Football: Holiday over for Atkinson

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The Independent Online
IN A season of rancour and distress, Nottingham Forest's supporters can be calmed by one thing: Ron Atkinson, their new manager will arrive at the City Ground today fresh. Give or take jet-lag, that is.

"Big Ron" was appointed manager of the Premiership's bottom club this week, but to say he has raced to lead the cause would be wrong. Put his shoulder to the sun block on holiday in Barbados maybe, but the Forest wheel definitely not.

A bronzed Atkinson will arrive from the Caribbean in time for the kick- off against Arsenal, although it will not be before lunchtime, when his mind will have to turn from the holiday paperback to the blueprint for survival. Which has not enamoured him to his new fans, who were looking for more commitment.

That will be forgotten, however, if Atkinson can arrest a run of 18 games without a victory and while that is unlikely against the Double winners, it is not without precedent. Big Ron took over at Sheffield Wednesday last season and his first match was a 2-0 win over Arsenal.

"There are 51 points to play for," Peter Shreeves, Atkinson's assistant at Hillsborough and the City Ground, said. "We've got to be positive and say: `Let's see if we can get three of those in our first game'.

"It's going to be difficult but Ron gives magnificent team talks. He'll make the players feel like they're the champions and they're going out to play against a team that's in trouble."

To read the medical reports you would think Chelsea were in trouble, but despite long-term injuries to Tore Andre Flo, Pierluigi Casiraghi and Gustavo Poyet they are top of the Premiership, and could be three points clear tonight as Aston Villa do not play until Monday.

The Londoners protect a 19-match unbeaten run today and you might expect fourth-from-bottom Coventry to be cannon fodder, but there are reasons for the leaders to be wary.

Coventry have the Premiership's most prolific current striker in Darren Huckerby, who became the first Sky Blues striker in 50 years to score successive hat-tricks last weekend, while the only blot on Chelsea's record came on the opening day of the season, when their opponents were the same team they face today.

"The same" is an expression Tottenham Hotspur and Wimbledon will come to recognise as they meet at White Hart Lane today in what will be the first of four games against one another in four weeks.

Three come in quick succession, in what Spurs fans have labelled "Wimbledon fortnight", but although the Dons will become all too familiar there is something perceptibly different about them, as the signing of John Hartson for pounds 7.5m means they can no longer be called a Cinderella club. As Joe Kinnear said yesterday: "No one can doubt our ambition."

In sixth place, Wimbledon will have enhanced their Premiership position and be in the Worthington Cup final and the FA Cup fifth round if they win all four games, although no-one should underestimate Tottenham's new- found resilience.

West Ham showed no obduracy at all against Manchester United last weekend and were removed from the FA Cup by Swansea in midweek, so today's home game against Sheffield Wednesday is a straw to grasp at before they embark on a two-week break.

It is unlikely to be a holiday for their manager, Harry Redknapp, who began a wholescale reconstruction with Hartson's departure. "It's time to do some buying and selling," he said. "I'm not one to sit around doing nothing if things go wrong."

Beating an improving Wednesday at home is one thing, but Southampton, the other Premiership team humiliated by a lower-division side this week, have an altogether harder task at Anfield, where they meet a Liverpool team whose draw at Highbury last week followed four successive wins.

Seven points from their last four Premiership matches offers Saints hope, but not much, although the scenario was similar last season and they emerged with a 3-2 win. "We're battling away," Dave Jones, their manager, said, and he should have the man who makes most things possible, Matt Le Tissier, back after an ankle injury.

Just above Southampton are Blackburn, who travel to Derby buoyed by a seven-match unbeaten run under Brian Kidd but dragged down by their long and lingering injury list. Rovers will be without Tim Flowers, Chris Sutton, Kevin Davies, Christian Dailly, Garry Flitcroft and Damien Johnson, although Kevin Gallacher has bucked the trend to be fit.

Which must make Kidd look enviously towards his old employers, Manchester United, who could afford to rest Gary Neville, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Peter Schmeichel against West Ham, and there is no guarantee they will return at Leicester today.

Schmeichel spent his break in Barbados and though there was no evidence that he met Atkinson, it must be a record to find a manager and a leading player fit, free from suspension and in the Caribbean in January.

Which shows how things have changed in a short time. Thirty years ago Fred Pickering, an England centre-forward, blamed his decline on the good life. His downfall, he said was due to "birds, booze and Blackpool".