that, with six minutes remaining of this Nationwide League game, looked like securing victory. Then the leaders produced two moments of quality, both from Pierre van Hooijdonk, to steal victory.
"They shouldn't be in this League. They've got five or six internationals and they're going straight back to the Premiership," said Francis after what he described as his "most disappointing" defeat of the season.
Quality. For Forest that meant Van Hooijdonk, Colin Cooper, Steve Stone and others, including a luxury on the bench, Ian Woan. Middlesbrough, who cut Forest's lead to two points as they regained second place yesterday, also have it in the likes of Paul Merson, Marco Branca, Gianluca Festa and Nigel Pearson. The other automatic promotion candidates, Sunderland, are less well-equipped but do have, in Lee Clark, Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips, players that are a significant cut above the bulk of those playing in the First Division.
That said, Birmingham do have some useful players, notably in the spine provided by Ian Bennett, Steve Bruce, Chris Marsden and the lively front pair of Dele Adebola and Peter Ndlovu. If Karren Brady, the club's managing director, can resist sacking Francis they should be contenders next season but, at present, they lack that extra quality which wins matches.
It is no coincidence that the division's top three were all in the Premiership last year. They are still receiving a share of the Premiership television money and have either been able to hold on to their players or, in Boro's case, recruit Premiership-standard replacements.
Below them the Nationwide League looks less impressive, despite the presence of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United in the FA Cup semi-finals. Both are there, primarily, because of good goalkeeping - and bad finishing by Premiership opponents.
This is not to say either cannot go on to Wembley, but over a League season quality will tell. Forest clearly had the better players from the start on Saturday but City's work-rate, allied to the neat and thoughtful passing of Marsden, more than bridged the gap for an hour. At that point Jon McCarthy, a decent player having a terrible match, won a penalty when Thierry Bonalair jumped into him. Ndlovu, who had earlier spectacularly hit the bar, converted.
Forest, stung by the harshness of the penalty - "you don't get many of those awarded," said Dave Bassett - finally rolled up their sleeves but, as they pushed forward, should have been punished on the counter. Instead Martyn O'Connor, in midfield, inadvertently sent Van Hooijdonk clear with a wayward pass and Michael Johnson, not being as quick as his namesake, had to trip him on the edge of the box. Johnson, already booked, was sent off and the Dutchman curled the free-kick in from 20 yards.
Three minutes later Van Hooijdonk shot through a crowd of players from similar range after a corner had only been partially cleared and the game was won.
One might ask what a centre-forward was doing lurking on the junction of the area at a corner but, since this was his 31st goal of the season, his unusual approach - few No 9s are less keen to get into the goal area - appears to be justified.
"He's not an archetypical English centre-forward," said Bassett of the striker. "He has a different mentality and I have had to get used to it. He doesn't put people under pressure so I get others to do it and look to the things he does give us."
One of his contributions is in linking play. Observers may have thought Bassett had mistakenly bought this 6ft 5in striker to act as a target man and, judged on the tail-end of last season, that is how it looked.
However, Bassett has said for some years that he is not wedded to the long-ball but played that way in the past to maximise resources. At Forest he has built an attractive passing side which would be a credit to the Premiership, though it would need strengthening. Kevin Campbell is unlikely to be as prolific in the Premier League and the defence may need some bolstering, not least in goal, though Dave Beasant was faultless on Saturday.
Van Hooijdonk picked out a need for "more creativity in midfield" and added: "If we go up we will need new players, everybody knows this."
He clearly did not mean a new centre-forward, though. He felt Forest were still to see his best and added: "I believe in my ability. I don't want to sound arrogant but I know I have the quality to score."
That word again. We should see next season if he has enough quality for the Premiership but the fact that he is the Netherlands' likely World Cup understudy for Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Kluivert suggests his self- confidence is not misplaced.
Goals: Ndlovu (61pen) 1-0; Van Hooijdonk (84) 1-1; (87) 1-2.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Bennett; Bass, Bruce, M Johnson, Charlton; McCarthy (Hughes, 90), O'Connor, Marsden (Forster, 90), Grainger; Adebola, Ndlovu (Ablett, 83).
Nottingham Forest (4-4-2): Beasant; Bonalair, Cooper, Chettle, Rogers; Stone, A Johnson (Thomas, 83), Gemmill (Woan, 73), Bart-Williams; Campbell, Van Hooijdonk. Substitute not used: Armstrong.
Referee: S Mathieson (Stockport).
Bookings: Birmingham Bruce, Charlton. Nottingham Forest Bonalair; Sending off: Birmingham M Johnson.
Man of the match: Van Hooijdonk
Attendance: 24,663.Reuse content