Football: Forest forage for scraps

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The Independent Online
In the aftermath of Nottingham Forest's 3-1 home defeat to Southampton on Saturday Dave Bassett, Forest's general manager, was standing in a corridor talking of character and relegation battles, and of how you cannot survive one without the other.

Given Forest's meek capitulation in such a crucial match his comments were damningly appropriate but, on League Cup final weekend, the match also evoked other thoughts.

Eighteen years ago these teams had met in one of the better League Cup finals. Forest won 3-2 but the three-handled jug was just a bonus. They were the reigning League champions at the time and, two months later in Munich, would be crowned the best in Europe. They held on to the European Champions' Cup the following year. The side was impressive, featuring Peter Shilton, John Robertson, Tony Woodcock, Martin O'Neill, Garry Birtles and Archie Gemmill.

It would be a stretching a point to say that Southampton were also a power in the land but they had international players such as Steve Williams, Alan Ball, Mick Channon and Chris Nicholl. Three years earlier they had won the FA Cup and were newly promoted. They have been in the top flight ever since, and in 1984 were League runners-up and FA Cup semi-finalists.

The point of this history lesson is that both sides are now reduced to scrabbling for survival and it is sometimes hard to imagine they will ever recapture former glories. Forest may have reached the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup last season but they are now heading for their second relegation in four years. In a recent interview with The Independent Phil Soar, the man behind the recent takeover at Forest, said: "No city remotely the size of Nottingham has ever won the European Cup; we've won it twice." He added: "The whole period had an strong feeling of unreality."

If that is what it felt like then, at a distance of nearly two decades it seems pure fantasy. Even Manchester United have only this season managed to put together a respectable challenge. Derby may have beaten Manchester United, and Leicester played at Wembley this weekend, but that does not negate the feeling that, in the brave new world of the Premiership, provincial clubs like Forest and Southampton seem condemned to be beggars at the feast, picking up scraps like the occasional Coca-Cola Cup.

This is nothing new. Even in the days of the maximum wage, the big city clubs - Manchester United, Everton, Arsenal, Aston Villa and those of the Tyne and Wear conurbation - won many of the honours. Only the North's textile towns regularly challenged their supremacy.

The trend does, however, seem to have become more pronounced. Since the end of wage restraint the clubs of Merseyside, Manchester, Leeds and north London have ruled. Outstanding managers, and/or excellent youth systems, have led to brief periods of ascendancy for Burnley, Ipswich, Forest and Derby but, until the well-financed rise of Blackburn, no provincial side had finished in the first two since Southampton 13 years ago.

The big city clubs generate more money through higher gates and commercial spin-offs than provincial clubs. Those clubs thus find it harder to hold on to their players. Stuart Pearce and Matt Le Tissier are the exceptions, their former team-mates Stan Collymore, Roy Keane, Alan Shearer and Neil Ruddock the rule.

However, recent developments have offered some hope to such clubs. The largess of Sky TV is so generous it has reduced the relative income gap between the likes of Forest and, say, Everton. Bosman means clubs like Southampton can pick up players like Claus Lundekvam and Eyel Berkovitch cheaply. Every Premiership club now has at least one star player which has not always been the case in the past decade.

There is one catch: all this only applies to clubs in the Premiership, which is why Saturday's match was so important and why Bassett was so unhappy with some of his players. Each club is on the verge of solving individual problems - Southampton are moving from their limited ground, Forest have changed their limiting constitution - but it will be too late if they are relegated.

The tension showed in the play. Even Pearce and Le Tissier made mistakes in basic ball control. Le Tissier, who faded badly, was substituted. Pearce suffered more cruelly, his backpass allowed Southampton their clinching second goal.

That was scored by Mike Evans, who then added a third to end revivalist thoughts prompted by Pearce's penalty. His goals fully justified Graeme Souness's unpopular decision to bring him on for Le Tissier. At pounds 500,000 he was bought at a tenth of the cost of Pierre van Hooijdonk. It looks money better spent.

Southampton, who played with greater enterprise, passion and composure throughout, had gone ahead through Jim Magilton's 35-yard shot after seven minutes. Mark Crossley, unsighted and off-balance, was immobile.

Forest's response was long balls aimed at Van Hooijdonk, a betrayal of their traditions. It worked once but the Dutchman's spectacular 63rd-minute strike was ruled out. Not that their approach deserved anything. It seems odd that this tactic is apparently decided by Pearce, not Bassett, who says team selection and tactics are nothing to do with him.

If that sounded like buck-passing, Bassett's comments on the team were more forthright. "Some of them did not seem to be with it," he said. "We needed more blood and guts. It is easy for players to think if this club goes down I can always find another one. They don't lose their jobs."

Goals: Magilton (7) 0-1; Evans (85) 0-2; Pearce (pen, 88) 1-2; Evans (90) 1-3.

Nottingham Forest (4-4-2): Crossley; Lyttle, Chettle, Cooper, Pearce; Phillips, Haland, Gemmill, Woan (Roy, 57); Saunders, Van Hooijdonk. Substitutes not used: Allen, Moore, O'Neill, Fettis (gk).

Southampton (4-3-1-2): Taylor; Van Gobbel, Dodd, Lundekvam, Benali; Oakley (Neilsen, 80), Magilton, Slater; Berkovitch (Maddison, 90); Ostenstad, Le Tissier (Evans, 68) Substitutes not used: Dryden, Beasant (gk).

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-Le-Street). Bookings: Nottingham Forest Van Hooijdonk. Southampton Benali, Magilton.

Man of the match: Lundekvam.

Attendance: 25,134.