Football: Frail Forest are floored by McGrath: Villa return to top to put pressure on Norwich and United

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The Independent Online
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PAUL McGRATH, voted player of the year by his fellow professionals a week ago, is unlikely to be remembered with any affection at the City Ground. The imperious Irishman headed Aston Villa's winner against Nottingham Forest yesterday, just as he did in December, his fifth goal of the season restoring Ron Atkinson's side to the Premier League summit.

Their victory could not have been better timed, with second-placed Norwich meeting Manchester United, now four points behind Villa in third spot, at Carrow Road tonight. A draw, or possibly even a home win, would be rapturously received in large swathes of the West Midlands.

A ninth home defeat completed a wretched weekend for Forest, who failed to make up the ground lost to six-goal Oldham on Saturday and remain rooted in the relegation zone with only seven matches in which to save themselves.

In his programme column, Brian Clough observed that 'the margin between success and failure is so thin you can hardly see it'. The ensuing 90 minutes bore out the Forest manager's claim, but while his team could perhaps count themselves a trifle unfortunate to lose they did not quite do enough to win the game.

The familiar failings that have bedevilled the old devil all season were all too evident. Despite having more of the play than Villa, Forest seldom looked like improving on their pathetic scoring record; they average less than a goal per fixture. At the back, where Nigel Clough's creative talents were squandered once more, they were caught yet again by a sucker punch of a goal from a set-piece.

It arrived in the 64th minute, seconds after Mark Crossley had dived to tip a long-range drive by Kevin Richardson over Forest's bar. From the corner, taken by Steve Staunton, the ball was allowed to travel beyond the far post, where the unmarked McGrath met it with a decisive downward header.

McGrath, who helped the Republic move closer to the World Cup finals by beating Northern Ireland four days after he picked up the PFA award, remarked afterwards that Villa had played better and lost at Norwich recently. Ron Atkinson may have hoped for a more productive return by his namesake, Dalian, who was subdued on his first full appearance in four months, but at this stage of the campaign it is a case of never mind the quality, count the points.

Away from home, Villa have now earned more (27) than any other club, though they lived dangerously at times, particularly in the first half when Kingsley Black gave Forest the width the visitors lacked. Shaun Teale, McGrath's normally trusty sidekick, seemed afflicted by uncharacteristic indecision and more ruthless opponents would have expected at least one goal from the openings Forest carved out.

Roy Keane headed wide in the seventh minute, while Gary Bannister missed the target twice in 60 seconds after being set up by Robert Rosario on each occasion. The 6ft 4in Rosario, injured in a tackle by Teale, did not reappear for the second half, leaving a gap Gary Crosby could not fill, but Clough Snr inexplicably persisted with two wingers.

When another Forest flurry soon after the interval failed to conjure a goal - Ian Woan nodded the best chance wide - Villa moved up a gear, but scoring opportunities remained at a premium.

Atkinson, an England contender prior to stomach-muscle problems, had one dazzling dribble which took him past two defenders but he shot straight at Crossley. It took McGrath, and some generous defending, to point Villa's way back to the top.

Nottingham Forest: Crossley; Charles, Chettle, Stone, Tiler, Keane, Black, Bannister, Clough, Rosario (Crosby, h/t), Woan. Substitutes not used: Orlygsson, Marriott (gk).

Aston Villa: Bosnich; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Parker, Saunders, Atkinson, Yorke (Daley, 77). Substitutes not used: Cox, Spink (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Mid Glamorgan)