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Football: Forest in the land of make-believe

Clive White on Nottingham's fallen idols who now intend to impersonate a Premiership club in the First Division
It would be tempting to say that this would never have happened under Brian Clough but then of course it did. The irony is that whereas Cloughie spent 18 years swimming against the tide without so much as a lifejacket before the murky waters finally claimed him, the present management team are going down while buoyed by the kind of financial support that Clough could only dream about.

Stuart Pearce and Dave Bassett may have been thrown the lifeline a little late in the day, but Phil Soar, whose consortium took control of the club in late February, is convinced that it will still haul them straight back to the safety of the Premiership next season. That is not just the blind faith of a man who has supported them for 43 years talking - more like pounds 16m.

The disappointment of relegation on Saturday - which was confirmed even without the connivance of a 1-1 draw with Wimbledon - was cushioned by expectation. Anyone who invests as heavily as he has done knows all about the percentage game and he was fully aware that "those clubs in the bottom three at Christmas end up being relegated 93 per cent of the time - or whatever the statistic is. Obviously we were still hopeful but to consider anything other than relegation would have been extremely unrealistic," he said.

But what really makes the heartache easier to bear is the fact that money, more than ever before, dictates one's fortunes in football. Soar believes that the Premier League, in effect, extends beyond the League itself, to about 27 clubs after which there is a substantial gulf in terms of resources. "The figure of 18 or 20 clubs in the Premier League is something of an artifice," he said. "It doesn't actually reflect where the divide really is."

Forest will continue to operate as a Premier League club "in every respect", but Soar knows that such an impersonation has its time limit. "Take, for example, our neighbours Derby. Next season they will reap about pounds 14m in gate receipts and television revenue without even a ball being kicked. We, on the other hand, will take in about pounds 6m," Soar said. "We just have to come straight back up."

Although Soar refuted that time spent by shareholders considering which consortium bid to accept was critical - "we couldn't, for example, have signed Pierre [Van Hooijdonk] any sooner" - certainly had the consortium been in place much earlier, say the previous season, Forest probably would not now be staring into the abyss. They would then have had the money to satisfy the wage demands of Lars Bohinen and, more crucially still, Stan Collymore

One way and another, Forest's fortunes these past four years have been inexorably linked to Stan the Man. In the 1992-93 season they went down, ostensibly because Clough balked at paying pounds l.5m for the then First Division player. Now they have been relegated because they no longer possess their single-minded goalscorer, or someone very like him, leastways not until it was too late.

Van Hooijdonk, who in fact bears a similarity to Collymore in terms of power, will take some holding in the First Division next season when he is unlikely to face too many keepers of the quality of Wimbledon's Neil Sullivan.

Scotland's future goalkeeper managed to contain the Dutch threat until Van Hooijdonk's fellow countryman, Bryan Roy, wrong-footed him with a header within three minutes of coming as a substitute. Trust the great flatterer to deliver when all is lost.

If there was anything even more inevitable than Forest going down on Saturday it was that they would draw 1-1 - their sixth such scoreline in the last eight games, seven of which have been drawn. That statistic alone shows how close Forest came to surviving.

Goals: Leonhardsen (16) 0-1; Roy (60) 1-1.

Nottingham Forest (3-5-2): Fettis; Chettle, Cooper, Pearce (Phillips, 18); Lyttle, Gemmill, Haaland (Roy, 57), O'Neil, Allen; Van Hooijdonk, Saunders (Campbell, 82). Substitutes not used: Woan, Henry (gk).

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Jupp (Reeves, 86), Perry, McAllister, Kimble; Ardley, Jones (Fear, 63), Earle, Leonhardsen; Gayle, Euell. Substitutes not used: Goodman, Clarke, Heald (gk).

Referee: G Barbour (Surrey).

Bookings: Forest Gemmill, Chettle; Wimbledon Jupp.

Man of the match: Sullivan.

Attendance: 19,865.