Hart fears referee will be intimidated

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The Independent Football

Paul Hart, the Nottingham Forest manager, is hoping for a strong display from the referee when his side face Sheffield United in the second leg of their First Division play-off semi-final tonight.

Hart, mindful of the intimidating atmosphere that can be generated at Bramall Lane, is expecting the match official Peter Walton to play his part in a vital game.

He said: "All you can ask from the referee is that he is strong and fair. That's all you can ask for but at times like this you put your trust in referees and generally speaking managers are quite happy with the way things go.

"It's bound to be an intimidating atmosphere at Bramall Lane – it was like that when I first went there as a player and it's still the same today. But we know what we are up against and I am sure the boys are ready for the challenge."

Tempers flared in the first leg. The United captain Rob Page became embroiled in an exchange with Marlon Harewood, Dean Windass was involved in a war of words with Hart, while the former Forest favourite Kenny Burns is understood to have verbally abused the Blades players as they made their way to the dressing room at the end of the first half. The Football Association's compliance unit is looking into the incidents, with the latter particularly incensing the Blades' manager, Neil Warnock.

Warnock hit back at Burns, who works for Forest on match days in their corporate areas, after he made accusations that United were "trying to kill the game". He added: "I was concerned coming off to see so many people in the tunnel area that shouldn't have been there. I read the Nottingham papers with Kenny Burns saying he went down to tell us to stop time wasting and to get on with it. I just can't see why he should be doing that. What's his position at the club?

"That's what started it all off – people like him in the tunnel verbally abusing my players. That shouldn't happen at a First Division club. The stewards should make sure of that. The players should be able to walk in and out, they shouldn't have to walk through abuse to get to the dressing room.

"This is an occasion that doesn't need any more spicing up as it is. I think it will be fantastic anyhow and on the night both sets of players will be ready for it."

Hart acknowledges that Warnock's men will be judged as favourites to go through to Cardiff after holding Forest to a 1-1 draw at the City Ground. But he is still confident that Forest can win through despite the fact that they will be without the suspended defender Michael Dawson.

Hart added: "The desire of the players to win is huge and their belief has not diminished since Saturday's game. We knew we played well in the first leg and with a bit of luck we could have been taking a lead into the second game."

Hart is set to hand Dawson's defensive place to the 21-year-old Dubliner John Thompson, who came on as a substitute in the first leg.

Warnock has doubts surrounding Page, Mark Rankine and Steve Kabba, who took a kick on the ankle which led to Dawson's red card and subsequent suspension. All three are expected to figure.