Football: Forest's flawless finisher

Birmingham City 1 Ndlovu pen 61 Nottingham Forest 2 Van Ho oijdonk 84, 88 Attendance: 24,663: Van Hooijdonk's double touch keeps leaders favourites for Premiership but leaves Birmingham blue
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The Independent Online
THIS game really does kick you where it hurts just when you think you are getting on top of it. Consider Trevor Francis's position seven minutes from time at St Andrews yesterday.

The man who brought in a million pounds for Birmingham City when he became the first English footballer to cost that amount 20 years ago was watching the team he now manages deservedly lead the Nationwide First Division's top team by Peter Ndlovu's penalty kick and maybe contemplating the play- offs; perhaps even the Premiership with its rewards worth millions more.

Then Pierre Van Hooijdonk interrupted the reverie with two quite breathtaking goals out of context with most of what Forest had put together previously and the club who bought him - for whom indeed Francis scored the goal that won the European Cup in 1979 - had made off with three points to fortify their increasingly convincing claim for automatic promotion.

"We have had one or two disappointments this season, but that is hard to accept," Francis lamented. "We had the game there and gave it away."

Birmingham should have had more to show for their pressure than Ndlovu's penalty, awarded after Forest's French right-back Thierry Bonalair had clambered over Jon McCarthy in challenging for a high ball, and which the Zimbabwean stroked into Dave Beasant's left corner as the goalkeeper dived right.

But Forest finally asserted themselves and Birmingham appeared to grow nervous, as shown when the hitherto excellent Martin O'Connor surrendered possession to Chris Bart-Williams, who sent Van Hooijdonk racing clear. Michael Johnson, already booked, clipped his heels and a sending-off was inevitable. More appropriate punishment was meted out when the Dutchman then curled the free-kick from 20 yards into Ian Bennett's right corner to become the first player in England to score 30 goals this season.

Then a corner on the left - disputed by Birmingham on the grounds that Alan Rogers had pushed O'Connor - came back to Ian Woan, who supplied Van Hooijdonk, 25 yards out on the left, and this time the bender, goal No 31, was into Bennett's top left corner.

"I felt Pierre hadn't played particularly well," the Forest manager, Dave Bassett, said. "Normally he does better holding the ball up and passing it. I've had centre-forwards like Fashanu and Deane who chase lost causes, but he's a different mentality - it is the way he was brought up. But he does have this great ability to finish and there is a wonderful arrogance to him when he gets a free-kick. He always thinks he is going to score."

It was apt summary. Forest had ceded the initiative to a Birmingham side who had moved up from 14th with only two defeats in 15 matches since Christmas and O'Connor and the inventive Chris Marsden dominated central midfield for long periods, while the powerful Dele Adebola and darting Ndlovu gave Colin Cooper and Steve Chettle a torrid time.

In only the second minute Ndlovu got the better of Bonalair, ran on and sent in a powerful shot that Beasant pushed over the bar. Soon after, the goalkeeper also turned aside well a deflected shot from Marsden as Forest came under severe pressure. Bonalair then allowed Grainger to escape and meet O'Connor's cross, fortunately for Forest straight into Beasant's arms.

Forest's quality going forward was only fitfully in evidence, once when Van Hooij- donk and Campbell combined neatly to send Steve Stone clear, but his shot went weakly to Bennett. Then from Bart-Williams' corner, Campbell headed on to the City bar from six yards.

Birmingham matched them soon after with a thunderous shot from Ndlovu, set up by Adebola, from the edge of the penalty area which dipped wickedly over Beasant before thumping to safety off the bar.

Forest were grateful for the respite of the interval; Birmingham were baffled why they were not ahead and the feeling grew soon after half-time when a relieved Beasant clutched O'Connor's near-post header from Grainger's cross. Finally came the reward of the penalty.

They should have learned the lesson of it; that sustained aggression and ambition yielded return. But instead they retreated and Adebola's determined run on the break, his shot saved by Beasant, was an isolated attempt.

Allied to Forest finally stirring themselves, none more so than Van Hooijdonk, what followed had became a distinct, if cruel, possibility. Despite First Division football, he remains in the Dutch squad and the World Cup beckons him. "If he gets a free-kick against England I'll be shitting myself," Bassett said.