BEATEN ONLY twice in their last 13 matches, Ruud Gullit's Newcastle added more depth to Nottingham Forest's despair with a Premiership victory at the City Ground last night that pushes Ron Atkinson's side a closer to what now seems inevitable relegation.
After falling behind to a contentious penalty in first-half stoppage time, Forest equalised almost immediately but were reduced to 10 men early in the second period when wing-back Mathieu Louis-Jean was sent off. They paid the price 16 minutes from the end when the midfielder Dietmar Hamann spectacularly drove home Newcastle's winning strike.
Given the imbalance in numbers, the result was no surprise but the story might have unfolded differently, regardless of the incident that gave Alan Shearer his 50th goal in a Newcastle shirt, had Forest not squandered two inviting chances in the first 11 minutes.
Either Steve Chettle or Andy Johnson should have forced the ball over the Newcastle line when Dougie Freedman headed Pierre van Hooijdonk's corner back across goal. Neither could and then Freedman himself was culpable, shooting straight at Shay Given after Van Hooijdonk sent him clear.
Newcastle, who left on the bench four of their starters from the FA Cup win over Everton, did not threaten Mark Crossley's goal until Shearer headed over from a 19th-minute corner. Indeed, the penalty was their first shot on target.
The decision of the referee, Jeff Winter, to award it took everyone by surprise. No player had appealed, but the official adjudged Richard Gough, the former Rangers stopper making his Forest debut, to have pushed Shearer as the two contested a corner. "If all of those were given there would be a penalty awarded at every corner," Atkinson said.
The atmosphere would have become more strained had not Freedman headed Forest level within three minutes.
The dismissal of Louis-Jean came five minutes into the second half when Winter decided his foul on Louis Saha warranted a second yellow card.
Forest's cause was not helped by having to take off Gough and Stale Stensaas through injury and their hopes were wrecked 16 minutes from time when Hamaan unleashed a rocket from 25 yards.
"I'm disappointed because we played as well as we have since I took over," Atkinson said. "I've told the players that if they had performed like that for the whole season they would be half-way up the table and Dave Bassett would still be in charge."
Nottingham Forest (3-5-2): Crossley; Bonalair, Gough (Edwards, 49), Chettle; Louis-Jean, Stone, Johnson, Rogers, Stensaas (Bart-Williams, 70); Van Hooijdonk, Freedman. Substitutes not used: Beasant (gk), Harewood, Woan.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Barton, Charvet, Howey (Dabizas, 21), Domi; Maric, Hamann, Speed (Lee, h-t), Georgiadis; Saha (Ketsbaia, 90), Shearer. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Solano.
Referee: J Winter (Stockton).