On Sunday, Nottingham Forest travel to Wembley to take on Huddersfield Town in the Championship Playoff Final. It’s a game that is often touted as the most lucrative match in football: whoever wins could see hundreds of millions of pounds in revenue flow into their coffers as a result of winning the game and getting promoted.
As a Forest fan myself, it’s as exciting as it gets. We’re famous for being a club that once punched well above its weight, but has underperformed for decades, languishing in second – occasionally third – tier football. The Miracle Men who brought the European Cup to the banks of the Trent are now paunchy pensioners. As Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea et al dominate the collective consciousness, Forest have been relegated to the status of plucky underdogs with little bite.
“I didn’t have you down as a football fan.”
It’s something I hear frequently, and I take the point. As a writer, there is an expectation for me to see football as trivial and time wasted: after all, how much Proust could be parsed in the time it takes two lumpen teams to hack a ball into submission? It’s a sport riven with cliches, gaudy displays of lucre, and more than a whiff of anti-intellectualism. All this should be anathema to me, along with pointless and arbitrary hatred towards other teams, the most outrageously ‘othering’ imaginable. As a Forest fan, I’m expected to view Derby County as degenerative and morally bereft with bestial tendencies. This is regional xenophobia on steroids, surely?
But yet, but yet.
The memory comes. Sometime in the Seventies, I’m perhaps four, sitting with my grandad on a Sunday afternoon in front of a black and white television. We have – a rare treat – our roast dinner on trays and when my gran isn’t looking, he tips a thimble’s worth of brown ale into my lemonade, making the weakest shandy known to man. It tastes otherworldly and wildly exciting.
There is a goal and, after quickly putting his tray aside, he grabs me and shouts “YESSSS!” I join in, we punch the air. I’m exhilarated by this connection to a man who, while full of kindness, seldom showed anything but a steady, stoic emotion. Our hands lock, his long bony fingers calloused through decades of manual labour wrap around my pudgy palm and fat fingers, and a connection is made. Less than a year later, I would be at his graveside in Long Eaton, as they lowered him into his final resting place. I hold that memory tight, cut-out, laminated, scrapbooked into memory.
King o’ Forest
Forest win promotion, the League and the European Cup (twice) and while it’s not altogether clear to me why it’s a big deal, it clearly is a big deal. The city is a sea of red. At the bottom of my road, the once-bare brick wall on the side of the petrol station reads BRIAN CLOUGH IS KING O’ FOREST. It will stay there until painted over in 1993. The playground is full of tiny Garry Birtles, Kenny Burns, Trevor Francises. The asphalt is now the turf of Munich’s Olympistadon, Madrid’s Bernabeu, or simply of Forest’s City Ground, where the grass is watered from the same rain that falls on our scratches of grass. We were the best team in the world. And we would remain so for years.
It didn’t quite work out like that.
The reality of football began to dawn. Despite the mercurial talents of the manager – that craggy, fiercely outspoken socialist Brian Clough – Forest’s fortunes would never again peak so high. A few decent seasons, a few mediocre. A few league cups – repeatedly and confusingly renamed after a series of now-defunct businesses: the Milk Marketing Board Milk Cup, the Rumbelows Cup, the Littlewoods Cup – and a sense of slow decline. There is Hillsborough. By the time the 90s arrive, Clough’s famous green jersey clashes with his reddening, blotchy face, testament to his fondness, then dependence, on the bottle. Rumours abound of how he often stays at the flat above his brother’s shop – a newsagent with the most coveted paper rounds in the area – and sips scotch at the pub next door well before its doors formally open. My mum, a cleaner at the pub, confirms it.
“They used to be good once.”
A chance at the elusive FA Cup, a prize Clough has long coveted but never achieved, arrives. It is May 1991, and I’m with my first steady girlfriend, watching on a portable telly in my tiny room. This could be it. This could be the return, this could be the moment we realise the eighties were a lull, a blip, and we will be storming back to glory again. Yet a cynical Tottenham Hotspur team, coupled with a ridiculous referee means it isn’t so. 2-1. I spend that evening stacking shelves at the local Co-op, my colleagues and I all subdued. Maybe next year, yeah?
But next year is mediocre, and the season after that sees us finish bottom of the table and relegated. Clough is by now a full-blown alcoholic, apparently not attending training and with little grip on his squad. He resigns. We have lost the best manager of his generation, the should of the club.
Years pass. I live in various places, and if anyone asks, I say I’m a Forest fan, but only in the same way my parents say they’re Church of England if a form asks them. I don’t go to matches, I don’t know the team. I don’t follow the results. Nottingham itself feels distant, and something purely historical.
“They used to be good once, didn’t they?” a man I serve in the pub tells me. I shrug. He sips his Stella carefully, mindful of his pristine Man Utd top.
Back in Nottingham
Adulthood, middle age. I grey at the temples and my cheekbones melt into jowls. I find myself checking the results here and there. I’m back in Nottingham, and have found it increasingly the subject of my writing. This town I thought had slipped away from me is now a source of fascination. I meet a woman who will become my wife – she’s a Brighton fan – and I start going back to the City Ground.
My friend Rish runs a well-respected podcast about Forest and invites me on a couple of times, but there are complaints that I’ve replaced technical analysis with impressionistic verbiage, and they’re entirely correct.
I run a charity which gets shown in the Johnny Owen feature documentary ‘I Believe in Miracles’. Garry Birtles attends, and buys me a pint, despite my protestations that surely I should be buying him a drink, as should every Forest fan, in perpetuity. “It’s on expenses,” he winks, “SKY will cover it.” My wife accepts a cola: she’s pregnant, after all. My new son loosely follows Forest alongside me.
Miracle don’t happen
The club has a horrendous start to the 2021-22 season: nine matches before a win. But it’s OK, there’s little expectation. We know our place. It might feel unfair, it might feel like money has ruined everything, but life still has to be lived. Miracles don’t happen, after all. We take on a new manager, Steve Cooper. I predict he’ll be gone before the seasons out.
But yet, but yet.
We start to pick up wins. Players start to shine. We rise out of the relegation spots. Perhaps we will get a mid-table finish? But we do better than that. We beat teams that should be thrashing us and by the spring, we are contending for a play-off spot. This shouldn’t be happening. Outrageously, we even have a crack at automatic promotion, but fall just short. No one is churlish about this. We are still in the play-offs. We go onto beat Sheffield United in the semis, after a tense penalty shoot out.
The biggest moment in years
If we win on Sunday, we are in the highest tier of football for the first time this millennium. A morale boost will do wonders for the city and local towns. Nottingham, a place on the ascendancy culturally, will be re-evaluated, once again unignorable. The Reds will rise, phoenix-like, and there will be change. Perhaps.
On Sunday, I’ll be sitting next to my son, and hoping whatever happens, something connects with him.
(POSTSCRIPT: I was recently chatting to an elderly uncle, the son of my aforementioned grandfather. “He made me a Forest fan,” I told him, and was surprised this statement was met with a spitting-out-of-tea. “Forest?” he laughed, “FOREST?! He bleddy hated Forest. You’d have been cheering for Derby County back then.”
I blame black and white telly. I blame the fragility of memory. Yet in the arbitrary world of football support, where legends are superior to reality, it matters little. Just don’t tell the Trent End.)