Football: Forest are cut down to size by Shearer

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Bottom of the table. Brian Clough says he's too old to be miserable, but the guardian of all that is best in English football is running on faith, and the tank is getting dangerously low.

Five successive defeats is easily the worst sequence in his 17-year managership of Nottingham Forest and if, as he tells us, he is not distressed, he has good reason to be.

The 4-1 beating Forest took at Blackburn on Saturday was ominous in many ways, not the least of which was the flimsiness of their resistance. Feeble in all areas, they were overrun in the second half by the sort of team they used to murder on the break.

True to the master's principles, they continue to play a pleasing, passing game, but they no longer possess the cutting edge to make it effective.

The decline is not sudden or new. Forest ceased to be credible championship contenders a long time ago. Only its apparent acceleration comes as a surprise. The reasons are there, or rather elsewhere, for all to see. Too many good men gone.

Norwich City's presence at the top of the League will be said by some to disprove the theory, but they are no more than a temporary exception to the rule that you get what you pay for. Blackburn, of course, are a prime example.

Selling your best players and replacing them on the cheap, which has become Clough's habit, is a debilitating process, and Forest look suitably debilitated.

Des Walker, Teddy Sheringham and Darren Wassall were allowed to leave without adequate replacements to hand, and the explanation that they were either out of contract or disaffected and determined to move on would be more plausible if so many others had not gone before them. Sutton, Webb, Parker, Hodge, Black, Chapman, Jemson - the list is endless.

The reason for the turnover is anybody's guess. Forest's bank balance is uncommonly healthy and, unlike Norwich, they do not need to sell to survive.

Perhaps players grow tired of Cloughie's dictatorial style. Since they are all too intimidated by Old Stoneface to discuss such things, we may never know.

Whatever the cause, the symptoms are sad. Forest have been a joy to watch throughout Clough's tenure, an oasis in the long-ball desert. They still are, but to see them now is akin to watching the ageing Muhammad Ali - skills largely intact, but taking too much punishment.

Sixteen goals conceded in five games, they are becoming a soft touch - an impression reinforced by a conversation with a leading manager on Saturday night. 'You went to Blackburn, did you?' he said. 'What were they like, or were Forest too weak to judge?'

Forest were frail, Blackburn bullish. There was no doubt about the outcome from the time, eight minutes into the second half, when Mark Atkins brushed Steve Chettle aside to make it 2-1.

Woefully weak in central defence, Forest were easy prey for Alan Shearer's swaggering aggression. Shearer, about to become Blackburn's first England player since Keith Newton in 1969, took his tally to six goals in as many games with a swivelling close- range volley and a penalty he won for himself in getting the better of Carl Tiler.

Appropriately enough, for a pounds 3.3m man, Shearer has the Midas touch just now, everything he attempts coming good. It will be interesting to see whether brimming confidence enables him to make a better fist of international football, his performances in the European Championship having been uncharacteristically anonymous.

Spain on Wednesday are unlikely to be as accommodating as Forest, who were overcome by a fit of the vapours every time the ball was played up to him.

The Bovril and cow pie brigade loved it, gleefully reminding Forest's followers of the absence of their old defensive linchpin. 'You'll never beat Des Walker' became 'You'll never beat Jack Walker' - an anthem to the benefactor whose name is never far from their lips.

Reminders of how far, how fast Walker's millions have brought his home-town club are everywhere - in an archaic stadium which he has yet to modernise and in the celebration of Burnley's defeat by Chester, besides which Arsenal losing to Wimbledon was deemed small beer.

How far upmarket can the provincial nouveau riche travel? The backing of football's richest patron may eventually enable Kenny Dalglish to emulate Clough by winning the championship with two clubs, but not yet. The midfield is too plain and doubts persist about the goalkeeper, Bobby Mimms, who might have kept out Gary Bannister's scoring shot from the edge of the penalty area.

Mimms, mind, is a latterday Gordon Banks by comparison with Mark Crossley, the goalkeeper who makes Norman Wisdom seem sedate. Manic Mark's latest gaffe was to catch a long- range header from Colin Hendry and then, with Hendry's back turned and Kevin Moran muttering 'hard luck', drop the ball over the line for the softest of own goals.

He will have to go. Forest need a new keeper, at least one new centre-half and a proper replacement for Sheringham if the decline is to be reversed.

Renascent Rovers had no such worries. 'Are you enjoying it, Kenny?' someone ventured. 'No problem.' he said. The happy pills were working.

From the look on that saturnine face, Cloughie could do with the same prescription.

Goals: Shearer (3) 1-0; Bannister (15) 1-1; Atkins (53) 2-1; Shearer penalty (59) 3-1; Crossley og (63) 4-1

Blackburn Rovers: Mimms; May, Dobson (Wegerle, 82), Sherwood, Hendry, Moran, Ripley, Atkins, Shearer, Newell, Wright. Substitutes not used: Cowans, Dickins (gk).

Nottingham Forest: Crossley; Laws, Pearce, Tiler, Chettle, Keane, Orlygsson, Gemmill, Clough, Bannister, Crosby. Substitutes not used: Glover, Marriott (gk), Stone.

Referee: R Nixon (West Kirby).