If Barcelona didn’t exist, Madrid would have to invent them.—Florentino Perez
Who actually enjoys Derby games?
I mean, really?
I don’t. I never have. They’re miserably tense, they’re invariably weird, and they
only seem to come around when one of the two clubs (normally Forest) are thigh-deep in a crisis.
Play them as the first two games of the season, I say. Play them in beaming sunshine, when half the country’s still on holiday, and it’s too early for them to mean anything. Before the weather turns, and the nights close in, it all gets proper.
But more than that: I hate these games for the type of fan that they draw out from the woodwork. A particular kind of dickhead, the sort who doesn’t know his Chris Powells from his Darryl Powells, but—if Derby win—still makes a point of bringing his ‘No. 1 Ram’ mug into work, on Monday morning.
He’ll stand in the kitchen area, and he’ll drink his coffee, and he’ll talk loudly about what “we” did to “you”.
The offices of Britain are filled with them: people (men, usually, in their late forties) who don’t like you, or your mates, or your poxy fucking haircut. They’ll take those victories as currency: as a kind of capital, to prove their point. Of how much better they are than you—of how, for a moment, they’re winning.
They don’t really like football, and they won’t talk about it for the rest of the season. The mugs are soon retired. But they’re always there, his kind, and they’re ready to spring—like daisies in the fucking sunshine.
Into the sea, with the lot of them.
It’s a funny rivalry, Forest and Derby. Take Barcelona, and Madrid—the public expressions of two distinct nations. Touchstones for their respective masses: rallying points for the pride and the principles of their people. Rangers and Celtic are the same. It’s even the case with Man City, who—for everything they’ve become—are still wont to bang their ‘team of the people’ drum, whenever they play United. With years of high-piled dramas, disputes, and controversies, these are clubs who’ve forged identities in defiance of one another; clubs that’ve found a special place, based as much on what they’re not as what they are.
On the other hand—and It took me years to realise this—Forest and Derby are basically the same club. Two teams with remarkable pasts, undistinguished presents, and (the way football works, these days) fragile futures: two clubs bound together by one man, and the road that was (re)named after him.
Two sides of the same, dulled coin.
It’s a tug of war—one that never seems to move more than a few feet east or west of centre. A journalist once described the battle for pre-eminence in East Midlands football as “like watching bald men fight over a comb.”
We have a lot more in common, than not. But when we play each other… it all goes a bit end-of-days. It gets weird.
Things happen. Like the corner flag incident.
The plastic cup.
The red cards.
The ten-man comeback.
Tonight, as soon as work’s done, I’m going to start drinking. It’s the coward’s way out, but I don’t care—it works for me. I didn’t watch a game pissed until quite late in my football supporting life, but when I finally did—England vs. Algeria, in the 2010 World Cup—I was instantly converted. That was my Red Pill Moment; sitting in a pub, working through two bottles of wine, watching a roomful of England fans going apeshit at Glen Johnson. Tables were knocked, and insults were flung, and the air blackened progressively over the evening. All in the name of a truth self-evident: that England just weren’t very good.
Numbed and serene, I was finally able to see football for the wild nonsense that it is. And it felt great.
It works with Forest, too. A couple of Fridays ago, I watched the Bristol City game pissed: booze brought clarity, and with it, a sense of calm. I could see what was coming, and I was just about drunk enough not to care. In that moment, it all seemed so obvious. It was Forest, on Sky, away to a team who were bottom of the league—what exactly did we expect to happen? A suddenly capable Danny Fox to have grown a right foot?
If Forest lose—and let’s be honest here, there’s a decent chance that we will—it’ll probably spell the end for Freedman. It seems (and sounds, if rumours are to be believed) inevitable. In truth, there are greater and more compelling indictments on Dougie than being beaten by a side that’s just spent £20m… but in a shitty season, it’d probably be a step too far. No. 1 Rams fan will start rattling around for his mug, and Googling Steve Bloomer stats, and legions of Reds—curdled at the prospect of a hellish Monday morning—will take to Twitter, demanding action. Fawaz—impatient, frightened, and confused as ever—will relent, and give the people what he thinks they want.
And lo, Dougie will be the latest casualty of Operation Third Star: a project which is currently progressing as well as my plan to have sex with Belinda Carlisle.
We can cross that bridge if we come to it, though. Because tonight, Matthew, I’m ready to believe: ready for football to deliver one of its delicious, fleeting shocks. Now is the time to remember that strange things do happen in football… and if that’s all we’ve got, then it’s still enough. Yes, Derby should win at a canter—but they should have won in January, too. And they didn’t.
Strange things happen, in this Twilight Zone of a fixture. Strange, rootless things.
I’m ready to believe. Ready to believe that Nelson Oliveira will suddenly look like he plays for Benfica; that the Kelvin Wilson tribute act in the middle of our defence will be replaced with the one who marked Lionel Messi out of a Champions League game; that Lansbury will do something remarkable, to keep Shaun Dyche pawing at his phone; that Jamie Ward will do to Derby what he once did to us; that Ryan Mendes will maybe even pass the bloody ball.
I’m willing to believe in all of that, and more. Just for tonight. I’m even ready to believe that Matt Mills will concentrate for an entire game of football.
According to The Shawshank Redemption, hope can set you free—according to John Cleese, it can kill you. So long as that’s still a choice worth making, I’m not throwing in the towel. Not tonight. Not for Them.
I’m just going to leave these here—some words from Al Pacino, in Any Given Sunday. An appeal to the players. Nail them to the wall (nail them to Matty Fryatt, for all the use he’s been), and heed them well… because strange things can happen on nights like these. They have before, and they will again.
We’re in hell right now, gentlemen. Believe me. And we can stay here, and get the shit kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back into the light.
We can climb out of hell. One inch, at a time.
If, somehow, we win? I won’t crow, and I won’t gloat. There’ll be no novelty mugs, and no ‘bants’. Because there’s always the next time.
I’ll simply say what I’ve always said.
I love Derby games.