Come Dine With Me

Never meet your heroes—that’s what people say.  They’ll only disappoint you.

Or worse still, you’ll disappoint yourself.  You’ll be walloped by the smallness of your own life: you’ll say stupid, fawning things, and ask them stupid, empty questions.  You’ll walk away, feeling tiny.

A case in point—some years ago now, I saw Hugh Cornwell at the Rescue Rooms.  He did what Hugh Cornwell does: played his guitar, and slagged off the Stranglers.

Afterwards, as the room was thinning out, I saw him standing at the bar.  For some reason, I walked over; for some reason, I introduced myself.  And it was only when I shook his hand – the same hand that wrote ‘Something Better Change’ – that I realised I’d got nothing to say.

“Cheers, Hugh”—that would have been fine.  But no.  I held his hand for too long, stared too solidly into his eyes, and declared – too loudly, and with a too-red face – that the bass line of ‘Walk On By’ was “a masterpiece”.

“Tell the bassist,” he said, and walked off.

Tiny.

The same again, a few months ago: an evening with Sleaford Mods, at the Broadway.  I ended up talking to Jason Williamson, about The State Of Things.  Knowing that at my core, in my guts, I’m exactly the kind of prick he’s been writing songs about—a salaried, middle class, bus-riding, ten-a-penny arsehole.  To be fair to him, he was very polite about it.  But he was very obviously bored, too: bored with me, and my type.  Bored of standing in a cinema, explaining his world to people who were either too young or too comfortable to get it.

And again: tiny.

When I was eleven, they had an Auction of Promises at my school.  It was one of those charity things; pledges by parents, for parents.  In amongst the golf lessons and the piano tunings were a couple of real prizes; two solid-gold beauties.  One was a Nintendo Entertainment System, and the other was a meal with three mystery Forest players.

I had my heart set on that Nintendo.  But I’ll say this: you can play all the Duck Hunt you want, but nothing beats the sight of Mark Crossley inhaling a steak.

Trust me on that—I know.

Meeting your heroes?  Try eating with them.

Trattoria Antonio: a staging post in Forest folklore.  Not so much a restaurant, as an annex of the City Ground—the sort of place that wouldn’t exist without a football club on its doorstep.

We’d got there early, my dad and I, to find a big table with five empty chairs.  That’d made it all suddenly, terrifically real.

We still didn’t know who was coming, and I was beyond excited.  I sat and stared at the door.  Who’d turn up: would it be Des, or Nigel, or Garry Parker?  Teddy Sheringham, perhaps?  Maybe we’d get really lucky—maybe it’d be Pearce, with an armful of punk LPs.  He’d yank the Gipsy Kings tape from the hi-fi, and bite it clean in half.

The minutes stretched by.  My leg jiggled.  Drinks were ordered.  And then, finally, the door opened.

It was Mark Crossley, Ian Woan, and a youth-teamer named Gary Bowyer.

Now granted, these weren’t the gold-plated legends I’d been hoping for.  But they were still Forest players, and I was struck instantly dumb.  In a pre-internet age, when football still held that spotty, sensible place in our lives, these were men who blinked into existence on Saturday afternoons, or Wednesday nights, and then disappeared again.  They weren’t, strictly speaking, real.

There were introductions, and some loose chat.  They gave me a football, signed by the whole squad.  They ordered their food, straight away: steak, steak, and steak.  Three Orange Whips.

And then – like the flick of a switch – the talk just stopped.  It melted clean away, into chiming cutlery, ambient guitars, and scraping chairs.  A fat silence settled over the table.

Nobody knew what to say.

They were all so thoroughly normal.  It was beautiful, in its way, and it was absurd—but most of all, it was very, very boring.  Like a post-match interview, with garlic bread.

Dad did his best.  He asked questions, and tried to keep me involved.  They answered them, in that way that footballers do.

Woan agreed that the gaffer was “a legend, obviously.”

Bowyer said that Forest were “a great club to play for”, and that it was important to “work hard”.  He asked me if I worked hard, at school.  I told him that we’d made a cardboard whale, the week before.

And Crossley said that yes, the games took it out of you, but you just had to try and get plenty of rest between matches.

The seconds thumped past.  You could hear our cells dying.

I wanted to say something—God knows, I wanted to.  Anything.  But my head had gone, the minute they walked in.

So I played about with my food, and just stared at Crossley.  He fascinated me—I crossleyremember that.  Not for anything he said, or did; just him.  Everything seemed too small for him—his chair, and his knife and fork, and his food.  The man was huge: imagine Paddy McGuinness, bred with a wrestler.  He checked his watch, and looked over at my bowl of chips.

“Are you gonna eat them?” he asked.

Then he leaned over – this, the bloke who’d saved Gary Lineker’s penalty in the Cup Final – and lifted a fistful of them onto his own plate.  He checked his watch again, and ate.

Every inch of space they cleared on their plates was moving us closer to the end of the meal, and the experience—an experience that I knew was meant to have been so much more.  An experience that I’d bottled.  I’d be going back to school the next day with no secrets, and no stories.  For the next few weeks, I’d be haunted by everything I should have said.

And then the door opened, and in walked a conversation.

It was a different kind of silence—the meaty quiet of disbelief.  Jemson sat himself down.

I can remember my dad speaking up first.  “Where are you going?”

“Sheffield Wednesday,” he said, and then he sort of shrugged.  I can remember that, too.  A shrug… and then a double-take, at the pair of us.  “Sorry, who are you?”

He’d come straight from the ground, where the ink was probably still drying.  In 2016, this was #ITK gold.  But in 1991, there was just the six of us, sitting round a table in an Italian, with nowhere else to be.

Maybe you don’t care about Nigel Jemson, but I did.  He scored the first Forest goal I ever saw live, in a 3-1 win against Southampton.  At least, I thought it was the first: turns out that was a Terry Wilson header, at the Bridgford End.  That’s probably why I can’t remember it—it might as well have been on Mars, from where we were sat.

We were level with him, when he hit it: a sumptuous lob over Tim Flowers, from the edge of the area.  It’s one of those weird tricks of memory—I can’t remember a thing about Wilson’s header, but I can still see that lob in crystal, HD clarity.  The ball hanging, for a lifetime; the noise dialling suddenly down to a hush; running defenders, slowing to a jog; Flowers back-peddling to his doom.

The ball, dropping neatly into the far corner.

And then the noise: the ignition of 20,000 voices.  Those lost seconds, between sitting and screaming.  That true delirium, of a goal that matters—there’s really nothing like it.  If you could bottle it, you’d run the world.

After the game, I wanted to know everything about Jemmo.  He’d imprinted on me.  Was he that good?  Did he do that sort of thing often?  My dad must have been torn: stuck between nurturing my curiosity, and giving his real opinion on a man he later described as “an idle bastard.”

And now, suddenly, he was off.  It hadn’t even occurred to me that players could leave Forest.  I just assumed the good ones stayed forever, whilst the likes of Kingsley Black were sent to a farm.

It was a load more weird, piled onto an abstract evening.

There was sadness in the air: a palpable sadness, and a fascinating one.  A sadness that changed its shape, from chair to chair.  Forest were losing a footballer – a great one, in my mind – but Woan and Crossley were losing a mate.  A drinking buddy, and a colleague, and a friend.

Yes, there was sadness: but then, as they called for more beers, the evening came to life.  It became celebratory—it all turned suddenly human.  Here were the laughs, and the memories: here was the curtain, pulled properly back.  There were stories I shouldn’t have known, and language I shouldn’t have heard, and it was thrilling.  Suddenly, it was an experience.

I never said a word, the rest of the night.  I just sat, and watched—these curious people, in their own world, and on their own terms.

I didn’t know it then, but that’s what I’d wanted.

Not just to see them—to meet them.

It’s funny, what different players mean to different people.

My friend Chris is a big Barnsley fan.  He won’t hear a bad word said about Nicky Eaden.

Another Chris – Villa Chris – won’t hear a good one said about Stan.

But oh, the tales they told.  The moments they both epitomised.

There were plenty of Forest fans who never really took to Woany—even in his pomp, circa 1996, when he was scoring all those surface-to-air goals (against Newcastle, usually).  Long before, he’d been cast as That Lazy Scouse Bastard, and that was all she wrote.

And Mark Crossley—ooh Mark Crossleh.  The next season, the guy just disintegrated.  He got the yips, and got them bad.  No one had the heart or the inclination to turn on Clough, so instead, they turned on him.  And for a guy who’s now an enshrined Forest hero, we tend to forget just how bad it got.  We forget the cheers, when he split his head open at Southend.  We forget that fold-out special in Brian—the double-spread, with a space for his autograph on one side, and a written transfer request on the other.  Do your bit for Forest, it said.

When I was really young, I wanted to drive a digger.  A few years later, I wanted to be in the KLF.  But I never fancied being a footballer.  It just seemed too heavy a life: too unforgiving.  My blood was too thin for it.

And when either of them copped any flak, in the years that followed – Woan, or Crossley – I’d bristle.  Even if it was justified.  Because I’d come away from that night with a photo, and a football, and my first crucial glimpse of real lives: the people, beyond the players.  I fought their corner, from that day on, because the stick wasn’t anonymous anymore.  It didn’t just up and vanish: it landed somewhere.  It had a face.

For every time you meet a hero, and make a tit of yourself, hang on in there for the special one: footballthat moment when you truly get to see them as themselves.  With the walls down, and a couple of pints inside them.  It’ll shift your understanding: it’ll change the way you look at what they do, forever.  Their music, their writing, their sport—it brings you closer, and makes it even better.  See that space between their extraordinary job, and their unremarkable self, and then watch them go and achieve.  Suddenly, it’s amplified: suddenly, it all means so much more.

Ian Woan, and Mark Crossley.  They were footballers, yes.  Icons of the ‘90s, like Kevin Pressman, Lee Sharpe, and Eddie Newton.

But to me – after that night – they were something altogether larger.

Simply, they were normal.

Two normal men.  They ate steak, and they stole your chips.

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