Football: Clough bids the saddest farewell

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The Independent Online
Nottingham Forest. .0

Sheffield United. . 2

FOREST'S fire is out. The maestro Brian Clough could no longer stir the embers and he now goes to his familiar place in the Mediterranean sun, leaving the club he dominated for so long soulless and unsure what the future will bring. On this May Day, Forest were already deeply in distress before the final blow came at the hands of a Sheffield United team whose own situation was far from safe. In the event they, not Forest, were prepared to battle every step of the way and it provided them with another rung on the ladder to safety.

Important though it was to United, the day posed one all-embracing question: were Forest to fall with the old man, the last great eccentric of a game now ruled on and off the pitch by men without his principles and none of his character. That was the point of the occasion for a full house: and it ended with Forest sent back to a lower division for the first time in Clough's 18 years of European and domestic success that had turned into mid-table indifference and finally foot-of-the-table desperation.

Throughout those years Forest's root had been Clough, and his enduring theme had been good football. The decision yesterday to release his son Nigel from being wasted in defence was roundly welcomed - a symbol of defiance, or perhaps an apology - but it was to no avail.

The principles of football played to feet remained in spite of the urgency of Forest's predicament. Still they played their passes more in confident anticipation than hope, and for a while United felt it better to absorb the effects of the emotion that had been built by Clough's prolonged acclamation and his team's immediate efforts to capitalise on the mood.

Several of this Forest team are deliberating over their own futures, not least Roy Keane, their Player of the Year, whose power down the left side bothered United until, after 10 minutes, they pulled themselves together and began to expose some of the frailties that have bedevilled Forest all season.

The centre of the Forest defence has never recovered from the loss of Des Walker, and here Brian Deane's strength and sheer grit again exposed the flaws. Brian Laws saved them when Paul Rogers failed to get impetus on what should have been United's first goal-bound shot, but it was of no consequence since they were soon to be compensated.

Deane again powered into the penalty area only to have the ball taken off his forehead by Andrew Marriott, and then United's composed football took them ahead. Building carefully through midfield in the 29th minute, they reaped the rewards of their patience. A precise ball played damagingly through the Forest penalty area by Paul Rogers not only discovered Glyn Hodges but the space he had been allowed. A well-despatched, low, bending shot arced around the static, surprised Marriott.

The fact that Rogers had nipped in so quickly to ensure that no Forest player got there ahead of him was fundamental to the way the game was being played. United had no self-doubts about their ability to be first to the ball. Over the years Clough had always told his players to treat it as their friend ('the tool of your trade') but in this flagging season he might have been telling them that first they had to win it. He said later that he had done exactly that at half-time, though by then it was too late.

Although Robert Rosario's 25- yard well-struck shot steamed past their post soon after the interval, United's pressure continued and it seemed that Nigel Clough had caught his father's mood of melancholy. Yet when Marriott turned another shot from Hodges around the post the outside chance of Forest still saving themselves was not altogether beyond possibility.

Keane became Forest's only serious hope of recovery. His towering runs deserved better support, and in the end he was often going alone while Clough dropped back into a passive role. Keane had moved to the right side in search of better openings and certainly he could have given Forest a chance of recovery when Rosario carried the ball diagonally on a dangerous run. But when the centre came, Keane headed the invitation painfully wide.

The ache of disappointment went deep to the heart of the City Ground crowd, and the frustration boiled over on to the pitch when, following a heavy tackle by Brian Deane, at least a dozen players became involved in what had the makings of a serious scuffle. However, good humour soon won the day with the help of some sensible, efficient refereeing.

It seemed now that even one goal and at least the avoidance of defeat was beyond Forest. And so it was confirmed. After 74 minutes the already nervous Marriott allowed a corner to slip through his fingers to offer United another corner. This time it was taken short by Dane Whitehouse and Charlie Hartfield curled the ball away from the Forest keeper. Brian Gayle's header assuredly ended Forest's era and at the same time offered United the hope that their performance in difficult circumstances yesterday warranted.

Nottingham Forest: A Marriott; B Laws, B Williams, S Chettle, C Tiler, R Keane, K Black, S Gemmill, N Clough, R Rosario, I Woan. Subs not used: S Stone, M Crossley (gk), T Orlygsson. Manager: B Clough.

Sheffield United: A Kelly; M Ward, P Beesley (A Littlejohn, 44 min), C Hartfield, B Gayle, J Pemberton, C Bradshaw, P Rogers, G Hodges, B Deane, D Whitehouse. Subs not used: F Carr, J Leighton (gk). Manager: D Bassett.

Referee: P Durkin (Portland, Dorset).

Goals: Hodges (0-1, 29 min); Gayle (0-2, 74 min).

(Photograph omitted)