“You’ve gotta give it a go. Norwich are never gonna win the league, but they still turn up every week. The pricks.”Super Hans
It’s hard, isn’t it?
So much harder than I remember.
I still can’t get my head around how much it’s all changed. The speed of it; the physicality; the quality. The Premier League. Bloody hell.
To me, our class of 1998/99 will forever be enshrined as the ultimate ‘Team Out of Its Depth’. Statistically, there have been worse sides since then (28 of them, if you can believe it), but I’m still plagued by visions of Hodges and Shipperley, Quashie and Armstrong, Christian Edwards and Andy Gray; of a club that had its captain and 50-plus goals ripped away without a word of warning. We were dead before December, and everyone knew it.
It was a very different scene back then — dismal and boring, a whole season played out to a collective shrug. I don’t recall any protests, any outbreaks of “you’re not fit to wear the shirts.” On and off the pitch, it was just a tableau of resignation.
There’s no question in my mind that this team — this club — is a significant upgrade on that one. It’s not even close. They’ve got more talent, heart, and unity. They’re smarter, younger, and better. The ’98 team didn’t have a Gibbs-White, a Lingard, a Henderson, a Freuler, a Lodi, a Williams, or even a Ryan Yates. All of them good players: some proven, others promising, but none that you’d consider ‘dead-weight’. We didn’t have the investment, or anything like the connection between players and fans. And most importantly of all, we didn’t have this manager. This clever, thoughtful, passionate man.
So, we’re better now. Healthier. But still, it’s harder. Much harder. Just compare the numbers across the two campaigns: back then, after seventeen games, it was 11 points on the board, and now it’s 14, with one more win to show for all that hard work. Then, we’d scored 15 (three more) and conceded 30 (four less). Aside from the obvious one, we only took two proper hidings that year — the 5-1 at Anfield, and a famously grim 4-0 pumping at Highfield Road. Two decades is a big old break, though, and while we were gone, someone went and bunged a load of whizz up the arsehole of the Premier League.
But I don’t see any of that same misery this time around. I see resilience, determination, perspective, flashes of real talent, and buckets more pride. Whether those things will end up being enough, I don’t know. But we’re here, and we’re growing, and we’re fighting.
So far, this season has put me in mind of Joe McGinniss’ brilliant The Miracle of Castel di Sangro — the story of a small-town side that somehow survived promotion to Serie B in the 1996/97 season. In that book, Osvaldo Jaconi — the stodgy, bristling drill sergeant of a head coach — keeps repeating the same mantra, over and over: “la stagione è lunga e dura.” The season is long and hard. Each precious win feels like a grinding yomp to Mordor and back, and nothing comes easy. The people who read The Miracle all tend to feel exhausted by the end, as if they’ve lived the effort themselves. Through the power of McGinniss’ writing, the journey is cast as a raw, heavy slog, as Castel inch, inch, inch their way to safety, finally collapsing over the line with a home win against Pescara. The times might have changed — and football certainly has — but the lesson today is exactly what it was then: no man is an island. When you’re up against it, there’s no room for individualism or half-measures. You find a plan, you commit to it together, and with a fair wind and a little bit of luck you might just become something more than your individual pieces.
Anyone close enough to care can see that’s what Forest are trying to do: to take their parts and become a whole. Slowly, inchingly, it looks to be working. Yet listening to the outside noise, you wouldn’t know it. The wider world decided we were a graceless mess from day one, and aside from Matthew Upson breaking ranks on Match of the Day 2, or some periodically generous tweets from Henry Winter, there seems to be a consensus that we just don’t belong here.
Unlike the old days — up to the mid-90s, when we were still quaint and pretty and peculiar — there’s little to no love for this version of Nottingham Forest; nothing that anyone seems inclined to begin taking seriously. To the media, to fans of other clubs, to that godawful Fantasy Football rehash, this Forest seem to be a bit… cheap and nasty. A bit silly, and lacking in propriety. Like we’ve rocked up to a black-tie event in cowboy boots.
And yeah, we’ve struggled at times. Just as everyone said we would, and just as we expected to. But at least we’ve brought a bit of life and honesty to this league — this smug, conceited, self-aggrandising thing, propped up by an industry of journalists and pundits who talk so much, and say so little. After the United game, I watched Joe Worrall getting asked — again — how hard it must be with all these new players. Nothing about the squad situation at the end of last season: nothing about having sixteen serviceable players at Championship level, and a third of them being on loan. Nothing about the catalogue of injuries. It’s hard, isn’t it, Joe? What with all those new faces. All those new languages in the changing room. You don’t have a prayer, do you, Joe? Eh? Do you?
That was the Amazon video panel. At that same time, on the BBC live text, the Telegraph’s Luke Edwards explained the performance with this rapier-like moment of clarity:
Mercifully, the panel then moved on to a discussion about Liverpool’s new £64-million lamppost, and how if you take a few steps back and squint, he’s actually doing really well.
But then we can’t be too surprised. The dye was cast with the pantomime of the Jesse Lingard signing. For all the platitudes, those “Forest are a proper club and the Premier League needs them back” vibes, nostalgia can go hang the moment you start wandering off script, or signing people who were meant to go to West Ham. Those same platitudes are bound by terms and conditions. It’d help our cause if we had a bit of goodwill to fall back on, but evidently, we don’t: it’s almost as if we aren’t worth taking seriously, because with all the signings, we’ve not taken it seriously. As I write this, three days into the January window, I’m awaiting the fresh paroxysms of outrage when Forest dare to sign a few more of the players that they clearly, obviously need to try and survive.
You just know TalkSport are ready and waiting, with their napkins tucked in. Bang, bang, bang. Noise, noise, noise.
It didn’t need to be like this, of course, but there are a set of rules for being properly welcomed into the Prem as a promoted team. Sadly, Forest don’t seem to fulfil any of them. According to the tick-list of rhetorical EPL bullshit, you’ll fare much better if you’re:
- massive — a Newcastle or a Villa, for example. Never mind that you’re a perennial basket case that hasn’t lifted a proper trophy since 1955 — if you hail from a self-declared ‘football hotbed’, everyone will fall in step with the idea that you Deserve Better, however regularly and vigorously you debase yourself on national television.
- a BoFA / ‘Breath of Fresh Air’, which tends to mean doing something different / clever — whether you’re Leeds under Bielsa, Sheffield United with your overlapping centre-halves, Stoke with your surface-to-air throw-ins, or Wolves with your superagent hook-up. It’s the heartbeat, it’s the mindset, it’s the nationally lauded idea that’s bullet-proof and crafted to see you through the ages (or until it gets sussed out after eight months, and then instantly binned off).
- the exponents of ‘a culture’ — not dissimilar to being a breath of fresh air, but harder to pin down. Basically, the definition of ‘culture’ in modern football is whatever your own team didn’t do when they lost a match. It’s a tricky one to sum up, but people — pundits, especially — tend to know a culture when they see one. A lot of folk say Brentford have got ‘a culture’, for example. Others just say they’ve got ‘Ivan Toney’.
- definably middle-class and southern (Brighton, Bournemouth, Fulham), or very, very northern, in a plucky, novelty sort of a way (Burnley, Huddersfield, Wigan, Blackpool etc.) We fall down on this front, because a) the East Midlands is a pretty forgettable part of the world, let’s be honest, and b) we’re just not the sort of club where people will say imagine Arsenal having to go up there.
- the hipsters’ favourites — the kind of club that the Twitter cognoscenti rattle on about, in between applications of moustache wax. You know the kind, getting all frothy about St Pauli and Dulwich Hamlet. Again, we’re just not on their radar. When Ian Woan was busy marmalising Spurs, most of these lads were still just twinkles in their dads’ ballbags.
We don’t fit with any of these criteria, unfortunately: instead, we’re to be filed alongside your Cardiffs, your Watfords, your QPRs, your Norwichs’. (Norwich’s? Norwichi?) A club simultaneously too chaotic and too innocuous to merit mention.
But I think we know what’s going on, and what the plan is. I think we can all see that. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s there.
Someone asked me the other day whether I was enjoying the Premier League experience. I said I still wasn’t sure. I certainly don’t like the condescension, and the mad kick-off times, and never quite knowing whether it’s safe to celebrate a fucking goal. I don’t like the man on my row who blares “WELL THAT’S JUST WORLD-CLASS, ISN’T IT?” every time someone like Tyrone Mings rolls a ten-yard pass out to his full-back. I don’t like this notion that I should sit back and just enjoy the calibre of the opposition when we’re getting spannered; that’s like watching a motorway pile-up and marvelling over the technology of modern airbags. And I don’t like the sense that all we could ever aspire to be in this league is luxury fodder, satiated by the occasional cup run.
But I do like that it matters, and that it matters more to us than the nineteen other teams. Liverpool have a quippy marketing slogan plastered across every inch of Anfield, and it reads: This Means More. No, lads — this means more. It means more for the wait. For the people involved, and for those who aren’t here to see it. For everything we went through to get back here.
When Erling Haaland scored his first goal in the 6-0, and the cameras panned across a section of ‘celebrating’ City fans, there were no ‘limbs’ and no ‘scenes’ — just a polite round of clap-for-carers applause. Loads of people buried face-down in their phones, some of them not even smiling.
And I thought to myself, my God, how far they’ve come, and how far they’ve fallen, too. My mind floated back to a September evening in 1997, the season before that miserable year in the Prem; to when we were going up, and City were going down, and a packed-out lower Bridgford went apeshit as Ged Brannan lobbed Marco Pascolo.
I know it’ll never be like that for us. However high we climb, or however far we fall, an opening goal for Nottingham Forest will never not matter.
So, let them all sneer. As I said the last time around, we’re not meant to be here. We’re a fly-by-night club in chaos, promoted by accident, and only tasting the rarefied air of the Prem because of VAR. Let the contempt and the derision flow forth; let the lazy, half-formed opining continue. Because if we do somehow manage this thing, I’ll bloody love it. I’ll love it even more than promotion. There’s no trophy at the end of it, and no big day out, but what we’ll get is the satisfaction of them being wrong. Not their apologies — never their apologies — but at the very least, their concessions. For now, though, we can only carry on fighting. La stagione è lunga e dura.
“We hate Nottingham Forest,” they used to sing.
There’s only one answer to that, as fitting now as it was back then.
“And Nottingham Forest hate you, you bastards.”