There’s always 6-0-6, and there’s always Arsenal.
However cold it might have been, and however bored you thought you were: it wasn’t that bad.
So go home, get the radio on, and start making your tea. An Arsenal fan will be along soon enough, to remind you of what it really is to suffer.
It’ll be Kyle, in Wycombe. Anton, from Bedford. Arsenal have drawn with Stoke, you see, and they’re angrier about that than you’ll ever be about anything.
Forget that handful of clubs across the country, idling their way towards oblivion. Clubs being run maliciously and knowingly into the ground: where owners are texting their own supporters, to tell them that they’re “thick fucks” and “intellectual cripples”, hoping that they “enjoy the rest of their special needs day out”.
Clubs where unpaid players are trying to get the get the copper wiring out of the walls.
Clubs that… well, whoever Harry Redknapp was managing last.
Because no one really cares when a Ken Richardson tries to burn down Bellevue; when a Pete Winkelman tears a football club from the hands of its community, and drops it eighty miles to the north; when a Terry Smith rocks up at Chester, appoints himself manager, names separate captains for the defence, midfield, and attack, and then forces his players to say the Lord’s Prayer before kick-off. These are minor, provincial tragedies – pitch black dramas, in distant lands. They’re the sorts of things that inevitably happen, Down There.
As harrowing as they might be, none of those fans – none of them – could know what it’s like to be stuck with Champions League football for eighteen years on the bounce.
Kyle, Anton… there’s thousands of them. They’re legion. Young, FIFA-addled men, full of curdled rage, eager to let us know what it is they reckon. Calling up from those godawful towns that orbit London: starting off with “I weren’t at the game today, right” and then aitch-dropping their way through the ‘Wenger’s Got To Go’ megamix.
If you’re not an Arsenal fan, you’d be forgiven for finding it a little odd. Because from the outside looking in, Arsenal are only doing what the fourth best team in England should be doing – finishing fourth. They haven’t got the financial clout of Chelsea or City, after all, and they haven’t got the insoluble stature of United to fall back on. So they’ll start well, every year, and then every March, their heads will thump against the ceiling of what a club like Arsenal can realistically be.
And every weekend, their fans will ring up 5 Live, or TalkSport, and rail against the same stubborn facts of life, sport, and plutocracy. Sav agrees, and Fletch agrees, and everyone agrees, just as they did back in 2014, and 2013, and whenever else Arsenal weren’t winning their three league titles under Wenger, or their six FA Cups, or going an entire season without losing.
It’s like that parody in The IT Crowd – it’s less about insight these days, and more about adding to the consensus noise. About being heard. It’s enough, now, to know that Wenger has brought on Walcott too early; to know that the problem with Arsenal is that they always try and walk it in. It ticks the boxes.
The real problem with Arsenal – and football, full stop – is that an infinite space has been created for discussion, with a paucity of opinions to fill it. There’s only so many things you can say, and so many ways you can say them. As a result, those opinions – these half-baked, open-ended reckonings – are crystallised into hysterical fact. The discourse has moved beyond the terraces, and found itself a new home, in phone-ins and forums, and 24 hour punditry. It’s microanalysis, with the sole purpose of generating crises; of finding flaws, and whittling them ever wider, just to engineer headlines.
Football is eating itself. Today, the average tenure of an English football manager is two years. What chance do they have, when minds are so swiftly and so emphatically made up? What chance to navigate the bad times; to build, and to nurture?
It’s running through the game, now – a rigidty of thought, increasingly peculiar to football. A premium on being right. It did for Colin Calderwood, at Forest – he never really recovered from That Yeovil Game (as it’s forever termed, by anyone unfortunate enough to have witnessed it), and he was on borrowed time thereafter. He signed his own death warrant, that night. We went up the following year, but most of us couldn’t get beyond the hash he’d made of 2006/07 – by the time that joyless pig of a season had limped to its finish, anyone who’d sat through it had seen enough. Yeovil was the kind of seismic, very public embarrassment that couldn’t ever be forgiven, nor forgotten – from that day onwards, Colin was on his own.
So bearing all of this in mind, Saturday was a nice surprise.
Because for the first time in a long time, I saw something approaching unity. A shared appreciation of what Forest were at least trying to do. And for now, the consensus on Freedman seems to have been suspended… perhaps even (and whisper this quietly) revised.
Something appears to be happening at Forest – something to maybe salvage the pre-empted ruins of a season. The QPR and Birmingham results were superb: the Middlesbrough game, though, gave an even better indication of where the club is at. We beat them last year, with one of the grubbiest and most Spartan performances I’ve ever seen from a Forest side. It was ten men back behind the play, Antonio marooned on the halfway line as the only outlet, and 29% possession. We approached that game like a lower league side in the fifth round of the Cup. It worked, and we won 2-1… yet I came away feeling mildly appalled at what I’d witnessed. At what winning that game had required of us. It was grim evidence of the cold, algebraic slog that football’s fast becoming.
On Saturday, we went two up top, playing some good, expansive football, and took the game to a team who are shoe-ins for the top two. And we lost.
But the crowd got it.
It was an expression of intent.
I look at Dougie, and I feel for him. I think of what Mike once said, in The Young Ones: “life is like a burnt steak. It’s tough, and the chips are stacked against you.” At Forest, he’s been up against it from the outset: most obviously because, in that grand run of inexpressible criteria, he’s just not a Forest manager. That opinion was formed almost instantaneously. He’ll never get the kind of patience that was afforded to Pearce: whenever things are going wrong, there’ll always be the clamour for Nigel Clough, or Roy Keane, or anyone else with that umbilical tether to The Good Old Days. And Dougie knows it.
He was a hard appointment to warm to. Not only did he replace Pearce, but he seemed to get the job by dint of being the only person to apply for it. It wasn’t him, per se – he just seemed to personify the situation we’d been delivered into. A Bolton cast-off, huffing stale life into a flat-lining club: he summed up that withering of possibilities. He’s had FFP (the Fuck Forest Plan, as it’s being called) to contend with, too. Throw in the fact that it’s our 150 year anniversary – which comes with a floating sense that something remarkable should be happening, just for posterity’s sake – and he’s had his work cut out.
But he’s trying.
He’s making things happen.
And we’re starting to play.
I hope he keeps it up. I hope we keep trying to do the right things. And I hope the crowd sticks with them… because if we do, it’ll mean we’ve summoned the kind of humility and grace that’s required for minds to change.
You don’t get a lot of that in football, these days.