So dawn goes down to day / nothing gold can stay. – Robert Frost
It turns out that nothing really belongs to you. If you can get through the first ten or so years of your life without needing to know that, then you’ve done well.
Because something will happen. It’s inevitable. Parents split up, pets die, and friends move away – eventually, unavoidably, something gets taken from you. Then and only then can you know how dangerous a business it is to care – to see the frailties in what you’d dare to love.
I got my first lessons in 1992. It was a pair of moments, bookending that summer.
There was my first school disco – a night that captured everything I’d come to hate about secondary school (feat. music by The Shamen). I was a soft boy, clingy and earnest, and I was confused – confused about what, suddenly, was expected of me. About why I was there; about why things had needed to change in the first place. I didn’t pull, and I didn’t even dance… I had no idea of what I was supposed to be doing, or why. It was a moment of cold comparison: I saw what life had become, and I saw what it no longer was. It’d turned suddenly into secret drinking, and grasping, clumsy hands, and aftershave, and actual, on-purpose haircuts. I was eleven years old, and floundering in something I didn’t understand – a world that seemed to have grown up, overnight.
I left before the end. I can remember sitting on a wall in my lemon chinos, Boys II Men’s ‘End of the Road’ throbbing dully out of the gym, and knowing that the old days – the only days – were suddenly and utterly done.
It got better, of course, but there were casualties. I still won’t wear chinos, and I fucking hate close-harmony soul.
A few months before that, there was the KWS Incident. Wednesday, April 22nd – the first and only time I’ve ever cried at a football match. It was Des Walker’s last game, and a night when, for the first time in my life, somebody walked out on me.
And not just anybody. My hero.
Des. Everybody loved Psycho, but I loved Des. With his low-top fade, and his speed, and his indefatigable grace. Pearce was blockbuster tackles, and free kicks, and inhuman spirit: Des was less visible, but all the more heroic for it. There wasn’t any obvious glory in the way that he played – he was just constantly, icily comfortable. He didn’t do interviews, and he didn’t score goals – he didn’t even go forward for corners. Yet he was the other half of what made Forest magic, back then: the classy yin to Pearce’s raging yang. The algebra to his fire.
To me, Des had a foundational kind of importance. He was part of an older, more storied Forest, and not just the one that I’d fallen for. In a sense, I inherited him, and his legacy. At once, he was an eternalised part of the club, but also something much bigger. He was one of the iron-clad heroes from that night in Turin – the first game of football I’d ever watched – and I can still remember my dad and my godfather telling me with pride that he was one of ours.
Right until the end, until I saw him in a Sampdoria shirt, I’d always assumed he’d change his mind.
And I needed him to change his mind… because life was fine, everything was fine, and he had no business walking out on it. On us. On me.
I can remember hanging around for fifteen, twenty minutes after the game. Nobody leaving: nobody even moving. And I can remember the chant: a huge, broiling chorus of You’ll Never Beat Des Walker, rolling from end to end.
And then finally, he came back out. On his own, under hot white lights. The noise, when he emerged, that one-note roar of shared love… it mushroomed out from the Trent End, and even where I was sat, in the Junior Reds, you could feel the strength of it – that sheer depth of feeling – behind your ribs.
I must have been the only one there who was angry at him. At that point, I didn’t understand the different things that a footballer can mean to fans, or the ways in which he can leave a club. I didn’t realise that sometimes, it’s alright. Des began to make his way on a last, slow lap around the pitch, and then, over the PA, they started playing that bloody song – ‘Please Don’t Go’, by KWS. Supposedly recorded in his honour; to convince him to stay. And everybody – everything – just disintegrated. It all fell instantly and blearily to bits.
He was halfway down the Executive Stand by the time it finished. So of course, they played it again.
He picked up every scarf and hat that was thrown his way, until he finally came before the Trent End, a slow-moving heap of red and white cotton. He was crying by this point, and I was crying, and almost everybody around me seemed to be crying. And still it kept on coming: please don’t go… please don’t go…
But he went.
Out of Nottingham, and out of England. Out of my life.
And with that, I got my first lesson in impermanence.
When Michail Antonio left, a couple of weeks ago, the reaction was strong. That shouldn’t be conflated with love: this time, it was more a matter of “we’re already shite, so now what?” We never had the chance to love him, and he never had the chance to make us love him: he’ll simply be remembered as the brightest spark in a crap team, à la Andy Reid in 2005.
And it makes me wonder: so long as Forest are playing at this level, and so long as any decent player is fated to leave within a couple of years, do the conditions exist to ever again trust and love a player, as we did Des? Young Forest fans today – whose legacy and myth can they inherit? Who can they look to, who’s woven so deeply into the fabric of their club, but still turning out? Maybe kids aren’t looking for that kind of solidity, but without a Des, a Psycho, or a Nigel to believe in, could it ever stand to mean as much?
The opportunities for players to truly touch their club – to place themselves within its larger narrative – are diminishing. But does legacy even matter anymore? Is it just a fusty old relic of whatever football used to be?
The game’s changed – that goes without saying. But what we’ll allow footballers to mean to us – what they themselves might hope to mean to us – has changed, too, and that’s a shame. Because we can admire them these days, and we can get excited about them, but rarely can we love them.
Even if we want to: even if we know that one day, they’ll be gone.
And that’s why you’ll never beat Des Walker.