Football: Ferguson pounces to ease the strain

Nottingham Forest 0 Everton 2
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The Independent Online
DUNCAN FERGUSON, reputedly surplus to the new regime's requirements at Goodison Park, scored two stunning goals in 12 minutes late in the second half to earn Everton their first victory of the Walter Smith era at the City Ground last night.

The towering Scot, who has been linked with a pounds 10m move to Middlesbrough, struck in the final 18 minutes of a previously uneventful game. Ferguson's first, a diving header, was also Everton's breakthrough after 425 minutes' play stretching back to last spring.

Dave Bassett, the Nottingham Forest manager, suggested afterwards that it was actually an own goal by Craig Armstrong. Smith, however, intimated that Ferguson was in no mood to let any rookie defender take it from him. There was no doubting the ownership of the second goal, a fulminating drive which finished off any hopes Forest may have had of topping the Premiership for the first time in four years.

The Everton manager said: "I'm getting really fed up with all the speculation about Ferguson and his future. None of it is coming from me. I'm actively looking for players to bring in, not to sell off one of my best assets."

Smith, who acknowledged that an offer of pounds 20m might just change his mind, revealed that Ferguson had almost missed the match. The captain had left Merseyside still feeling the effects of a flu bug which also afflicted the midfield player, Oliver Dacourt.

How Bassett must have wished they were confined to their beds. Forest had last looked down from the summit at a similar stage of the 1994-95 campaign following a win at Everton. Fielding only one striker, Jean-Claude Darcheville, they seldom looked capable of a repeat performance.

Everton's previous away success was at Crystal Palace, way back on 10 January. Now they can test their growing assurance at home to the team who seized the place Forest hoped to occupy, Leeds United, on Saturday. Leeds were the last victims of Howard Kendall's reign in April, since when rather more than the manager's identify has changed on the blue side of Stanley Park.

The most impressive department of Smith's evolving side was the midfield duo of John Collins and Dacourt. The first, formerly of Monaco, is as silky as his foil, once of Strasbourg, is steely. Both are blessed with an adhesive touch and a willingness to graft.

Bassett gave debuts to two young talents who had lost their way at their previous clubs. Nigel Quashie, the England Under-21 midfielder from Queen's Park Rangers, had endured a low-key debut until he delivered a powerful shot on the stroke of half-time, which Thomas Myhre parried after seeing the ball late.

The Forest newcomer, Andy Gray from Leeds, occasionally evoked memories of his uncle Eddie Gray, with some swerving runs from the left flank. But he lacks sharpness after two years out of favour with George Graham and may need time to adjust to his new surroundings.

Until his late tour de force, Ferguson had been largely ineffectual himself. His principal contribution had been to pick up a caution for disputing a disallowed "goal" too persistently, and failed to put in the wide work that might have dragged Forest's defence out of shape.

All that changed in the 72nd minute. There seemed little imminent danger to Forest as Quashie clattered into Thierry Bonalair deep in Everton's half, earning a booking for his troubles. However, the free-kick was swung across the pitch to the Everton left, where Michael Ball curled in a centre which Ferguson appeared to head past Dave Beasant as he challenged for the ball with Armstrong.

With six minutes remaining, a Scottish one-two finished off Forest. Trading passes with the increasingly influential Collins, Ferguson buried a left- footed drive beyond the sprawling Beasant from 20 yards. The acclaim from the 5,000 Evertonians behind the goal was such that Smith will sell him at his peril.

Nottingham Forest (4-5-1): Beasant; Bonalair, Chettle, Armstrong, Rogers (Lyttle 72); Stone, Johnson, Quashie (Harewood 79), G Thomas, Gray (Freedman 79); Darcheville. Substitutes not used: Edwards, Harewood, Crossley (gk).

Everton (5-3-2): Myhre; Cleland, Watson, Materazzi, Unsworth, Ball; Hutchison, Dacourt, Collins; Barmby (Cadamarteri, 67), Ferguson (T Thomas, 90). Substitutes not used: Farrelly, Jevons, Gerrard (gk).

Referee: R Harris (Oxford).

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