Oh Man, Look At Those Cavemen Go

There’s an unfinished article on my laptop, about Nigel Doughty.

It was meant to be a feature piece for Vital—a real hatchet job.  Lots of ire and indignation; some wild chat about the battered soul of Forest.

I remember where I was, when I heard, and I can remember what I was doing.  It was a glum Saturday evening, and I was typing at the kitchen table.  I had Radio Nottingham on, and they cut away for some breaking news.  There was a long, stretching pause, and then the presenter started speaking. It was that voice—the BBC Bad News Voice.  Slow, and low, and deliberate.

“The owner of Nottingham Forest, businessman Nigel Doughty, has been found…”

I sat, and I listened.  It was all I could do.

For a time, I didn’t know how or where to move.

You join the dots before you can stop yourself.  You hear heart, and you think stress.  You think of the acres of articles out there, written in their broad, brash strokes.

You imagine him reading them, one after another.

You remember what you’ve said, yourself—and what you’re still saying—about a dead man.  A dad, and a husband.  Not so much the message, as the words:  the things that you’ve chosen to call him, to make your points.  You wonder why ten minutes ago, they seemed so clever, and fitting, and fair.

I closed down the document, and turned off my computer.

I kept it, though.  It’s still there, on the desktop—full of lessons.  Reminding me of the mistakes that I was about to make.

It was bad writing, for one—pointless and spiteful, with far too many adverbs.  Superbly, terribly, fantastically; that sort of thing.  As Bono once said, of that famous line in ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’—it’s the sound of a small voice, trying to be large.

More than that, though, it’s about perspective.  And for that reason alone, I try and read it once a month.

Simply: it reminds me not to be a cock.

That article would have been the easiest of wins.  When I started writing it, in the February of 2012, Forest were in a hopeless mess.  Doughty had retreated to Lincolnshire, we’d lost nine of our last eleven games, and hadn’t scored at home for three months.  The club was on its arse.

In that sense, it wrote itself.  There were plenty of articles and opinion pieces doing the rounds back then, all saying the same thing, and this one wouldn’t have been any different.  If it was anti-Doughty, and halfway coherent, I knew that it’d get an audience.  It would find its way onto Twitter, and the forums, and people would email it to each other.  It’d worked a couple of times already, with other things I’d written, and they weren’t half as venomous.

And whatever was becoming of Forest, I felt good about that.  I was telling it like it was.

I’d like to say that I believed what I was writing.  The reality was much more nuanced, of course—the Doughty reign had been crap, but never maliciously crap.  There were shades of grey, everywhere… but it was much easier (as a Forest fan, and a writer) to load my chips on black, and run with it.  That inconvenient truth would have gotten in the way of my one, decisive point—that Doughty was a bad man, and a bad owner.  And until they found him, on the floor of his gym, that’s what I was going with.

There’s a bloke who sits a few rows in front of me, in the Trent End.  He doesn’t like Dougie Freedman.

And every game, he waits.  As tick follows tock—he waits for the next mistake, the next problem.  Some new chance to unfurl his wrath.

It might take a few minutes of Forest being under the cosh.

An aimless punt to nowhere.

A defensive substitution.

But it’ll come.  No football match goes completely to plan, and he always gets his opportunity.  A chance to explain something that’s set in stone—something that he decided, in an instant, almost a year ago.

“Yerra fookin’ twat, Freedman.

Nice and loud he says it—bawls it—with his jaw set, and his veins popped.  Stands up, to deliver it.  Everyone’s used to it now—you see a few smirks, and a few sets of shoulders going… but he’s a big boy, and you learn to pick your battles.  I had a go at him during the Hull game, and quickly wished I hadn’t: this, as he gave Matt Mills a standing ovation off the pitch, after he’d elbowed Chuba Akpom in the head.  “At least he’s showed some fookin’ passion,” he yelled at me.

And then, of course—quick, and snarling—“not like fookin’ Duggeh.”

It’s every twenty minutes, of every game.  He’ll chuck that grenade into any conversation, invited or not.

“I reckon Ward and Mendes should swap sides,” someone will suggest.

“Wor’ah reckon,” he’ll counter, “is Duggeh’s a fookin’ bell-end.”

And he says that he’s telling it like it is.  He reminds the poor bastard next to him (although that seat’s been empty for the last couple of games) all the time.

He’s not alone—a lot of people seem to be telling it like it is, these days, and saying it like they see it too.  It’s an epidemic.  We’re in an aggressively candid age, where ‘it’ = [x], and doesn’t need to be defined.  It is simply whatever isn’t happening, at a given moment.  The straight-up black and white of it.  Subtlety’s for poofs.

Telling it like it is means 4-4-2, forever; it means wondering aloud why these pansies can’t manage three games in a week, when we won a European Cup with seventeen players.  There’s no place for subtext, if you’re telling it like it is, and there’s no spaces in-between—that’s all just a lot of faffy, round-the-houses bollocks.

It’s been a narkier season than normal, and that’s probably because we’re all bored.  The optimists, the pessimists, the armchairs and the regulars—we’re bored with what we’re watching, let’s be honest, and in the absence of anything worth talking about, a space has opened up that invites arguments.  A battleground for the doom-mongers, and the happy-clappers; the ones who care about entertainment (because they’ve got higher standards), and the ones who care about results (because they’re smarter); the ones who are qualified to talk about a match, and the ones who aren’t.  Thousands of jostling manifestos—fixed and iron-clad, all fighting for pre-eminence.

There’s been a twenty-year trajectory from fan to customer, and it’s only natural that we’d end up here.  When you’re paying £28 to watch Rotherham, opinions aren’t so much an opportunity, as a compulsion.  But do you remember the good old days?  Back when supporters used to change their minds about things?

Moreover: when they were willing to have their minds changed?

About Mark Crossley?  And Kevin Campbell?

Football has become a monumentally angry game—one that demands opinions, and puts the likes of Jason Cundy and Robbie Savage and Alan Brazil in front of a nation, to shout, and interrupt, and provoke.  None of this fence-sitting guff: everything is good or shit, forever, and any other kind of distinction is just noise.

It’s funny, in a way—watching a genius like Arsene Wenger ricochet between those two poles, every single month.  I can’t begin to imagine what Clough would have made of it.

It’s becoming harder and harder to like—not just the game, but the whole conversation around it.  Our judgements are more emphatic and more resolute than ever before, and we cling to them because they’ve come to define us.  As football and real life wash together, your opinions don’t just fill in the gaps for the kind of fan you are anymore, but the kind of person you are too.  What matters to you; everything that you’re about.  Whether or not you’re to be trusted; whether you’re solid, or a flounce, or brave, or weak.  And it builds and it builds, to the point that you’re cherry-picking the reasons you’re right about everyone and everything, and suddenly that’s just as important as your team doing well.

It’s an insurance policy for the soul.  They’re shit, but I called it.

What would you rather be, though?  Happy, or right?

I spent all of Friday hearing what a boring, irrelevant bastard David Bowie was, and then all of Monday listening to those same people explain themselves.  Not apologising, per se, but qualifying.  Keeping themselves edgy and forthright, but stopping just shy of being an outright wanker.  So engaging and vocal was that whole debate, I managed to forget for a while that Bowie was gone.

Everything needs an opinion, it seems, and those opinions should come as quickly and as decisively as possible.

It’s why Dougie will never make it here.  He doesn’t make life easy for himself, granted, but he’s up against a sentence that was passed too quickly, by too many:  that he isn’t good enough, and that he never was.  Forget the embargo, and the injuries—he was a shite player, and he’s a shite manager, and that’s just how it is.  That’s all she wrote.

As I said last time out: maybe, when we’ve parted ways, we’ll both be able to look back and say that it wasn’t that bad.  That it had its place, and its purpose.

Maybe, we’ll dare to change our minds.

But in the meantime, we’ll all just keep on telling it like it is.  And that’s a God-awful small affair.

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