Football: Big Ron's problems get bigger

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The Independent Online
Coventry City 4

Huckerby 45, 46, 75, Telfer 54

Nottingham Forest 0

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 17,172

WHEN Ron Atkinson returns from the sunshine of Barbados in an attempt to rescue Nottingham Forest from relegation, even his renowned powers of inspiration and good-humoured bullying will almost certainly arrive too late.

Yesterday at Highfield Road Darren Huckerby's second hat-trick in a week not only destroyed Forest on the day but brought about their 18th match without a win. And, considering that Coventry themselves have been verging on despair, this emphasised that Atkinson will be starting with a team bereft of confidence and, worse, capable of being outclassed by the ordinary.

By choosing to remain out of the way until next week, Atkinson avoided not only presiding over this further damaging result but starting at the club from where, two years ago, he left after being "promoted" upstairs, leaving Gordon Strachan in sole charge.

In the absence of a new boss Forest's caretaker manager, Micky Adams, decided to change a few things, bringing back Pierre van Hooijdonk after a four-match absence through suspension and injury and including the 17-year-old defender Chris Doig, for only his second match, and Craig Armstrong. Not that the rearrangement significantly relieved Forest of an immediate impression of having their backs to the wall. Doig found himself busily central in a five-man defence that seemed to set out expecting the worst.

Despite one optimistic moment when van Hooijdonk met an early long cross from Des Lyttle and tamely tried to stroke the ball with his head, Forest were generally funnelling back without even hinting at realistic counter- attacks. They were flattered to reach the half-hour without conceding a goal, a situation that was more a result of one well-gripped save by Dave Beasant from Gary McAllister's clipped 12-yard shot than their own combined defending.

Van Hooijdonk and Steve Stone were Forest's isolated strikers although, to his credit, the Dutchman forced a finger-tipped deflection by Magnus Hedman from a dangerously in-swinging free-kick that took the rest of the Coventry defence by surprise. It was no surprise, though, that the game itself was riddled with errors.

By far Coventry's best opportunity of the first 40 minutes came when Noel Whelan sent Huckerby on an extended run that was made less obstructed by John Aloisi's perceptive move wide, attracting the attention of the right side of the Forest defence. Huckerby spoilt it by slamming his shot against the post.

Coventry maintained their pressure, several times skimming the ball across the Forest goalmouth without anyone being able to thrust out a foot. Curiously, the sense remained that sooner or later the skill of van Hooijdonk would produce something to run against the course of the play. Certainly Forest approached half-time a shade more positively.

Coventry dismissed the thought of Forest defiance by scoring late in the first half and almost from the kick-off in the second; a deep centre from Trond Soltvedt was headed on by Aloisi and Huckerby, moving into the penalty area on the far side, struck in a fine shot. Huckerby then surpassed himself when, after the interval, he was meandering down the right edge and, after losing Doig, contemplated a centre. He changed his mind and drifted a dream of a shot over Beasant.

Although Forest were unimpressive they were hardly as impoverished as to deserve finding themselves three goals down after 54 minutes. Nevertheless, Coventry created their third smartly enough, David Burrows' cross forcing a hurried clearance and Paul Telfer splendidly cracked in an unstoppable volley.

Huckerby completed Forest's eventual humiliation and his own hat-trick, which was no new experience since he scored three against Macclesfield in the FA Cup only seven days before. This time he gathered the ball some 40 yards out and simply took the most direct route to goal, drawing out Beasant and scoring almost insolently.

"A bit of a shock result really," Strachan said mischievously. "When a club sacks its manager you often expect them to win."

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