Football: Fear of failure haunts Big Ron

Nottingham Forest 1 Middlesbrough 2
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CONTRARY TO football folklore as some would see it, not everyone loves Big Ron. His arrival in Nottingham, for instance, sparked enormous scepticism.

Forest had to track him down to a beach in the Caribbean to offer him the manager's job and even then he refused to cut short his holiday. Now, to some eyes at least, he swans around in his sharp suits with a fat salary cheque guaranteed, win or lose, wise-cracking his way along the road to the First Division. A nice little earner, those with raised eyebrows said, if there ever was one.

Until Saturday, that is. After Middlesbrough had pilfered the points at the City Ground, casting Forest further adrift in choppy relegation waters, the game's last great character-manager set his features in a scowl. It was not the look of a man who did not give a damn.

He had kept the press waiting for almost an hour and now he had made his entrance he stared mostly straight ahead. There was no smile, let alone any jokes. He was very cross, he said, and those assembled did not disbelieve him. Forest were doomed, he more or less admitted, and he did not like it.

Atkinson did not like it when Aston Villa sacked him. He liked it even less when Sheffield Wednesday replaced him with Danny Wilson. Failure hurts his pride and Forest's miserable response to his arrival is getting to him. He berated his players. They were weak-willed, he said, had failed to reveal even a modicum of mental strength and had handed Middlesbrough victory. "I'm furious," he said, "because of the way we played in the last 20 minutes. The game was there to be won."

It was such a contrast to the previous Saturday, when Forest had won at Wimbledon. Victories for Southampton and Blackburn on Saturday leave Forest isolated at the bottom.

If Forest now know where they will be next season, Atkinson does not. Rumour has it that Forest have offered him pounds 500,000-a-year to mastermind promotion from the First Division. Rumour has it also that they have sounded out Brian Little, said to be disenchanted at Stoke, and Tottenham's director of football, David Pleat. Whatever the truth is, Atkinson is unlikely to quit.

On Saturday, Forest might have hoped history would protect them. After all, Middlesbrough had not beaten them in 24 league meetings spanning 26 years. But when fate has decided to trample on your head such things count for little.

Forest made two serious defensive errors and paid for both, Hamilton Ricard catching Jesper Mattson out of position to give Bryan Robson's side the lead and Brian Deane taking his chance when Steve Chettle's header left Christian Edwards in trouble. Dougie Freedman struck his third goal in as many games but nothing else worked for Forest.

Goals: Ricard (30) 0-1; Freedman (37) 1-1; Deane (87) 1-2.

Nottingham Forest (3-4-1-2): Crossley; Edwards, Mattsson (Porfirio, 87), Chettle; Louis-Jean, Palmer, Bart-Williams (Bonalair, 74), Rogers; Van Hooijdonk; Freedman (Harewood, h-t), Shipperley. Substitutes not used: Beasant (gk), Gough.

Middlesbrough (3-5-2): Schwarzer; Festa, Vickers, Cooper; Stockdale, Maddison, Townsend, Mustoe, Gordon, Deane, Ricard (Beck, 59; Armstrong, 87). Substitutes not used: Gascoigne, Beresford (gk), O'Neill.

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol). Bookings: Forest: Louis-Jean, Rogers, Bart- Williams, Palmer. Middlesbrough: Mustoe, Vickers, Deane, Festa.

Man of the match: Townsend.

Attendance: 21,468.