There’s five of them, stalking down London Road – wide-eyed and lairy. They’re wearing pastel shirts with the collars popped, ‘Millers on Tour’ stamped on the back. Lord knows what happened between Rotherham and here, but they’re amped up now: a semi-feral gang of lads, full of dim purpose.
You just know that whatever happens this weekend, something’s getting fingered.
One of them steps out into the road, and begins to saunter slowly, deliberately, in front of the cars. A shrill of brakes. He starts doing that Lee Hughes gibbon jig, a can of Red Bull spitting everywhere. The other four are loving it. One of the drivers leans on his horn: at once, their arms are all up, and their hands are splayed, and they’re bawling Rotherham songs at the traffic. Not just that one car; at every shithouse car in Nottingham.
There’s a lot to be said for the cricket season.
But there’s lots that you miss, too – things that only the first home game can properly deliver. That airborne blend of anticipation, flatulence, and fried onions: football’s smelly magic. Discussions on the new kit, and whether gold trim has any place on a Forest shirt (spoiler alert: it doesn’t). The studied calm of Colin Fray, as he tries to explain to Brian Laws how FFP works (I imagine them trapped together in a Corsa, having this conversation over and over again; Colin’s knuckles flushed white against the wheel, Brian staring mournfully into a SatNav).
There isn’t the same excitement as last year. But those First Day Smiles – they’re the same. And there’s that same perennial sense that things are somehow right again – that it’s Saturday afternoon, and we’re all back where we belong. All around me, people are renewing acquaintances, and picking things up from where they left off in May. It’s funny, the friendships that we build – and tend to leave – inside football grounds: you can share moments of terrific emotion with these people, you can jump on them and claw at them, sing and swear with them… but pass them in a supermarket, and you needn’t say a word. You’d give them a nod, perhaps. It’s an arbitrary sense of etiquette – a kind that’s probably only understood by football fans, and swingers.
Journey are blaring over the Tannoy, insisting that we don’t stop believing (did I miss a reason to start believing?). Rotherham’s young mascot is summoned to the microphone – he reckons they’ll win 2-1, with ‘Anterniurgh’ scoring for Forest. John McGoven’s presented with a gift from Rotherham, honouring our 150-year anniversary: probably just a repurposed darts trophy, but the thought’s there.
There’s three ex-Forest – Collins, Halford, and Derbyshire – starting for Rotherham, and as the drums begin to roll on MoK, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t put down a first scorer bet. Someone off to my right whips out an air horn: the last note – just before the FO-REST – lands an octave too high, making it sound more like a question. With all this uncertainty in the air, it seems strangely fitting.
Some thoughts, as the first half unfolds:
- I’m always getting Rotherham and Doncaster mixed up. They should merge.
- That ‘new’ Sherwood: you’re not Ron.
- 19,885, for the first game of the season? That’s what £30 for second tier football gets you.
- We’re not going up this year… and having just endured five tedious days of the Mourinho / Carneiro fallout, I can’t say that I mind. The limping psychodrama of the Premier League will press on, with or without Forest.
The game settles into the kind of Championship stodge you tend to find buried in mid-March. Forest are cagey from the outset, and look oddly fragile – they’ve got that feel of a team who know they’re supposed to be in trouble, and are playing accordingly. It’s tentative, and it’s edgy.
There’s some pleasant surprises, and some things that are wearily familiar. Ward looks decent – a busy, buzzing Mackie-lite. Walker’s link-up play is excellent; he’ll be a fine player, once he’s bulked up a bit. Lansbury is flawless, but buried thirty yards too deep. Suddenly, Vaughan and Burke look every one of their advancing years – the Championship really is no country for old men. Mancienne is horribly miscast at left back, but sticks to his task, improving as the game goes on. Wilson still runs like someone who’s narrowly missing a bus (there can be few footballers with more expressive shoulders). And DeVries, finally getting his chance in goal, reminds me of homemade pizza: 90% of the ingredients are there, but something’s just not right.
Almost inevitably, Danny Collins opens the scoring, heading in from a corner. He wheels away, jabbing his finger at the Trent End (“take that, football club that paid me well over my market value for three years”). To their credit, Forest keep going, building something close to pressure. An equaliser is disallowed (the man in the booth gets premature with ‘Chelsea Dagger’, and isn’t heard from again for the rest of the afternoon); Lansbury slings some wonderful passes out wide; Antonio looks constantly lethal. We’re obviously the better side – as with last year, it’s believing and embracing it that seems to be the problem.
Mills scores just before half time with a thumping header, after some good work from Ward: from thereon in, Forest do just enough to win. The second comes fifteen minutes after half time – Rotherham’s keeper gets a Burke cross horribly wrong, knocking it onto his bar, and Antonio thrashes in the rebound. There’s relief, if not outright joy. It’s that kind of a day, really.
It’s an unremarkable performance, all in all, but an important win – Forest’s first since March. The football seems less direct than last season, which is encouraging, and perhaps a little less Antonio-centric. It still looks thoroughly meh, but with the expectations shifting so markedly this year, the ends will almost always justify the means. What’s obvious, even at this early stage, is the importance of a decent first half to the season; for all its technical talents, this squad is far too thin-skinned to be thrashing it out anywhere near the bottom six.
It’s a game that occupies the same space as so many others I’ve seen – the hinterland that neither asks nor answers questions. I stand by what I’ve already said – it could be fine this year, and it could be dreadful. Such are the intangibles of Championship football. What you can always rely on, though, are the sights and the sounds, and I’m glad at least that they’re back. The ‘Scab’ chants. The falsetto air horns. And thighs clamping shut, as the Millers on Tour wind their way back to the station.