We sat in the Executive Stand, upper tier. I can remember the seats.
My dad bought me a bar of chalky Nottingham Forest chocolate. He bought me a programme, and he pointed out the advert in the back of it, where Gary Crosby—my favourite player—was moonlighting as a joiner.
And on that sunny April afternoon, we watched our team—our dazzling, breathless team—put seven goals past Chelsea.
I was ten years old. It was my second Forest game, and one of the best day of my life.
Not for the game, or the goals; not for Gary Crosby, putting Frank Sinclair on his arse. No—for finally being a part of this thrilling, grown-up thing. A thing that I’d only ever glimpsed through my dad. The wild and visceral mystery that took him away, every other weekend: the one that returned him home, hours later, smelling of the cold.
This was what he’d been up to.
And I knew, instantly, that there was no going back. From those first moments—the glossy programmes and the crappy chocolate and the throng of bodies in the Trent End, shouting and singing and moving as one—I knew that this was how I wanted to spend every Saturday, every week, forever.
Until recently, I’d always thought of that afternoon as mine. But it wasn’t… because there was somebody else there that day, starting his own story.
As we emptied into a rich, warm evening, Colin Fray was filing his first ever match report for Radio Nottingham.
Once I knew that I’d been sold a lie—some two years later, in the spring of 1993—it was already too late.
It had all turned out to be bollocks. Every little bit of it. The grandeur, the weather, the romance, the hope; the exhilarating newness of it all, which seemed like it could never, ever get old.
Things had changed. Forest were getting beaten now—heavily, and often. And it was cold—constantly bloody cold. Hopeless football, played beneath a bruised and solemn sky. I knew just enough to see that things were going wrong, and nowhere near enough to understand why.
I’m a wallower by nature, and us wallowers—we tend to lash out. We ridicule and punish the optimism of others. One day, after an especially bleak defeat to Southampton, my dad—the king of the optimists—copped for it.
It must have been hard enough for him, watching his team turn so suddenly to shit, but now he had me to contend with. And on the drive home, I gave him both barrels—the full-on hysterical wrath of a twelve year-old. I was angry, and worried, and I wanted something to believe in: some sign that it would all be alright.
It was life and death—it was the worst I’d ever felt, about anything. I can remember telling him that I hated football, and Forest, but I wanted him to read between the lines—to know that it was him I hated, for lumbering me with them.
Every question, I left a space for him to make it better: every answer, I didn’t believe.
When will it get better?
When will it all go back to normal?
And finally, his fists flushed around the steering wheel, my dad burst.
“I don’t know, alright?”
He didn’t shout often, but he shouted then.
“I don’t know.”
And then: “you don’t need to come. Stay at home and listen to it on the radio, if it’s that bad.”
Neither of us said anything else. We just drove, in sullen, stony silence.
He didn’t offer to renew my season ticket, that summer. I think he knew I’d had enough of them. And he’d probably had enough of me.
I thought I’d had enough of them. That, it turned out, was just the first of a hundred-such promises I’d make to never step foot inside the City Ground again.
I didn’t renew… but I couldn’t let them go. So I took my dad’s advice, and turned to the radio. That’s how, after a wobble, I fell thoroughly and emphatically back in love with football.
Listening to Forest on the radio that season—it changed and it saved everything.
The matchday presenters were Martin Fisher, and Colin Fray. They took a half of a half each, and whilst they were both great, Colin was my favourite. There was a rumour doing the rounds at school that Fisher was actually a Derby fan, and whilst I didn’t want to believe it, he did sound noticeably less pleased when we scored. That was weighed against Colin, though, whose voice would wind to a tight shrill. It was the shrill of a child, narrating a goal in his own back garden: the shrill of surrendering to the moment. We’ve all done it.
Football on the radio—there was a behind-the-cushions comfort to it. A volume knob that could be turned all the way off, when things were going wrong… and turned back up, minutes later. The noise and the pitch of the crowd, which spoke for itself. And most of all, it was fun: they played a Brazilian-style ‘GOOOOOAAAAAAL’ clip—set to the Radio Nottingham jingle—whenever Forest, Notts, or Mansfield scored. It framed the games in a completely different way.
Turning on the radio and the Sega Megadrive, every other Saturday.
Colin at the Baseball Ground, for Gary Charles’ own goal.
Colin, the voice of that sun-drenched triumph at London Road.
Colin: when we went to Old Trafford, and Stan beat United on his own.
Colin at Hillsborough, for the 7-1.
Colin in Europe.
Through the penalties at White Hart Lane—Colin. Through the triumph of ’98, and the pitch-black comedy of ’99; through those barren years in the third division, reporting from strange, grounds, and small towns; our Forest correspondent, Colin Fray.
I don’t know if he was a fan when he started—back on the long-gone afternoon we shared in 1991—but how could he not be now?
Everybody’s got an opinion on what makes a good commentator; everyone agrees he is one. Colin doesn’t moralise or lecture, like Barry Davies; he doesn’t witter, like Motson; he doesn’t sneer or drain the joy from things, like Lawrenson, or Alan Green.
He’s not a Robbie Savage, or an Ian Wright: he doesn’t fill space with incoherent, half-baked reckons. Colin’s willing to not know; to wonder, and to hope. As football’s modern discourse demands that ex-pros shout over each other, Colin remains unflappable. Colin is zen.
He doesn’t mind Steve Hodge interrupting him. He doesn’t mind explaining to Brian Laws—for the hundredth time—how FFP works. All those years, sat next to John McGovern: not once did he turn to him and scream: “OBJECT. BLOODY OBJECT. ABJECT LESSONS AREN’T A THING”.
He’s a miracle of self-control, placed on this earth to explain the inexplicable—to chronicle the insanity of Nottingham Forest. For all those years, and for all the high-piled embarrassments, the fact that he’s never once erupted with an “oh, for fuck’s sake” is worthy of a Nobel Prize. Because in the blackest moments, and the lowest lows, he’s had to be there. There’s no hiding for Colin.
All of us—casual fans, season ticket holders, even the ones who put in the really hard miles—have had the luxury of saying, at least once in our lives, “I’ll give this one a miss”. Not Colin, though. He’s there, so we don’t have to be.
There can’t be many people who’ve done Plymouth at home in 2005, and Chester away that same year, and Boundary Park in 2007, and the 8-1 against United, and the 5-0 at Pride Park, and the 5-0 at Burnley (and then the 5-1 at Burnley), and the 6-0 at Portman Road: even fewer with opinions that were fit for public consumption. But by the next game, he’s ready. Always buoyant: always believing.
But every now and again, you hear a glimpse of it—the honest pain of caring. Like after the Preston game, when Robin Chipperfield was asking him—again and again—what Forest were going to do. What could they change? Where, exactly, did they go from here?
“I don’t know,” he replied. He sounded sad, and small, and drained. “You keep asking me, but I don’t know.”
And when I heard that, it took me right back to the car, twenty-three years ago. Robin was looking for a glimmer, just like I was. A reason to believe. And hearing that from Colin—that resignation, and that weariness—hurt more than the loss itself.
I hope that Forest make it back to the big time one day, and I hope that Colin’s there when we do. He deserves it, as much as any of us—he’s better than what he’s been talking about, these past fifteen years. So let it happen, and happen soon, before Forest’s holding pattern of wild self-harm finally defeats him: before he has a nervous breakdown, and gets shunted onto The Beat with Dean Jackson.
However bleak the circumstance, however tall the odds—let his optimism and his enthusiasm ring out. Because us wallowers: we need it. He’s the voice that reminds us—every game, and every time—of football’s basic truth; of why it is we get excited, in spite of all we think we know.
The truth that says: we’ve got a chance, here.