Football: Clarke's strike drives Forest near to the brink

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Wimbledon. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Nottingham Forest. . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

WHAT a place to go, and what a team to go to. The club that everybody wants to see stay in the Premier League virtually assured themselves of relegation by losing to a club without a home, a club that nobody wants to watch - or, as their manager was proudly proclaiming, only the other week, to play against.

Wimbledon's right to practise their craft among the elite of British football cannot be questioned, but their part in Forest's downfall, which is now surely beyond any of the old magician's tricks, will seem a bitter irony to those who believe that the triumph of brute force over artistry is a violation of the natural order.

Not that Forest did themselves any favours at Selhurst Park yesterday. Andy Clarke's goal in a 1-1 draw at the City Ground just before Christmas had cost Forest two home points; just one incident in a season notable for the dreadful home record of a club that build its achievements of the late Seventies on an impregnable citadel by the Trent. Yesterday, Clarke's neat first-half strike looked like delivering the coup de grace to Brian Clough's 15-year run in the top flight, an era including a league championship and two European Cups. And it must be said that Wimbledon's unstinting efforts to win a game that meant little to them (they began the day in 13th place, and ended it in 11th) were never disfigured by the sort of violence that so readily makes enemies of those who would prefer to admire the shoestring achievements of Sam Hammam and Joe Kinnear, given half an excuse.

As Kingsley Black said afterwards, Forest had their chances. 'It's been the story of the season,' said the winger, who himself had the best chance of all when Robert Rosario cleverly threw the whole Wimbledon defence on to the wrong foot by letting Woan's pass run on. Black tried to hammer the ball over Hans Segers, but the former Forest goalkeeper spread himself effectively enough to beat the shot away. Black, of course, is just one of a number of expensive signings that have not worked out for Clough. In the days when fresh trophies filled the City Ground's cabinets, the occasional accident with a Justin Fashanu, an Ian Wallace or a John Sheridan was easy to forgive. Now the shadows of failure have thrown his mistakes into sharp relief.

Surprisingly, given their encouraging home win over Spurs on Easter Monday, Forest began with an air of uncertainty in defence and sluggishness further forward. But the appearance yet again of Nigel Clough alongside Carl Tiler at the heart of the defence spoke volumes about the poverty of the club's current playing resources, and of the manager's curious inability to replenish them. Once Joe Kinnear had decided that Wimbledon were getting nowhere in the air and had instructed Clarke to have a go at young Clough on the ground, Forest were in mortal danger.

Clough had looked vulnerable on several occasions early on, his mistakes sometimes redeemed by the alertness and agility of Andrew Marriott, preferred to the controversial Mark Crossley for the second successive game. But then, in the 33rd minute, the Forest keeper could to nothing to extricate his team from the consequences of picking one of England's cleverest attackers as the linch-pin of a decidedly dodgy defence. As Clarke pounced greedily on Segers's long punt, Clough's lack of physical power was desperately evident. The winger spun away, leaving his marker literally on his knees, and moved swiftly into the area before sliding the ball across Marriott and just inside the far post.

This at least woke up the previously somnolent Roy Keane, who began to give the willing Steve Stone a hand in midfield. Chances came and went, with Rosario and Gary Bannister in particular showing commendable appetite for the battle, but the Forest attack's lack of finesse and subtlety was everywhere apparent. Runs went unmade or, when they were made, went unspotted by the ball-carrier. Only a long left-to- right move on the hour involving Bannister, Ian Woan, Black, Brian Laws and Keane evoked the shade of past Forest sides, but it ended in an anti-climax, with the Irishman's failure to get his cross in.

Wimbledon, with nine first- choice players missing, played a functional game based on athleticism and tactical simplicity. It will probably keep them in the top flight for as long as anyone keeps coming through the turnstiles. Forest's travelling supporters swelled yesterday's attendance to 9,358, which is two or three times the gate Wimbledon sometimes get for a Premier League match, even against the likes of Everton or Manchester City. But their loyal chanting could not provide the cutting edge so clearly lacking from Clough's selection.

With three matches to go, and both Sheffield United and Oldham Athletic losing yesterday, Forest will still believe they have a chance of staying up. Frankly, though, it is hard to make out a special plea for them. The signs of trouble have been there for months, and nothing has been done. Had Clough bought the right players, the closing frenzy at Selhurst Park would have brought some sort of result. But then, of course, it would not have been necessary in the first place.

Wimbledon: H Segers; W Barton, B McAllister, L Sanchez (P Fear, 65 min) J Scales, S Fitzgerald, N Ardley (D Blackwell, 65 min), R Earle, P Miller, D Holdsworth, A Clarke. Sub not used: P Digweed (gk). Manager: J Kinnear.

Nottingham Forest: A Marriott; B Laws, B Williams, S Stone, C Tiler, R Keane, K Black (L Glover, 79 min), G Bannister, N Clough, R Rosario, I Woan. Subs not used: M Crossley (gk), S Gemmill. Manager: B Clough.

Referee: K Barratt (Coventry).