The goodwill’s gone. To quote Warden Samuel Norton, it upped and vanished like a fart in the wind.
Still — it was nice while it lasted.
The backlash began straight after the Sheffield United tie. Up until then, the noise had been quite positive. But more people were watching us than normal that night, all kinds of new eyes, and they saw us get outplayed for a bit of the second half of the second leg, and then there was the pitch invasion, and when all was said and done those people stuck a great big asterisk against the whole thing, like it didn’t really count.
Then there was the final, of course. Huddersfield should’ve had a penalty. Definitely would have scored it, then definitely would have gone on to win, because that’s how it works, football.
A second, bigger asterisk.
Lucky Forest, people were suddenly saying. Lucky, lucky Forest.
Never mind how much we’d earned it. Never mind that we’d been marmalising the Championship for a good five months; that the likes of Swansea, West Brom, Blackpool, Reading and QPR were one more goal away from a self-referral to Dignitas; that we should’ve had five at Brammall Lane without a word of injustice or complaint; that Huddersfield didn’t think to step foot outside their own half for the first hour of a winner-takes-all football match.
Lucky jammy bastard Forest.
And now we’ve really gone and done it — we’ve signed a footballer who was meant to go to West Ham. They say we’re paying him £200,000 a week, maybe more; that this is sad and disappointing and wrong; that this is the natural order of things gone askew. This is like Dannii Minogue’s honorary doctorate, or a binman marrying into the royal family. West Ham are a Proper Club. You don’t fuck with made men.
And make no mistake, West Ham are ‘made’. No one knows how or why, but they are.
Even then, though, as their coordinated “s’alright, didn’t fancy her anyway” campaign lumbers into its seventh day (it was Tony Cottee’s turn yesterday, and Glen Johnson’s today; tomorrow it’s Ray Winstone, and then the ghost of Alf Garnett), you can’t help but be a little startled as to just how badly they’re taking all of this. I mean, lads, it’s just one player. One missed signing. But equally, you can’t be surprised at the extent of the outrage, because they’ve always had this disproportionately vocal media presence, West Ham. They’re like Liverpool, minus the actual, y’know, stature, credibility, success etc.
So it’s weird, but also, it isn’t.
What’s definitely and exclusively weird — what with football being the forensically detailed 24/7 business it is these days — is what little the pundits seem to understand about Forest’s circumstances this off-season. Having to replace five loanees, Brice Samba and Lewis Grabban as our first order of business is now apparently commensurate with ‘doing a Fulham’.
Details. As a great man once said, you can prove anything with facts.
And now — madness upon madness — there’s the small matter of the £250,000 a week we’re paying Jesse Lingard. Jesus. You know things have gone west when Frank McAvennie’s sermonising on professionalism and ethics.
“He’s only gone there for the money, he doesn’t give a toss about you,” scream the fans of a club whose alumni include Freddie Ljungberg, Dimitri Payet, and that renowned socialist, Marko Arnautovic. Maybe Carlos Tevez wanted to move closer to Southend; maybe Javier Mascherano just really likes his eels. Who knows?
The only thing I can say with any certainty right now is that when it comes to Forest, the mood of the room has cooled. Significantly.
There’s this bit in the Bon Jovi documentary When We Were Beautiful where the band’s standing in the bowels of Madison Square Garden, waiting to go onstage. JBJ gathers up his troops for a pep talk. He knows full well what people think of him and his band.
“Remember,” he chuckles. “We’re not supposed to be here.”
It’s stayed with me, that line. I’m not comparing Forest with Bon Jovi, you understand (one was incredibly successful in the late 80s and then turned into a running joke — the other’s a rock band). But there’s that same kind of defiant, joyous energy when you’re somewhere you’re not meant to be, doing things you’re not meant to do. Annoying people. Bothering them.
All the promoted teams get this treatment, especially when it’s been a while since their last visit. There’s this flutter of agreeable noise, this loose contention that the football world has righted itself in some way, and then it’s hello reality. You climb on board the Match of the Day bus, and you’re shunted straight to the back. The only real exception to this was Leeds, but that’s just because swathes of damp-eyed hipsters were busily genuflecting at the alter of Marcelo Bielsa.
It’s to be expected, though. It’s how it works, and it’s not just us. You finally break out of that paddock of sleeping giants, tip-toeing over the bodies of Wednesday and Sunderland and Derby and everyone else, you negotiate your way back to Elysium, and then your hair’s ruffled, your back’s patted, and your role’s firmly reiterated at the front door. You can have a table over there, by the toilets, but we’ll need it back in an hour.
I was under no illusions what was waiting for Forest. It’s not a league for us, or Brighton, or Southampton: it’s about six teams, a couple of others deemed arbitrarily significant by dint of geography (hi again, Hammers), and then the rest of us — the dimwits in the primary school nativity, holding up the scenery. We’re not there because we’re big in Africa, or Thailand, or even because people have missed us; we’re there because the league needs twenty teams, and we happen to be one of them this time around.
We’ve jumped from one paddock to another.
But what are you meant to do? If you spend money — if you pay someone like Jesse Lingard £300,000 a week, like we’re doing — then you’re vulgar, you’re chaos incarnate, you’re an accident waiting to happen. A Derby-in-waiting. “Don’t flaunt your wad,” Mark says to Jeremy in Peep Show. “It’s not becoming.” But the alternative is being a Norwich — locked into the vibrations of a promotion-relegation vortex so vicious that it’ll one day wrench the Earth from its orbit.
I don’t think there’s anything laudable, clever, culture-building, or exciting about that. I can’t see how that’s doing it ‘better’. Maybe the first go around, sure — but not the third. What’s the point in being there if you’re not gonna compete?
What it comes down to is this: for a long, long time, Forest had had a particular role in English football, and that role was the punchline. End-of-days Elvis. Just like Leeds pre-Bielsa, we’ve been this big, dumb, entitled, self-immolating thing, always tripping over our own feet. Forever failing. There to be laughed at. Hell, we’d laugh at ourselves when there was nothing left to do.
And that’s why I’ve enjoyed the past month — and the past week in particular — so much. It’s been affirming in the strangest way. I can’t remember the last time people were actually affronted by Forest. It’s a frequent and very real symptom of ambition; of stepping out your lane. People don’t like it. They want you to be what you’ve always been. And maybe they’ll get their wish, but give us a bit of grace first, eh?
Alan Hardy claimed on Twitter that the hype of Lingard and his £400,000 a week wages was rubbing folk up the wrong way; that the excitement shown by people who still remember Nicolao Dumitru was “irritating”. “A club that everyone had a soft spot for,” he wrote, “is losing that tag.” Well, good. Great. I’m glad to hear it. The last thing I ever wanted Forest to be was a club that people had a ‘soft spot’ for. That implies something inoffensive and unthreatening, something essentially pointless. It’s patronising. People don’t have to like you to respect you.
As I wrote in my last post, I have absolutely no idea what’ll happen to Forest this season. Maybe we’ll be alright, or maybe it’ll all blow up in our stupid faces. Maybe we’ll discover that collecting ten- and fifteen-million-pound footballers isn’t actually enough in today’s Premier League. But at least we’ll have tried — at least we’ll have given it a go. Because I still remember those horrible, disintegrating weeks from the summer of 1998, when Kev went, and then PVH, and then Colin Cooper; I remember the team sheet at Highbury, and I remember how it seemed to render the highs and lows of the previous season so sickeningly irrelevant. The dismantling of Boro; the last-minute drama of Reading. I remember realising that none of it had mattered, and that we were stuffed before a ball had been kicked — and this was 24 years ago, when the Premier League was a considerably tamer beast than it is today.
I don’t feel any of that now. I feel curious, nervous, a little clueless — but not fatalistic. I feel like we’re trying this time, trying as hard as our resources will allow. Did we really wait this long to go quietly back into the night? Did we bollocks. We owe it to the spirit and the thrill of last season to give this thing a proper crack.
We’ll see what happens soon enough. Not long now.
All we know for sure is that the platitudes about Forest were exactly that — platitudes. And my, how the past few weeks have proved that.
Remember: we’re not supposed to be here.
All we can hope now is that Jesse Lingard earns every penny of his £500k a week.