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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 01/12/01
Nottingham Forest
The first of December
By Matt Rowson

The first of December. Symbolic, significant. Or perhaps it should be. The fact is, Christmas decorations have been up in many places since mid-October; a cheese-grater on the nerve endings any time you venture near the Harlequin or any shopping complex.

December the first should be more relevant than it is, not (to my mind) on any religious pretext, but simply because tinsel and fairy lights up to three weeks before the event is just about pardonable. After all, if you're going to go to the effort to put these things up, they really ought to be up for a length of time that justifies the effort. Plus, I guess it's not unreasonable for shops to attempt to capitalise on potentially their most lucrative time of year.

But fairy lights in October really bug me. The desperation to start shoving the festive season down our necks at the expense of sanity and consideration just smacks of the sort of greed more commonly associated with the brave new world of football (more of which later). Chelmsford bus station actually once had its tinsel up by the end of September, which struck me as more ludicrous than greedy. "Oh, go on then, I'll have a return to Little Baddow rather than a single. After all, it's nearly Christmas".

My co-editor seems to take some perverse pleasure in my exasperation at certain of life's frustrations. Most recently, Richard f***ing Short...for goodness' sake man, Espen, Nordin, Heidar and the rest are NOT SUBSTITUTIONS. They are "Substitutes", the introduction of any of which to the game as a replacement is termed a "Substitution". It really isn't very complicated. And whilst we're at it, you perhaps shouldn't try to convince us that Jim Davidson is a showbiz mate of yours, it really doesn't do your cred any good.

The first Christmas surprise came this week in learning that initial opposition to the Phoenix League came from a rather unlikely source: Kevin Keegan, who unequivocally dismissed the selfishness of the whole idea with characteristic bluster. He also claimed, even more surprisingly, to be speaking for his chairman and for Manchester City football club, whose later statement was, disappointingly if not surprisingly, a lot more guarded. Nonetheless, it would be nice to see at least some suggestion of similar appreciation of the beauty of the national sport a little closer to home.

Kev hasn't always got things right, of course; when in charge at Newcastle United he, somewhat implausibly, dismantled the club's youth set-up as a redundant expense (a decision since revoked). Nottingham Forest must be grateful that such lunacy was never imposed at the City Ground. Were he not able to reap the fruits of his earlier efforts in the youth set-up at Forest, Paul Hart's current job, already comparable to ice-sculpture in the Sahara, would be unthinkably hard.

Forest's league standing may compare unfavourably with the quality of their showing at Vicarage Road, but it's still a lot healthier than they might have expected given the apparently shocking state of their finances. When it gets to the stage that the cancellation of the threatened PFA strike is greeted with relief as it secures the £15,000 promised from Scandinavian television in response for the live screening of Saturday's game, you know you've got problems.

The Phoenix League, with its apparent security net of very limited relegation and a yet greater share of the television pie, would appear to be a very welcome thing to Forest. The thing is, in no other industry are companies who mis-invest or spend beyond their means afforded the luxury of ostracising smaller competitors as a safety net. Forest may be a bad example here - their recent history is slightly complicated. But that Oxford, Cheltenham, Rochdale and the rest are supposed to have their revenues cut to provide security for overspending buffoon clubs like Palace and Sheffield Wednesday is absurd.

I've had this rant already this week…

Forest, then. Since our match at Vicarage Road in October - one of fairly few ties we've seen this season in which both clubs gave decent accounts of themselves - Forest have been further weakened by the departures of Alan Rogers (to Leicester), and Christian Edwards (Palace). With Gary Jones linked to QPR and Chris Bart-Williams ostracized, Forest's hand is restricted still further. Bart-Williams' omission results from his trying to play the Asaba trick of postponing his departure until his contract expires, thus ensuring that he, not cash-strapped Forest, is the chief beneficiary of the move. Gordon Taylor, irrepressible champion of all causes, has already waded in to defend him, but in the circumstances Forest's decision to omit their captain is at very least a brave one.

So in goal for Forest will be former Notts County stopper Darren Ward (no, not that one), with Barry Roche, one of a number of young Irishmen on the books, as his cover.

Inconsistent Frenchman Matthieu Louis-Jean has reclaimed a starting spot on the right of the back four, with Canadian Jim Brennan impressing on the left and holding off the challenges of Australian Gareth Edds and Irishman Keith Foy, both of whom had runs last season. The perplexing Andy "son of Frank" Gray, who hasn't come anywhere close to fulfilling the promise suggested at his Dad's other club, Leeds, is the most obvious deputy at right-back.

In the centre Jon-Olav Hjelde and Riccardo Scimeca are the brawn and brains respectively of one of the meanest defences in the division. With Edwards' departure to Palace, however, and with Bart-Williams apparently no longer an option and the promising Chris Doig, who suffered a serious injury in this fixture last year, out again with a long-term cruciate problem, Tony Vaughan could get his dog's chance. Vaughan was an imposing regular at Forest until the temper that has peppered his career led to one red mist too many and a long stint in the reserves. The highly rated John Thompson, another Dubliner, would be a further option.

Hart has played five in midfield in the last couple of games, perversely creating more openings for Forest's previously unproductive forward line. Nicky Summerbee is a new name on the right, finally finding a berth after no end of trials, albeit on a non-contract basis. Jermaine Jenas and David Prutton, both highly rated members of the England youth set-up, are the most likely sacrificial lambs if Forest are forced to trim their squad still further, whilst Irish winger Andy Reid fills in on the left. German teenager Eugen Bopp provides cover, whilst Gray, Scimeca and Thompson can all also fill in in more advanced positions.

Up front, David Johnson has been ploughing the lone furrow and is still struggling under the weight of his £3million pound fee - a lot of money for a club that's in such a sticky position. Stern John, his partner earlier in the season, has tended to replace him with fifteen minutes to go in the last couple of games. With Marlon Harewood and Jack Lester both recovering from knocks, the implausibly young Craig Westcarr is the most obvious cover.

Forest's defeat at Pompey on Wednesday evening came, apparently, in spite of a strong Forest performance with Paul Hart questioning some refereeing decisions. One suspects that life's unfairness might weigh a little heavier on the manager's shoulders by the end of the season, such is the dud hand that he has been dealt.

If Robbo maintains his irrepressible omnipotence of Tuesday night, however, Forest may be in need of something a little more robust than luck....