FOOTBALL: Captain's folly fails system

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The Independent Online
Aston Villa 1 Nottingham Forest 1

As the careers of characters as disparate as Eric Cantona and Vinnie Jones demonstrate, recklessness and righteousness are familiar bedfellows. Andy Townsend's rush of blood probably cost his team a share of the overnight lead in the Premiership, and indignation over the referee's role should not obscure the Villa captain's folly.

Townsend, cautioned in the first half, tempted the wrath of officialdom with his protracted celebrations after firing Villa ahead. Two minutes later he ploughed into Lars Bohinen and was duly dismissed, inviting pressure which produced a late undeserved equaliser for Forest. The Republic of Ireland midfielder also faces a suspension.

His manager, Brian Little, described the incident as "disappointing". While not specifying whether he meant the decision, its effect on the result or the tackle, it may have been all three in that order. The crowd could afford to be less circumspect; one of many who complained on a radio phone-in inadvertently called the referee Ted Danson. His performance certainly gave bar-stool pundits plenty to work themselves into a lager over.

Paul Danson is best known for banishing Alvin Martin in dubious circumstances last January. For two days, until Cantona cracked at Crystal Palace, he was the talk of football. His most bizarre misjudgement here concerned Forest's Steve Chettle, cautioned after Savo Milosevic lost his footing. His inconsistencies could not, however, detract from the impression that neither Villa nor Forest look equipped to secure the Midlands' first championship since 1981.

Villa are now less inclined to conjure the off-the-cuff virtuosity that marked Ron Atkinson's reign. In its stead have come solidity and organisation. The word "system", anathema a year ago, seems suddenly definitive. Frank Clark, the Forest manager, was right when he remarked that Little had bought well and suggested their new-found cohesion would make them virtually unbeatable at home.

Clark recognises resilience, Forest having stretched their undefeated League run to 20 games with Des Lyttle's header. But their penchant for the unpredictable has gone west, even if Stan Collymore is unmourned in the dressing-room. Lacking the injured Pearce, Campbell, Silenzi and Phillips, the first two of whom should be fit to face Malmo tomorrow, they showed a capacity for counter-attack reminiscent of Brian Clough's heyday.

The presence of the greying but still imposing Peter Withe, a goalscoring hero for both clubs, was a reminder of how badly each need the 20-goals- a-season man that could make all the difference. Jason Lee, willing and good in the air alongside Bryan Roy, has none of Collymore's pace or shooting power. Milosevic has one goal from seven games since Villa paid Partizan Belgrade pounds 3.5m to pair him with Dwight Yorke.

It is too soon to conclude that buying the gangling Serb was a mistake. Yet by confessing that he did so on video evidence, Little may have already made one. A cleverly edited tape of, say, Dalian Atkinson's greatest hits could turn that most infuriating of forwards into a combination of Romario and Tony Yeboah.

Milosevic looked good on video, runs a joke doing the rounds of Birmingham supporters, but then so does Mr Bean. Not to mention Ted Danson.

Goals: Townsend (68) 1-0; Lyttle (87) 1-1.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, McGrath, Southgate; Charles, Draper, Taylor, Townsend, Wright; Milosevic (Johnson, 82), Yorke. Substitutes not used: Fenton, Spink (gk).

Nottingham Forest (4-4-2): Crossley; Lyttle, Cooper, Chettle, Haaland; Stone, Bohinen, Bart-Williams, Woan; Lee, Roy. Substitutes not used: Gemmill, Tiler, Howe.

Referee: P Danson (Leicester).