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Football: Too much sand, not enough time

AT THE turnstiles Nottingham Forest handed out paper hats enabling fans to proclaim their backing for Big Ron but the supporters knew where the responsibility for saving their team really lay.

Outside the City Ground before Saturday's 1-0 defeat by Arsenal they were offering their own giveaway, of leaflets outlining the official supporters' club's latest moves to persuade the board either to provide financial resources or sell up to someone who will.

The best of luck to them but, as fans from Brighton to Manchester City have found, it is a long and bitter process shifting a board that does not want to go. Until the Football Task Force turn their attention to complex issues like club ownership, rather than skirting around the game's vested interests, it will remain so. At present, therefore, Forest fans have to put faith in a board they have little faith in, or hope Ron Atkinson really can work miracles.

The best crowd in four months suggested many do, but without substantial investment - way above the reported pounds 2m available to him - Atkinson has little hope of repeating last season's escapologist act at Sheffield Wednesday. Then he arrived in November to take over a team whose position owed much to injuries, who had won 5-0 the previous week, and were not even bottom, let alone adrift.

Forest, by contrast, have not beaten a Premiership team since August, are seven points from safety and patently short of quality. So low is confidence that Steve Chettle's "captain's message" in Saturday's match programme included phrases like "we look set to spend next season in the First Division" and "we desperately need something to happen".

In his own column Atkinson admitted "time is not on our side", which made his decision to spend the week in Barbados, rather than coaching his new team, all the more mystifying.

It enabled him to arrive with his perma-tan topped up to an unhealthy looking degree but left him so unsure of his surroundings he initially went to the wrong dug-out, sitting down next to a startled Fabian Caballero.

Perhaps remembering the Arsenal substitute's recent elbow on Ryan Kidd at Preston, Atkinson got up sharpish as well as sheepish. It was as near as he got to success all afternoon.

While there was enough sand on the pitch to make him feel he had never left Barbados, an illusion strengthened by unexpected sunshine at kick- off, it was sleeting down by the end and the journey from Bridgetown airport to the Bridgford Stand must have seemed a long one in every respect.

Forest looked a First Division side masquerading as a Premiership one. While there was plenty of effort from all but Pierre van Hooijdonk, who seemed to believe he really was on the beach, there was a desperate lack of quality. The pitch did not help, nor the absence of Steve Stone and Chettle - identified in advance by Atkinson's coach, Peter Shreeves, as their best players - but the passing was poor and support play haphazard.

They did not so much build attacks as throw them together in the hope that one might work out. A defence of Arsenal's quality was never likely to be overly troubled by this and, though Andy Johnson hit a post soon after half-time, there was always a feeling that the champions had an extra gear in reserve. As it was, a stooping header by the excellent Martin Keown, from Emmanuel Petit's 34th minute corner, was enough.

Johnson was one of Forest's better players. Atkinson justifiably picked out the goalkeeper, Dave Beasant, and central defender, Jon Olav Hjedle, for praise and "some" of the midfielders for decent performances. He ignored the front pair altogether, though he later said Van Hooijdonk was "so-so".

Though still ready with a quip, Atkinson looked tired. The jet-lag undoubtedly contributed, but it might also have been the realisation as to the size of his task and the reality of his status in the game. While it is better to be known as football's Red Adair than Joe Dole, one suspects Atkinson, 60 next month, would rather be known as an elder statesman like Alex Ferguson, Bobby Robson and Jim Smith than a cross between Houdini and Mr Bojangles.

If he does keep Forest up he will deserve the respect his flash image has often denied him, but it is a tall order. He spoke of his "powers of motivation" but Dave Bassett, his predecessor, was no slouch in that department. Strengthening of the team is required and more than just Carlton Palmer, who expects to sign today.

In the three seasons since the Premiership was reduced to 20 clubs a tally of 39, 41 and 41 points have been required to guarantee safety, though teams have survived, on goal difference, with 38. Even getting there would require Forest to take 25 points from the final 16 games of the season, having garnered just 13 in 22.

While Forest may instead set new records for fewest Premiership points and wins (currently held by Ipswich and Swindon with 27 and five respectively), Arsenal are on course to set new standards for parsimony.

Having conceded 11 goals in 22 games, the Premiership record (set by Manchester United last year with 26 conceded) should be a doddle and the League record of 16 in 42, achieved by Liverpool 20 years ago, may be under threat.

It comes at a price and Wenger admitted: "We are conscious that we need to score more goals." But he added, in reference to events elsewhere, "whether you score seven goals, six goals or one it is still three points for a win".

Goal: Keown (34) 0-1.

Nottingham Forest (4-4-2): Manninger; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Parlour, Garde, Petit, Overmars (Vivas, 65); Bergkamp, Anelka (Upson, 88). Substitutes not used: Wreh, Caballero, Lukic (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-2): Beasant; Lyttle, Hjelde, Armstrong, Rogers; Bonalair (Shipperley, 76), Johnson, Gemmill, Bart-Williams; Van Hooijdonk, Darcheville (Quashie, 86).

Substitutes not used: Chettle, Stone, Crossley (gk).

Referee: P Durkin (Portland).

Bookings: Forest: Gemmill, Johnson, Darcheville. Arsenal: Winterburn, Anelka, Garde.

Man of the match: Keown.

Attendance: 26,021.