The indefatigable spirit which has made Nottingham Forest Britain's sole remaining representatives in European competition was personified yesterday, as so often before this season, by Steve Stone.
With his side heading for their first home defeat of the season, and with only seven minutes remaining, England's wide midfielder picked up a loose ball on the edge of the Villa box and and drove an equaliser joyously past Mark Bosnich.
Up to that moment it seemed as if Forest's return to domestic competition after securing a Uefa Cup quarter-final place at Lyon in midweek was doomed to end in anti-climax against an impressively organised Villa side who took a 47th-minute lead through Dwight Yorke.
Forest were playing without their winger Ian Woan, who was dropped and ejected forcibly from the dressing room by his manager for defeatist comments in a newspaper article about Forest's European campaign, where the next opponents are Bayern Munich in March.
"I really can't see us winning the competition," Woan said. "The rest of the sides must have looked at the draw and said: 'I hope we get Forest.' We have done well to get as far as we have."
The normally affable Clark was incandescent, although he will meet Woan today to discuss a new contract with him. "I want players in my dressing room who think we can win every game," he said. But for much of the afternoon it was Woan's assessment of Forest capabilities which seemed the more realistic as they demonstrated the lack of bite which has seen them win only one of their last six games.
To make matters worse for the home side, Villa established their superiority in freezing conditions without their three Irish internationals, Paul McGrath, Steve Staunton and Andy Townsend.
Stone will be present for England against Portugal tomorrow despite intermittent tendintis in his left knee. "I have just got my foot in the door," he said. "If I've got to put a gammie foot in the door I would rather do that than not be there at all."
Forest's faithful, seeking an early advantage in the terrace one-upmanship for what was the next best thing to a derby match, alighted on a predictable refrain: "One team in Europe, there's only one team in Europe." But the crowing soon gave way to grumbling as Villa took control of the match, with Ian Taylor and Tommy Johnson troubling Mark Crossley with shots.
Both Villa players marred their performance with bookings - Johnson for a senseless foul, Taylor for senselessly disputing a foul - but Forest continued to live dangerously.
Forest had a faint chance two minutes before the break when Pearce narrowly failed to connect with Jason Lee's deflected shot. Scot Gemmill, attempting without conspicuous success to carry out Woan's normal role on the right wing, forced Bosnich to save again on the brink of half-time, and Alf Inge Haaland put the rebound into the side-netting.
But it was Villa who struck in earnest two minutes after the break when Savo Milosevic, so often out of step with his colleagues, played a smart one-two which allowed his forward partner Yorke to drive the ball home left-footed into the far corner.
Forest, encouraged by the majority of the 25,790 crowd, pressed forward for an equaliser but until Stone's inspired intervention they never looked remotely like getting it.
Nottingham Forest (4-4-2): Crossley; Lyttle, Cooper, Chettle, Pearce; Gemmill, Bart-Williams, Haland, Stone; Howe (Silenzi, 60), Lee. Substitutes not used: Phillips, Irving.
Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, Southgate, Scimeca; Charles, Taylor, Draper, Johnson, Wright; Yorke, Milosevic. Substitutes not used: Hendrie, Farrelly, Spink (gk).
Referee: P Durkin (Portland, Dorset).
Bookings: Aston Villa: Johnson, Taylor. Nottingham Forest: Cooper.
Man of the match: Stone. Attendance: 25,790.Reuse content