Football: Big Ron bows out after final curtain

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The Independent Online
Aston Villa 2

Draper 45, Barry 57

Nottingham Forest 0

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 34,492

EMBARRASSMENT IS not something that comes easily to Ron Atkinson. Yesterday should have been an exception. Yet failure to save Nottingham Forest from relegation, and even having it confirmed at the club from which he was once sacked, merely led to a dignified announcement that he will now bring down the curtain on his management career after 28 years.

"Everything must come to an end eventually and this seems as good a time as any," said Atkinson, the former Cambridge, West Bromwich Albion, Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa and Coventry manager. "I've just turned 60, which is a bit of a watershed - but age doesn't come into it," he said. But for Forest, curtains this season could mean a long time out of the Premiership's financial sunshine.

Atkinson ruled out the possibility of staying for another season after his contract expires at the end of the current one. And the realistic alternative, football below the top level, is not his style. He said: "I've got no regrets about taking on the job. We've battled but it didn't materialise. At this level you need quality and we needed more of it. I don't know whether the players can regroup for next season."

Only a fortnight ago, Forest might have faced a then declining Villa and felt that it was an opportunity to meet them, if not on equal terms, at least with shared worries. But Villa have staged a mini-recovery, beating Southampton and Liverpool while Atkinson had all but thrown in his personally initialled towel after a despairing home defeat by Spurs last weekend. Spurs promptly picked up his towel and threw it back by going to the Valley in midweek, winning, putting Charlton in deep trouble and delaying Forest's inevitable relegation until yesterday's poor match.

Even lacking several regular first-team players, including the suspended Carlton Palmer, Christian Edwards and Richard Gough, Atkinson still chose to leave Pierre van Hooijdonk on the bench. Yet it was Forest who busily dominated much of the first half. Michael Oakes, in the Villa goal, nervously hacked at clearances, and for a while Gareth Southgate and Colin Calderwood stumbled over their attempts to control Marlon Harewood and Dougie Freedman. Paul Merson, making his first start in over a month, slowly turned the current in Villa's direction, though never conclusively.

Forest's, whose pride had been in doubt this season, began impressively enough as Jon Olav Hjelde pressed forward to drive the ball across the Villa goal, only for no Forest player to make contact until Andy Johnson carelessly shot wide. Villa wanted to slow the pace but, ironically, a sudden turn by the referee, Paul Durkin, left him with a pulled muscle which meant that his assistant had to take over. He quickly incurred the displeasure of the home crowd by denying Julian Joachim a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area after, seemingly, he was kicked chest-high by Jesper Mattson.

With visible relief, shortly before half-time Villa eased ahead when Alan Wright's free-kick, following an unnecessarily rash tackle by Harewood on Steve Stone, was swept across the goalmouth for Mark Draper to glance in a header with the aid of a deflection. No help was needed for Villa's second except poor marking on Stone whose low centre was easily turned in by the substitute Gareth Barry who had replaced the injured Dion Dublin.

By the time Atkinson reluctantly brought on Van Hooijdonk, Villa were strolling and could reinforce their defence with Ugo Ehiogu, in his first match since early February.

Even a Villa side still playing well below the high standard that they reached in the first half of the season could make this Forest side look inferior but badly organised. Their downfall had its seeds planted many months ago, and Atkinson's famous bouncy confidence was never going to change that.