Forest hope return of Johnson can save their season

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The Independent Football

David Johnson, the striker who fired Nottingham Forest into the First Division play-offs a year ago, is ready to make his first start in more than six months today - and is under orders to save his club from relegation.

David Johnson, the striker who fired Nottingham Forest into the First Division play-offs a year ago, is ready to make his first start in more than six months today - and is under orders to save his club from relegation.

The 27-year-old, whose 27 goals made last season his most productive in a 10-year career, suffered a broken leg in September. He would have preferred to come back in less pressurised circumstances but it is a measure of his value to Forest that their decline has coincided precisely with his absence.

Forest are labouring in 17th place, just four points outside the bottom three, but as if that were not enough, Johnson is set to return to full action in an East Midlands derby against a Derby County side actually in the relegation zone.

Seldom have these rivals met with so much at stake. But Johnson's performance in the final half hour of last Wednesday's draw against Burnley at the City Ground is likely to persuade the manager, Joe Kinnear, to ask for a full 90 minutes at Pride Park, especially with Marlon King ruled out by suspension.

Kinnear believes Johnson's presence in the squad a week ago inspired Forest to their 3-2 victory over Crystal Palace, even though he was not on the field until the last few minutes. He was denied a winning goal against Burnley by a marginal offside ruling and Kinnear wants to maintain the momentum of his comeback.

"He made an instant impact on Wednesday night and it gives me something to think about," Kinnear said.

Kinnear, under whose management Forest have lost only once in eight matches, believes eight more points from nine remaining matches will be enough to ensure they stay in the First Division, after which, according to Johnson, he is planning major changes in personnel.

"The manager is preparing a complete overhaul," Johnson said. "He has a plan to bring in at least eight players to take us into the top six and every member of the current squad is on a warning. If they don't perform they'll be out.

Johnson signed a new three-year contract just before his injury but has suggested other key players might be moving on as Kinnear seeks to raise the money he needs for the overhaul.

"I'm not sure if Andy Reid and Michael Dawson will be here next year because we can't keep denying them Premiership football," Johnson said. "I wouldn't want to sell them but maybe it's the way forward to get into the top flight.

"When I was at Ipswich, George Burley sold players just so he could buy another two or three to get us into the Premiership. It worked." Ironically, Johnson will be lining up against his former manager at Derby, for whom defeat would be potentially much more damaging than a loss for Forest. Burley signed Johnson from Bury in 1997 and it was his 22 goals in the 1999-2000 season that spearheaded Ipswich's elevation to the Premier League.

"We have points to make up and so we have to win matches," Burley said. "If we can beat Forest, we'll drag them closer to us. We would then be a point behind them with a game in hand."

Elsewhere, the leaders Norwich will take 7,000 supporters -- their highest away following for 22 years -- to the clash with Crystal Palace, while second-placed West Bromwich Albion, trailing only on goal difference, travel to Stoke hoping to end a 22-year winless streak.

Kevin Cooper, signed from Wolves as Norwich's latest loan acquisition, may make his debut but West Brom are unlikely to have the striker Geoff Horsfield available because of injury.

West Ham's run has taken them to the head of the chasing pack but a gap of 10 points to second place may be too big to close, especially if their wings are clipped in the derby at Millwall tomorrow.

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