Milestones on our way to the title

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The Independent Online
THE previous Sunday we had lost 4-2 at home to Manchester United, victims, I felt, of a bad refereeing decision that saw Henning Berg sent off and us slip to fourth in the table. It was also a personal misery as I gave the ball away for a goal. But today we quickly put it all behind us, which was the most pleasing aspect of the win.

We were fortunate that Stan Collymore was missing from the Forest team but unfortunate to have Jason Wilcox sent off for a petty offence of throwing the ball away. Still, it was a victory for all our virtues of hard work and determination - and no little skill against an in-form side blessed with plenty of it. It showed we could put setbacks behind us and the win was the platform for a run of seven consecutive victories.

THIS was the game that ended our winning run and dispelled any complacency that might have been creeping in. We came to Filbert Street full of confidence and naturally we expected to beat the bottom club as we had better teams in Wimbledon and Southampton during the previous week. This, though, is the Premiership, where on their day any team can beat, or at least draw with, another. Perhaps anxious to impress their new manager Mark McGhee in his first match, Leicester gave a display of commitment we thought was our trademark. We just could not get going; the wind was taken from our sails.

Draws, though all worth one point, have different values. Some you enjoy - like the one we got at Coventry later in the season with a last-minute goal - others, like this one, deflate you. From this one we learned. We won our next four matches to extend the unbeaten run to 12 matches, from which we took 34 points, before losing to Manchester United at Old Trafford to Eric Cantona's last goal of the season; robbed again, we felt, with Tim Sherwood's last-minute header being disallowed.

I LEFT Goodison Park with a headache that evening, so intense was the match. Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer scored in the first six minutes, Alan from a free-kick I have to say we were fortunate to be awarded. But after Graham Stuart had pulled a goal back for Everton, we were really given a torrid time.

They threw everything at us in the second half. I remember Match of the Day that night setting a piece of slow-motion action in our goalmouth to the 1812 Overture, each shot coinciding with a blast of a cannon. I thought how appropriate it was as we desperately cleared our lines, the ball ricocheting off bodies in the box. I was amused to see myself dancing along the goal-line, like one of those table football players on a rod.

But the headache was worth it. As I left the pitch, I recall it dawning on me for the first time - though we had led the table since January - that we really could win the title.

THIS was one of our best performances of the season but perhaps our lowest point. Looking at our run-in, we thought it might be our hardest match but for most of it we outplayed a side on a good run of their own with what I thought was some lovely football. We created some good chances and showed composure and ambition. A goal by our inspiration, Colin Hendry, was small reward. Then Brian Deane's header in injury time, which actually flicked in off Colin, turned three points into one.

I have to admit some self-doubt crept in. Manchester United were nicking results and I was starting to think that the element of luck that every team needs was turning from us to them. I was beginning to look at goal difference and wondering if that might now deny us, United having turned it around on a day in March when we were winning 1-0 at Aston Villa and they were beating Ipswich 9-0.

The 3-2 defeat against Manchester City two days later was further fuel; relief came three more days later with the 2-1 win over Crystal Palace.

WITH Manchester United now breathing down our necks, we knew we really had to win this our last home match and it became for me probably the most memorable game of the season because of the role the Ewood Park crowd played in it. With them helping us to rise to the occasion, we played an admirable first half, battering Newcastle and forcing the goal, which came when Alan Shearer headed home my chipped cross.

Newcastle really came at us in the second half but thanks to Tim Flowers's goalkeeping we held on, the crowd almost blowing to keep the ball out of the net. I had sometimes been critical of our crowd in interviews with Radio Lancashire, notably when we lost in a half-empty Ewood to Trelleborg in the Uefa Cup, but tonight when I ran off and spotted their reporter, who was standing in the tunnel, with the adrenalin pumping, I shouted: "Now that was an atmosphere." The hairs were standing up on the back of my neck after what was a great example of how a crowd can boost a team. I hope now that they can repeat it every week next season.

THOUGH we were not directly involved in this, it was as nervous a night as I have known, one when the championship could have been ours and, had United not won, we could have avoided that horribly tense final weekend.

I was driving home from a visit to London and listening to a commentary of Arsenal v Real Zaragoza. When Radio 5 switched to Old Trafford, I was unable to listen and rewound a tape to play. When the rewinding ended, and the radio came back on, United had scored a winner. I blamed myself. If only I hadn't rewound that tape.

Tim Flowers said at training the next morning that he had had the same feeling. Alan Shearer had phoned him during the match to say that if it stayed at 1-1, to come over to his place and bring some champagne. Tim asked his wife to go to the off licence before it closed at 9pm. "If only I hadn't asked her to do that, United would never have scored," he lamented.

Still, it was all right on the day last Sunday as United could only draw at West Ham. You may have just caught a chorus of us in the dressing- room singing "I'm forever blowing bubbles . . ."

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