Football: FA Cup: Bassett seeks allies amid gloom

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The Independent Online
Nottingham Forest 0 Portsmouth 1

ALAN BALL has seen enough lows in his managerial career to have sympathy for Dave Bassett as Forest's season sinks to new depths. Outside the City Ground on Saturday evening, angry Forest fans chanted for Bassett to be sacked and the plc board to resign. Inside, Ball, having watched his side emerge with character from a crisis of their own, laid the blame for the Nottingham club's hard times firmly at the feet of the players.

"It's all too easy for players to hide behind the manager and let him take the flak," Ball said, having experienced mob hatred in his Manchester City days. "But the players should be honest with themselves and accept responsibility.

"We put players on ped- estals. But they don't have to stand up and face the music. These big stars can climb into their big cars and sneak off into the night."

Outside, a rumour spread that Bassett, who missed the post-match press conference because he felt unwell, had quit. Indeed, a local radio station said as much in an early evening bulletin. Club spokes- man Larry Lloyd denied the story and Mickey Adams, Bassett's assistant, insisted his boss was not about to throw in the towel. The day of reckoning, however, may not be far away.

The former Wimbledon manager has a proud record of beating the odds but can seldom have found himself working in less helpful circum- stances.

After a dismal run of 17 Premiership matches without a win, his players have lost their self-belief and the new blood that might refresh their faith cannot be introduced unless key assets - namely Pierre van Hooijdonk and Steve Stone - are sold first.

Adams said that Bassett remained "up for the fight", but made one observation that may be significant. "Everywhere he has been before," Adams said, "he has had everyone behind him - the players, the fans, the board, the shareholders. I would question whether that is the case here."

It was not clear whether he was referring to the players or the directors, although an earlier remark about the heavy, uneven pitch gave a clue. "That's something else that needs money spending on," he said.

The key figures on the plc board - Nigel Wray, Irving Scholar and Phil Soar - will argue that they have done as they promised when Forest changed hands two years ago by putting around pounds 16 million into the club, a substantial chunk of which went on settling old debts.

However, investment in the team promoted last season has been inadequate and Wray, principal bankroller of the buy-out, is no Jack Walker. Indeed, he is the archetypal City investor about whom football was right to be worried, with no real interest in the game other than as a financial opportunity.

Now, having seen the value of his stake in Nottingham Forest dwindle significantly, he has no inclination to throw good money after bad.

Even so, it is the players who ultimately win or lose matches. Given the uncertainty hovering over Portsmouth, where ousted chairman Martin Gregory is being courted for his family's 97 per cent holding, his team perhaps had more excuse even than Forest for under-performing, especially after the way John Aloisi, their most effective striker, was sold, cut- price, from under Ball's nose.

But on Saturday, the side currently 20th in the First Division found the character to respond to the challenge. Sammy Igoe, Jeff Peron and Alan McLoughlin were excellent in midfield, Steve Claridge, their first- half goalscorer, tireless in attack; and, from front to back, the entire team defended with commitment.

"I gave them some real stick after we lost to Ipswich the other day," Ball said. "They could have sulked. Instead they responded in the right way."

Goal: Claridge (17) 0-1.

Nottingham Forest (4-4-2): Beasant; Lyttle (Gray, 64), Hjelde, Chettle, Jean; Stone, Johnson (Quashie, 77), Gemmill, Bart-Williams; Shipperley, Freedman (Harewood, 71). Substitutes not used: Doig, Crossley (gk).

Portsmouth (3-5-2): Knight; Waterman, Thomson, Vlachos; Robinson, Igoe, McLoughlin, Peron, F Simpson; Andreasson (Nightingale, 64), Claridge. Substitutes not used: Phillips, Day, Perrett, R Simpson.

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).

Bookings: Forest: Hjelde, Shipperley, Harewood; Portsmouth: Vlachos.

Man of the match: Igoe.

Attendance: 10,092.