And once again, the sun shines. Summer has poured over Nottingham this week; across the parks, the streets, the people. Life suddenly seems a little easier, and a little lighter.
I didn’t imagine I’d be writing this as the supporter of a Championship football club. In all honesty, I gave up after QPR – and if you were there yourself, you’d know why. The only consolation of that dreadful game was the tenner I remembered putting on us to go down, a few weeks previously. And as Matt Mills javelined another pass out of play, I imagined Ray Winstone roaming the corridors of Bet365, shotgun in hand, looking for the lunatic who’d been daft enough to put us at 20/1.
I had a book idea a few years ago; one that would bring together the worst, most seismically bad and embarrassing Forest games of the post-Clough era. Why? Just because. Enough’s been written about the glory days; we know the stories, we know what happened, and for better or worse there’s been almost three subsequent decades of unexplored football. Forest didn’t start and end with BC, and there’s plenty of other stories to tell. Back when I first had the idea, these types of games were still just once-a-year aberrations; inept, unflushable, and each one all the more memorable because of it. Games to say you’d seen, and days to say you were there, like Plymouth ’05, Colchester ’06, and Oldham ’07. All fumbling, stupid and peculiarly ‘special’, in their own ways.
But as time’s gone by, these end-of-days jaw-droppers have become more and more proliferate, to the point where QPR away on Saturday April 29th was just another shit-show; one more to chuck on the high-piled rubbish of life under Fawaz. It was an especially brutal showing, yes, but basically indistinguishable from Cardiff, Wolves, Norwich or Blackburn (both games) this year; from Bristol City, Wednesday and Brentford last year; from Birmingham, Millwall and Charlton the year before that. They’re not really rarities anymore.
Later that evening, I had a long-dark-teatime-of-the-soul moment at Greyhawk Station. Pissed, skint and alone, I was bent double on the platform, trying to understand the Hammersmith and District Line. And as I rattled hip-high through London’s rooftops, back towards St Pancras, I found myself considering – properly, and for the first time – Division Three. It’s not Division Three, of course, and it hasn’t been since 1992… but at times like that, it’s the most emphatic way of making the point. Rebrand it, call it League One, the Championship Lower or whatever else you want; a turd by any other name smells just as shite. Nottingham Forest, of the Third Division.
My hangover didn’t even have the grace to wait until Sunday morning; by Luton, I wanted to die. The Anthony Joshua fight buzzed noisily on someone’s phone, and a bleary carriage of Forest fans stared in silence at nothing, and I knew – assuredly, and with absolute certainty – that we’d shot it. Forest were down.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this season – given how broadly and inventively we’ve managed to fuck it up – is that we went into the Ipswich game still outside of the bottom three. More than remarkable, it’s an indictment on the Championship itself. It’s an exciting league, and a dreadful one – bottom-heavy with teams on the cusp of a crisis. All those underfunded, over-reaching flat-liners – Birmingham, Ipswich, QPR, Wolves, Cardiff, or even a Monk-less Leeds… would anyone be truly surprised to see them in trouble next year?
I’ve seen precisely one decent side at the City Ground this season, and that was Brentford. We’re assured every year that the Championship is “the hardest it’s ever been™”, but everyone and everything else has been as reliably ordinary as ever. Newcastle were briefly decent, but then crap since Christmas. Theirs’ was a joyless slog to the title; a road pocked with whining, moaning, and one-goal wins over rudderless cannon fodder. It would have been harder for them not to go up. And Brighton? They’re more Lewis Dunk than Anthony Knockaert; big, well-organised, and – barring a small fortune – doomed already. Reading have bored everyone into submission, and moneybags Wednesday are still every bit as stodgy as they were in the Gary Madine days. Huddersfield are dumbly pretty, and pretty dumb – a top-six side with a minus goal difference (which shouldn’t even be possible).
And that’s just the ‘good’ teams. Norwich and Villa are mired in sludge; they both look like Forest, cryogenically restored from the Platt years. Wolves are run by an agent, and Derby by a nutter. And the likes of Preston… well, they’re just there. At this point, only Fulham, Brentford and Burton seem halfway happy with themselves. Life trundles on in the second tier, much as it always has.
We’ve been to the very edge now. We’ve seen – pretty much down to a single goal – just how survivably bad you can afford to be in the Championship. So to summarise that rankness, and for the benefit of any future ‘Crisis Clubs’:
- You can go through two whole months of the off-season without a manager.
- If – when he does finally arrive – he’s completely unfamiliar with the league, and appointed by someone who has no official role at your football club, that’s ok.
- Ditto, for the Director of Football.
- You can afford to sign 17 new players, with only two of them featuring semi-regularly come the end of the season.
- After only five league games, you can flog the player who’s already scored or set up over 60% of your goals, just because it’s cash up front.
- Game by game, you can make over 140 changes to your starting XI.
- In spite of all those changes, you can insist on playing Hildeberto Pereira at right-back for half a year.
- Talking of Hildeberto (and by extension, moronic sending offs): you can play 20% of your games with ten men.
- What’s more, you can concede almost two a game, for a decent chunk of the season…
- … chucking away 24 points from winning positions…
- … whilst missing seven penalties…
- … and losing exactly half of your games…
- … as you compile your worst away record in 90 years…
- … under the stewardship of three different managers.
And they’re just the brass tacks; that’s not to mention all of those debilitating little sub-plots (and in a season like this one, there are so many of them, and they’re all so richly stupid). Like your captain and best midfielder either downing tools, or not being played for a whole month (depending on who you believe). Like four different goalkeepers; like loanees who never play; like three left-backs, all somehow injured at the same time. Like playing Nicolao Dumitru in over a quarter of your games – a man who seemed to have won the chance to be a footballer through some kind of Charlie Bucket, golden ticket arrangement. Like knowingly employing Nicklas Bendtner. Like the dark Friday night when, without a word of explanation, the captain of your mad little Titanic yanks up the ladder on the rescue party, and the dinghy with Gary Rowett, Paul Mitchell, Conor Hourihane and fistfuls of transfer cash bobs slowly and silently away. It’s stuff like that. And in spite of it all, everything ended up fine.
We’ve tickled the possibility of it for two or three years, but we know now that you can do all of these things, and still ultimately rely on being a club like Nottingham Forest, with Forest crowds, and Forest resources, and a competitive advantage that simply is. But then that’s modern football for you: yes, you can be humbled by a Burton, a Barnsley, but the basic laws of scale dictate that short of blowing up the ground, you’ve still got a better chance than a Rotherham or a Wigan. It’s not on merit, and it’s certainly not on will – it’s simply a question of resourcing, and physics. All you need then is one more team – one basket-case, whose weirdness outstrips even your own – to be safe. Some backwater freakshow of a club.
Thank you, Venky’s.
Ipswich was tiring and conflicting. I’ve always wondered what last-day escapes were like, and I have to say that with the benefit of experience, I don’t really care for them. The saving grace of our last three relegations (’97, ’99 and ’05) was that we were down before the Christmas lights; you had the time to adjust yourself, and make peace with it. When it finally came, the mathematical formalities barely registered. But going into the game last Sunday, two entirely distinct futures lay in wait, and the pitch-black finality of one of them was almost too much to absorb in one hit, and one afternoon. When it’s nine months’ worth of weekends you’re looking towards, it’s a quality of life issue as much as anything.
So as the flimsy red and white tape failed for the twenty-second consecutive year to keep 5,000 people off a football pitch, I was glad of the invasion; glad that it spared us the players’ awkward concession to a lap of honour. I pumped my fist at the final whistle, blew my cheeks out, and then headed immediately for a drink. Didn’t even look back. I’m just glad that the players and the manager had the grace, the perspective and the intelligence not to laud it. Because it really wasn’t that sort of a moment.
The next owner may not want to inherit a culture of suspicion and cynicism, but he will… and for now, I’m inclined to think that’s a good thing. Good, in the name of honesty and expectation – and because I never again want to see Forest fans throwing their arms so unconditionally around someone who’s done nothing, and proven nothing.
I was one of those people myself, and whilst a bit more objectivity wouldn’t necessarily have changed anything, ditching the rose-tinted glasses might at least have brought things to a head a little more quickly. Fawaz is an egoist, and his idiocy took root so deeply only because we wanted to believe in him. It’s hardly a crime, but then people can do funny things with the time and the faith you give them. If we didn’t know before, we know now; there’s only one way of judging an owner, and it’s on what they do. Not what they say; not what they claim their motivations to be. Just actions, actions, actions.
In the past year, as he’s banged on about “one hundred million pounds” like some relentless Dr. Evil, he’s shown what he’s really about – himself. It’s either that, or “trying [his] best” – going full Diana, with damp eyes and a cocked head – which makes me want to throw a shoe at the tele. No one can so consistently neglect the boring but undeniably vital bits of running a football club, and then dare to claim they’ve done everything they could. It’ll always be someone else’s fault with Fazza, and for that reason alone he’s in no position to run anything of any significance. Best instead that we all put this nonsense behind us, and go our separate ways. I don’t want or need an apology; it’ll be enough just to not hear from him again.
There are lessons for the club to learn, and lessons too for us. The further things have spiralled out of control, the more we’ve talked about plans, and strategies; the more we’ve preached patience, and ‘a philosophy’. I’m not entirely on board with that particular magic bullet (however it’s meant to manifest itself – no one seems sure), or this fetish for structure in modern football. The game is replete with examples of CEOs who are hated, and directors of football who’ve caused more problems than they’ve solved. Southampton are the model we all aspire to – but check with their fans, and see how happy they currently are with Liebherr, Puel and Les Reed (spoiler alert: they’re not). They complain that their club’s dominated by a business plan, and you can see their point… because none of us are in this to sing songs about balance sheets. Myself, I’d be entirely happy to live in a world where I don’t know who the CEO is, or the Financial Officer; it’d be enough just to know that these people are in place, and doing their jobs, meaning that we don’t need to talk about them. Meaning that our Forest experience is once more framed around the actual bloody football.
But undeniably, a plan – with people in roles, and agreed points of focus – would be better than this. Anything will be better than this – any halfway convincing nod to a strategy, or some long-termism. Because sustainable thinking is what it’ll take to rebuild Forest, and it’ll be needed just as much in the stands for the two, three, four years it takes to get this club running sensibly again. Will our principles stick, across those years? Will the method still matter, if and when the results don’t come?
It all remains to be seen. Forest fans can be judgmental, stubborn, and belligerent. But from Bandy & Shinty, to the Supporters’ Trust, to Forza Garibaldi, to the massive bloody noise we made – in numbers, when it mattered most – for those last few games, we’ve also shown the difference we can still make when we choose to get behind something. What we need now is a Something that we can all recognise as Forest – a something that matters, lasts, and has a bit of bloody joy attached to it.
2016/17 is over. Let’s not call it a happy ending – simply an ending.
For all that’s gone before, and all it might mean for the future, that’s probably enough.
Enjoy your summer.
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