Football: Fragile Forest battered by Gayle

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The Independent Online
Nottingham Forest 0

Wimbledon 1

Gayle 23

Attendance: 21,362

PIERRE VAN HOOIJDONK, Nottingham Forest's wayward absentee who walked out at the end of last season saying the team was not good enough either for him or the Premiership, had a point. Nothing he saw yesterday on his return to the City Ground would have changed his view. On the other hand, little he did suggested that, in spite of his 34 goals last season, he is the answer to Forest's problems.

Van Hooijdonk's reinstatement elevated a comparatively mundane match to one that excited curiosity. His return after 12 weeks of self-imposed exile offered Forest the chance of an overnight improvement in their fragile goalscoring record - only two at home and six away. The question was whether his absence from competitive play since appearing for Holland against Croatia in the World Cup in July had left him with any value at all. All he proved yesterday was that he remained match fit.

If he needed encouragement, it was certainly lacking from Dave Bassett, the Forest manager, who welcomed him in his programme notes by observing: "I must admit that Pierre has amazed me by having the audacity not even to apologise to anyone at the football club. He has shown no remorse whatsoever for his behaviour, which is regrettable to say the very least. I want to go on record as saying Nottingham Forest have done nothing to apologise for over this whole affair. Pierre is here to play football and I suggest he does just that."

Bassett mellowed after the game, saying Van Hooijdonk "got on with it and played quite well" and that if he performed at the same level he could continue in the team, but the Forest crowd gave the Dutchman a mixed reception. They were more appreciative when, within 50 seconds of the kick-off, he was keen enough to position himself inside the near post to meet, though scuff, Marlon Harewood's grass-high centre at Neil Sullivan's feet. Although Andy Gray also forced Sullivan to stifle a long drive on the turn, the initial expectancy in the Forest crowd slowly turned to more familiar frustration and Wimbledon settled into their equally familiar pattern of feeding the big front-men with ammunition.

Service to Van Hooijdonk and Harewood, Forest's front two - to call it a "partnership" would assume something that may not exist - was less persistent. So, after 23 minutes, Forest's frail teamwork and failure to subdue Wimbledon's main tactic cost them a goal - a good and typical one. Michael Hughes made space on the left, centred without hesitation and Marcus Gayle sledge- hammered a header beyond Dave Beasant in Forest's goal.

The lesson was not taken to heart. Wimbledon continued to fly centres into the Forest penalty area, with Carl Leaburn climbing menacingly - only a long dive by Beasant stopped him capitalising on one accurate cross to his head from Gareth Ainsworth, who was making an impressive debut. At the opposite end, Harewood tamely let Sullivan block his only serious chance of the first half.

While Van Hooijdonk rarely gained, or was offered, hopeful possession, it was left to Chris Bart-Williams to make the best of Forest's few opportunities - and even he saw his best run end with Sullivan grasping his shot. When, at last, Van Hooijdonk was offered an inviting through-ball from Steve Stone, he crashed a point-blank shot into the side-netting. Bassett may have noticed there was just a hint of remorse - a slight bend of the head.

As Forest gradually raised some pace and dug deeper, so they became more vulnerable when Wimbledon did what they do best, counter-attack with power. In the 57th minute, Ainsworth again sped away, only for Gayle to waste the ensuing accurate centre by shooting high. But Forest's susceptibility was damning. Stone apart, none of the Forest side had the drive or control to create serious sustained pressure.

Whether Van Hooijdonk, who had only three shots, will merely play a few games to prove his fitness and then be off-loaded remains to be seen, but on this evidence his low opinion of his colleagues is unlikely to have been much altered.