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Football: Silence stalks bleak Forest

AFTER a big-money takeover failed to keep them in the Premiership last season, Nottingham Forest pinned everything on winning back top-flight status at the first attempt. Second in the First Division with almost three-quarters of the season gone, they remain on course in spite of some inconsistent recent form. The players believe they can achieve their goal. What worries them is whether their supporters do.

The next four days will be critical to Forest's season. Today they face the leaders Middlesbrough, on Wednesday third-placed Sunderland. Given that they play both at home, Forest should start favourites. These days, however, Dave Bassett's team are not sure that playing before their own crowd is necessarily an advantage.

Blind loyalty has never been part of the Forest fan's make-up. Even during the headiest days of the Clough era, the banks of the River Trent could hardly be described as a hot-bed of football passion. This season, though, the atmosphere at the City Ground has sometimes been closer to cold indifference, disturbed less often by chants of support than by derisive snorts when players do not meet the expected standard.

After Forest's last home match against Huddersfield had drawn a typically lukewarm response despite a 3-0 scoreline, Bassett accused the grumbling fans of having a "death wish". It was not the first time he had used the phrase.

Now it is getting to the players, for whom the fervent support enjoyed by Middlesbrough (average attendance 29,992) and Sunderland (32,292) is a pointed reminder of what they are missing. On the night Forest met Huddersfield in front of 18,231, marginally below their average, the Wearsiders attracted 40,579 to the Stadium of Light for the visit of struggling Reading.

"It makes a huge difference," the Forest midfielder Andy Johnson said. "Go to Middlesbrough or Sunderland and the atmosphere is intimidating for a visiting team. If you have that kind of noise and you know it is your own fans making it, getting behind you, it gives you a tremendous lift even before you step on the pitch.

"We are not going to get the kind of crowds Middlesbrough and Sunderland enjoy, but we should be capable of bringing in at least 20,000 for every home game and creating a big-match atmosphere every time."

In fact, Forest this season have been watched by 4,000 fewer fans, on average, than when they last fought their way out of the Nationwide League in 1993-94, a decline held partly to blame for a pounds 6.4m half-year operating loss announced on Friday. Some supporters blame high ticket prices - pounds 20 for adults - and those who do pay argue that the quality of entertainment should match the cost.

"Of course, fans have a right to criticise," Johnson said. "They pay their money and are entitled to their views. We just wish they would save them until afterwards and get behind the team during the game. It should be the visiting teams who do not like playing here."

The 23-year-old former Norwich midfielder has not escaped personal criticism since Bassett paid more than pounds 2m for him last summer. Bought to provide the drive the side have lacked since the departure of Roy Keane, he was slow to settle and suffered injury problems, after which he found it difficult to regain his place until Colin Cooper returned to more accustomed duties in defence. "It has been a difficult season," he admitted. "I do not feel I have hit my best form. I like to get forward and score goals and that has not happened."

Yet he is convinced that Forest, bolstered today by the return from international duty of their 26-goal leading scorer, Pierre van Hooijdonk, can win promotion and that his decision to join them in preference to Leicester or Crystal Palace last summer will be vindicated.

"Obviously, these two games are crucial, the biggest of our season and the results will have a big psychological impact. But we have a good squad and for all Middlesbrough's big crowds and big spending power, we are only three points adrift of them."