“This club’s dying on its arse,” I said.
And Mick, who’s normally a picture of optimism, didn’t even look at me. With his mouth fixed tight, he just nodded.
“One thousand cuts,” he replied.
And nothing more.
What’d happened, minutes before, was this: trying to be better than he actually is, Armand Traoré had coughed up the ball at his own corner flag. It’s the sort of thing defenders do, when they come to your club on a free transfer, and haven’t played regular football in over a year.
The ball was crossed in to a Cardiff forward, who Thomas Lam should have been marking, but wasn’t, because he’d just gone barrelling fifty yards forwards and lost the ball. He did that because – and let’s be honest here – he’ll never, ever be a Championship centre half. He doesn’t seem to know any better.
None of Lam’s teammates had dropped in to cover him, because they’re all too young, or cheap, or new, and because none of them seem to know any better either. Twenty-seven goals in fourteen games says as much.
In a pinch, Stojković went for the ball feet-first. Goalkeepers will do that when they’re free, and when they’ve just spent two years playing in the Israeli league. It doesn’t make him bad – far from it. It’s just the nature of the beast. It’s what you get with cheap.
And the ball looped up off his knee, and slowly, gently, onto the head of Joe Ralls, and that made it 0-2. It was simple, and obvious, and dreadful.
Nobody talked. Stojković smacked the ball high into a sharp black night, back towards the halfway line. Red shirts were bunched there, in twos and threes; fists balled against their hips, breath pluming. Brooding, and silent – none of them talking.
And those thousand cuts; they wept. Blood, everywhere: from that bargain basement back five, slung together from Zwolle, and Haifa, and Toronto, and Villa’s reserves, and QPR’s reserves; from the abandoned Directors’ box; and from the stands, which aren’t just hyperbolically half-empty these days, but mathematically so. 16,500 people came on Saturday night. In four years, Forest have lost over 6,000 fans.
From the acres of bare red seats; gallons of thin blood.
And finally, clinchingly, from an argument between our two alleged talismen, a minute into injury time. Henri and Britt, squabbling over who’d get to take a penalty, as precious seconds ebbed away. Lansbury prevailed, and took it, and scored. But then Britt skulked and idled back into position – wounded; hurt; televised – and it was the crowning absurdity in a night stuffed full of them: Cardiff City, 2-1 up away from home, moments away from escaping the bottom three, and having to wait on us for an entire, wasted minute.
Maybe it was ego. Maybe it was the goal bonus. But what a perfect metaphor it was for everything that Forest are these days. Another dispatch from the land of me, me, me.
Me – whether it’s Billy, or Britt, or Fawaz, or the scores of people in between. The ones who’ve come, and taken, and then disappeared.
“I’m upset,” they’ve all seemed to say, “and that’s what really matters here.”
Somebody asked me the other day why I haven’t written anything on Philippe Montanier.
Because there’s plenty I could say – about his character, and his philosophy, and the very laudable things he’s at least trying to get this Forest team to do.
The thing is, though – I just don’t see the point.
Because he’ll be gone, soon enough. We all know that – we’ve danced this dance before, with Sean O’Driscoll. He’s a long-term manager, trying to make his mark at a football club that demonstrably can’t see beyond the end of its own nose. A club where fire-fighting’s the only game in town, and where whoever replaces him – be it an Evans, or a Holloway, or a Robinson – will come up against the same immoveable problem: a marrow-deep sense of rot.
And it’s everywhere.
It’s players telling Forest fans to fuck off, as they head down the tunnel. It’s players arguing over who gets to take a penalty on the tele. It’s players who’ve spent their whole careers injured, getting – funnily enough – injured. It’s injuries that happen because the fitness regime changes every six fucking months, whensoever the coaching team’s replaced. It’s FIFA marathons at the man-child’s penthouse, and publicity trips to Kuwait, and any number of other things that distract young players from learning their trade. It’s young players who can’t be bothered learning their trade, even without those distractions. It’s people not getting paid. It’s local suppliers chasing payments. It’s players being sold behind the manager’s back, whenever things are looking halfway promising. It’s head scouts and directors of football and CEOs walking out the door; it’s lifelong Forest fans leaving dream jobs, and crossing the Trent to work at Notts, because somehow – inconceivably – it’s a better working environment over there. It’s those empty red seats – thousands and thousands of them. It’s the vacuum of leadership, on and off the pitch. It’s the court summons. It’s the death-spiral that we’re locked into, picking up pace year on year. 8th, 11th, 14th, 16th. £30m in the red. Then £50m. £75m. £120m.
And we worry about Hildeberto Pereira at right back.
We complain about Montanier trying to play the kind of football Forest fans think they want, but with none of the right pieces. Liquid football, delivered by a gang of waifs, strays, and children.
And we celebrate the kind of grabby self-interest that Britt Assombalonga showed us on Saturday night. We defend it – some of us do, at least – by saying that it at least shows he cares.
If you say so.
Fawaz says he cares, too. Damp-eyed and open-palmed, whenever Nat Jackson tosses up the opportunity. And he’s believed – after all this time, incredibly, he’s still believed. Believed, by the people who continue to pepper him with the ‘boss’ and ‘gaffer’ and ‘Uncle Fawaz’ platitudes on social media. Believed, even when he says it’s not about the money, despite shoehorning his ‘investment’ into any conversation going.
An investment that he’s weaponised – one that he flaunts, every chance he gets, to prove his love. His worth. And it’s bollocks. It’s not an investment; it’s picking up the tab for mistake after self-inflicted mistake. An amount of money that would have been half of what it is today, if he’d only had the sense and the grace to let someone else play with this toy. An expert. Someone who knew.
It’d be half of what it is today, if he hadn’t clung quite so insistently on to his crown. If being ‘the boss’ hadn’t mattered to him quite so much.
And that’s why he’s in the hole. That’s why he’s selling. Dragged along in the slipstream of his impudence, and his impatience, and his own shitty choices, that’s why we’re in the hole.
So forgive me, if there’s no sympathy.
I’ve been angry with Fawaz plenty of times over the years, but never like this. It dialled up when suddenly, from nowhere, he started talking numbers: when suddenly, it was about the money. On Twitter, and on the tele: his passive aggressive digs, with their why-won’t-you-love-me? subtext.
I haven’t spent £100m on Forest, granted. But I’ve spent thousands, and I’ll wager those thousands represented a much bigger chunk of my income. I’ve watched Forest when I couldn’t afford to; I’ve begged and borrowed; I’ve gone without, plenty of times. I’m paying for my season ticket in instalments, for Christ’s sake. Because as we all know, it’s pricey business, watching a football team.
I’ve spent thousands, over the years. But I’ve never asked for any of it back.
I spent that money, understanding the simple truth that’s eluded Fawaz from day one: that in football, x rarely equals y. Money without intelligence – without the boring stuff; without a plan – is nothing. But then what’s the point of a strategy, when you can’t make a statue out of it? When you can’t show it off?
No one pats you on the back for a plan.
No one ever compliments you on the quiet stuff; the things that are happening in the background. The bones and muscles and ligament of success. And that’s the problem. It’s always been the problem.
It takes strength to listen. Strength to think, and strength to share. And in those regards, Nottingham Forest – in what they are, and how they’re run – are a profoundly weak football club.
So he wanted a legacy, and he’s got one. The legacy of a thousand cuts. The legacy of those empty seats. The legacy of a city’s worth of children who don’t give a toss about Forest; who’ve been failed by the football club they should have inherited. The legacy of seven managers, and God knows how many players. The legacy of a chaos you just can’t get excited about.
And worst of all, the legacy of a fanbase so tired, so shot-through with indifference, that the prospect of something like Red Bull Nottingham Forest is now a genuine, thought-worthy, on-the-table thing. A point for discussion. It wouldn’t have been, once upon a time… but it is now. And that’s because of you, Fawaz, and because it’s not you. It’s anyone but you, at this point. Hell, even Mussolini made the trains run on time. No one cares anymore. They’re just tired.
So let the Trent run red, as those cuts widen. This thing will probably get worse before it gets better. Let us bleed out, and let the owner claw back as many of his spaffed millions as he can. Let him negotiate, and demand, and stamp his feet, and cling on for the dimly reflected glory if one day – by some happy, stupid accident – it all goes right. Let him have his salary, and his 20%.
Let all of that happen. Give the man everything he wants, except the love that he needs.
And dream of a day instead when once again, people – players, managers, owners – are serving the name and the heritage of Nottingham Forest, and not the other way round.
Because that’ll mean we’ve healed.