Justify Your Love

You just want them to get it.

Even if they don’t like football—even if they only come down the once, out of courtesy.

For one afternoon, you want Forest to be everything you know that they can be.  Whoever it is – your wife, your aunty, that friend who’s had to hear about it for years – you just want them to have a glimpse of football’s peculiar magic.  To see for themselves why it matters, and why you care.

But it never happens, does it?

Because inevitably, the game will be awful.  The ground will be half empty.  The weather – almost necessarily – will be shite.  Forest (and football) will be exactly what they’ve always been, for most of your life.

And whoever it is you’ve brought along, for their first game—they’ll turn to you, as you’re inching out of the ground, and give you that look.  That same watery smile, every time.

“So… you do this every week?”

That’s the problem with football.  It’s like that thing your dog does, when no one else is there; that one fantastic trick.  It amazes, yes—but only when you least expect it.  Only then—and only on its own terms.

So why do we keep trying?  Why drag the people we care most about down with us?

What is it that we so desperately need them to understand?

Them—the ones who’ve waited back at home for us, on the weekends.  The ones who care, only because we care.  The ones who started checking the score, years ago, just to know what sort of mood we’d come back in.  The ones praying that Forest haven’t harpooned another Saturday night.

What more could they ever hope to learn, by seeing it for themselves?

You probably don’t know how much you’ve talked about football, over the years.  You don’t know how much they’ve had to hear: how much, osmotically, they’ve taken in.  My wife, the other day—I mentioned something in passing to her, about Norwich.

“They’re not having a good time of it, are they?” she said.

And then, after a moment’s pause: “Christ.  Why do I know that?”

She knows, because I’ve spent eight years trying (and failing) to explain what football means to me, and why I do it.  Why it isn’t just a stupid bloody game-why it matters, to me.  And it would have come up, in the course of that.  She knows that Norwich are struggling, and that Dex is past his best, and that we don’t like Scousers.  She understands that Billy can’t be trusted, and she knows why, but she could pass him in the street without even realising.

She knows, bless her.  She just doesn’t care.

She’s never had a reason to.

I read an interview with Nick Hornby a few years ago.  He said that that writing about being a football fan – going to any kind of lengths to explain it – was a waste of time.  That in a post-Fever Pitch world, it’d all been done.  That your team and their circumstance and all those surrounding stories are immaterial: that in the end, it all boils down to the same punchline.  It’s cold, and we’re rubbish.

And I was disappointed, when I read that.  Disappointed he could be so reductive: disappointed he’d presume that his own story was, conclusively, The Answer.

Cold, and rubbish?  At 14, that’s not what I got from Fever Pitch.  It talks about Why, and not What.  It’s an altogether grander tale than crap football, and bad weather.

Because what is Fever Pitch, if not a story about vindication?  About perseverance, and reward?  For all his chuntering, and complaining, and angst… in the end, Hornby’s wasted money and miles are vindicated, at Anfield, in 1989.  200 pages of shitty jobs, and failed relationships, and boring, boring Arsenal, and it all dovetails into a full, fat glory—his team, winning the title against all odds, on a balmy night in May, with the last kick of the season.

The cold, and the crap?  You’d take a lifetime of it, for that.

Potential—that’s the bottom line.  Fever Pitch is a panegyric on possibility: an ode to the one enduring truth of football, that anything really can happen.  A bloke knows for years that his team should be more, that his life should be more, and then – suddenly, in the end – they both are.  He’s grown up, he’s got a girlfriend and a good job, and Arsenal are champions.  There’s no guarantees of happiness in there, but crucially – cruelly, perhaps – Fever Pitch proves you can never quite rule the good times out.  However slim, there’s always that potential for unexpected delirium.  As Hornby says, when Michael Thomas lifts the ball over Bruce Grobelaar, “it was eighteen years, forgotten in a second.”

And that’s what I want to show people.  The ones who’ve never seen or known what football can be.

They only hear about the crap, and the cold.  They’ve only ever see the damage.  We complain to them, and we qualify each one of our miseries, but the good stuff—that’s visceral.  It defies explanation.  It exists in a place beyond words, and all you can say is that you were there.  There, for Barrett’s goal against Liverpool, and Des’ against Luton; there the day we got promoted by accident, because 100 miles away, Cheltenham beat Doncaster.

It’s crap, often.  It’s cold, frequently.  But every Saturday morning, a bit of me knows and hopes that Forest can still be remarkable.

And if it happens – when it happens – I want to share it.  I want someone next to me, who’s only ever known about the bad, and I want them to be swept away with it.  I’ve seen that happen, too.

One remarkable afternoon.  That’s all it takes.  In a second, it’d answer all of their questions: it’d tell them – emphatically – Why.

But you can’t just summon it.  That’s the kicker.  Take a hundred people to a hundred games, and each one could be rubbish.  It might rain, every time.  They’ll be glad of the day out, these first-timers, but most will walk away from the City Ground none the wiser: not quite sure how you could ever care so much, about that.

You bring them along for answers, and they only leave with questions.

Most recently, it was the Bristol City game, and John.  Not just a work colleague—a friend.  It was cold, and we were crap, but he still said that he’d had a good time.  On the Monday, back at the office, he insisted that he’d enjoyed the spectacle—the same polite shorthand I’ve heard from first-timers before, when Forest were shite.  I’m not sure he’ll be back.

My wife, Melissa—her first game was a 1-0 defeat, at home to Sheffield United.  It was a piss-wet Tuesday night, buried in the arse-end of November.  It wasn’t long after we’d met, and back when she was still semi-interested; back before she had cause to know better.

She doesn’t come down anymore.  She says that everybody just seems sad.

There’s been loads of them, over the years… and whatever they were looking for, it’s never seemed to happen.  Forest have failed, consistently, to deliver—on atmosphere, entertainment, or whatever it was they were expecting to see.  I tell them to come back, and most don’t.

I’ll keep trying, though.  Someone’s going to see something special, one day.  And me and them—we’re going to make a memory together.  It’ll ring through the years, as a chiming tribute to the fact that football – when it’s good – is so much better than real life.  I’ve always known it, and then, they’ll know.

If you’re not a football fan, and somebody offers to take you to a game, go with them.  It’ll probably be cold, and crap.  But if you’re lucky, you may just get that glimpse of what this game can really be.

See something special, for yourself, and I promise you—then, you’ll get it.

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