Freed from Desire (Reprise)

I’ll admit, I shed a few tears.

It’s only the second time I’ve cried at the football. The first was in 1992, ten minutes after the final whistle against QPR. Des Walker was doing a lap of honour. He was away to Italy, off to be miscast as Sampdoria’s new left-back, and I was eleven years old, and as he walked past me and the other Junior Reds, swaddled in flags and scarves, down the tunnel and out of our lives forever, I sobbed. ‘Please Don’t Go’ was rattling over the PA. To this day, that’s all I ever think about when I hear it.

Saturday wasn’t that. Saturday’s were happy, righteous tears. It was the kind of hefty, beaming joy that creeps its way out through your eyes, just because it’s got to go somewhere.

The kind that only comes along when you’re plugged in to something much, much bigger than yourself.


Let’s rewind a bit.

Remember when we hadn’t won in ages? When a football-free Saturday felt like a blessed relief, and you had a chance to actually enjoy your weekend, instead of just checking the Leeds score every three minutes?

On one of those Saturdays, I was standing at Knutsford station, waiting for the train to Manchester. My wife was up in Cheshire shooting a wedding (not in an American way — she’s a photographer), so I thought I’d go along with her and see my friend, James.

The train arrived. I boarded, and saw there was only one seat left. On the aisle, at a table.

And immediately, I realised why it was empty. Sitting opposite — three cans into a four-pack — was a guy, this great big fat fella, in full Manchester City kit.

And I mean full. Shorts, socks, everything.

A grown man.

“Functioning adult, you’ll never sing that.”

But there was nowhere else to sit. I put my phone and wallet on the table, my bag on the overhead rails, and tried my best to avoid eye-contact. I’ve met his kind before. We all have.

When you see this sort of thing, this particular flavour of person, you can quickly fill in the blanks. It’d be wrong to say he wasn’t a fan; more just the kind of fan who’s picked it up at an evening class. ‘How to Be Happy Every Weekend’ — just down the corridor, next to Conversational Dutch.

He was off into Manchester, to see City beat whoever it was they were playing that day. As I watched him from the corner of my eye, ‘Etihad Airways’ stretched in widescreen across his tits, dipping back into his little bag of lager, two things occurred to me: firstly, that football shirts really are precision-engineered for the fittest 0.01% of humans on the planet, and secondly, that he’d just clocked my Forest season card.

Great. Brilliant.

Siri, show me someone who’ll force a total stranger to talk about football for fifty-five minutes.

He nodded in a David Brent sort of a way, clearly pleased with himself, as if he’d noticed something in my wallet that I didn’t know was there.

“Notts Forest, yeah?”

I let it go. I’ve never been too puritanical with the ‘Notts’ thing anyway (unlike people spelling ‘Forest’ with two ‘r’s — anyone who does that should be shot through the lungs). I grew up ducking for cover every time a barman or a shop assistant accidentally called my dad “mate”, so I’m inclined to avoid this kind of stuff. There’s enough ugliness in the world.

Yet the die was cast. I already knew how it was going to play out — with me as the novelty, the quirk, to be pestered and patronised all the way to Manchester — so I just smiled and nodded.

He blew his cheeks out. “Rough year for your lads, eh?”


“I reckon you’ll be alright though,” he said. “There are loads of shit teams down there.”

He didn’t really want to talk about Forest, because he didn’t really know anything about Forest. He didn’t know much about City, for that matter (at one point, I said something like “you’ve come a long way from Jamie Pollock”, and he just stared blankly at me).

But he got started, and then on and on he went, unstoppably, as scenes of rural Cheshire whipped past. The woman pinned between him and the window sighed, put her headphones on, and closed her eyes. He explained to me the vindictive war that UEFA were waging against City; he complained that people don’t understand what Pep’s “up against”; he bemoaned the “stupid points” they’d “thrown away all season.”

Not for the first time, I found myself remembering the words of Mark Corrigan. ‘Just keep nodding and smiling, like Colonel Gaddafi’s therapist.’

“But I love it,” he concluded. “And I’ll still be here next year, whether or not we win anything.”

I said that was very good of him.

He asked me what I was doing in Manchester. I told him about James. Was James blue or red, he wanted to know? Red, I said, and then he made a crucifix shape with his index fingers, and he hissed. This man, in his forties.

Finally, mercifully, the train pulled into Manchester. We walked along the platform together — me buried in my phone, him flashing a knowing smile at every City shirt he saw — and as this sky-blue toddler wobbled away towards the tram and the Etihad and his own people, he offered me a fist-bump, and he said: “Anyway, mate, whatever happens, I hope you’ve enjoyed it.”

And off he went.

The fat, smug bastard.

Enjoyed it. Talking like it was a Make-a-Wish trip to Alton Towers.

The thing is, I wasn’t particularly enjoying the Premier League. Not at that point. My friend Neil had sent me a quote a few days earlier: “There are two tragedies in life. One is not getting what you want, and the other is getting it.” Oscar Wilde, that. And I was beginning to see where he was coming from.

This was around the time we’d been gubbed by United (again), barely laying a finger on them (again), and Forest finally felt like they’d run out of puff. Getting there is one thing, but surviving to be accepted as a useful, worthy part of it is another entirely. All season, it’d felt like we didn’t really belong; that we were only there to make up the numbers, like the Boomtown Rats playing Wembley, or Noel Gallagher getting his ten minutes with Tony Blair.

You’ve had your moment, now fuck off.

You’ll have your own stories, I’m sure. At work. On holiday. If it’s not City’s Man-scot, it’s somebody else: an in-law, a cocky nephew, that one colleague, or any gobshite with a microphone. All taking the piss to different degrees, but all very clear in their opinions.

It’s not for you, lads.

But today, I find myself with the same wonderful question that Edmund Blackadder once asked.

“Can I come in for a gloat?”


Part of me always imagined we could do this, be this, even in the really shit times. Going back years now. But now here we are, and I still can’t quite seem to reconcile it with the Forest I’m used to. I’ve been watching the whole thing slightly slack-jawed.

The players. The standards. The atmosphere.

Take Saturday — the Arsenal game. An unfathomable level of concentration, dedication, application, and fortitude; inconceivable, really, when you’ve been raised on a steady diet of pratfalls and mental flyweights. Never did I imagine Forest dominating and swatting aside a team like Arsenal, and not the cup tie, day out, throw-in-a-few-kids iteration of Arsenal, either, but the proper one.

This time last year, I wrote about all those seasons I’d been watching other teams — your Brightons, your Bournemouths, your Brentfords — and thinking to myself, how have they done that, then?

I’ve just watched Saturday’s ‘Matchday Pass’ for about the twelfth time, and now I find myself wondering the same thing again… only about us. I still can’t fathom how we’ve gone from that — from the discord and the disinterest; from the embargo; from black shorts and hooped socks; from Henri Lansbury and Britt Assombalonga arguing over who gets to take a consolation penalty four minutes into injury-time — to this. Forest being middling-to-shit forever just felt like an immutable fact. I’d given up hoping for anything else.

If this whole adventure was a film, it would’ve ended at Wembley. But it’s not. Any kind of success in life just moves you on into new territory, challenges, problems. The day we were all gathered in the Market Square, I couldn’t help but look around and wonder how we’d all be feeling in a year’s time. Whether we’d still be smiling. Because I was standing on that same spot in 1998, when Pierre van Hooijdonk was booming “WE ARE PREMIER LEAGUE!” from the balcony of the Council House, and then it all went to ratshit a few weeks later.

What really bothered me back then wasn’t so much the failure, but the sense of waste — specifically, the waste of happiness and effort. It pissed all over that 4-0 against ‘Boro, and Chris Bart-Williams’ goal against Reading, and Steve Chettle in goal at Elm Park, and all the other things that’d felt important at the time. It didn’t take long to plunge every story and success from 1997/98 into total irrelevance.

And that’s been the toughest thing again, this time around. What if last year doesn’t end up mattering?

I was in Marseille when we beat Liverpool. Sitting in a sunny square with a tall, cold beer, promising my wife (and myself) that I wouldn’t keep checking the score. My phone was going bonkers in my pocket, and I knew that one of two things had happened: either we’d been battered, or we’d won. And when I saw those two numbers — the big black ‘1’ next to us, and the big black ‘0’ next to them — I just stared at them, stunned. A brilliant memory, even if I wasn’t at the game. But then what if it hadn’t mattered in the end? Would that memory have stayed quite so sunny and strong?

My friends in the States — Jesse, Andrew, Ryan — who’ve been getting up early to watch the games, and booking time off work for the night matches: what if all that watching and loving and hoping from a distance hadn’t ultimately meant anything?

The fact it did matter, the fact it was worth it — that makes my heart sing. For me, for you, for all of us. For Callum and his dad, who sit next to me; for Simon, Darren, and Luke, who sit behind us. We all have the kind of weird friendships that come with bearhugs, but only exist within the four walls of a football ground. We’ve all been through a lot together.

For all the reasons Forest have given us to believe this year, for all the times they’ve refused what we’ve always known them to be and shown us something brand new and brilliant, I find myself wondering how long I’ll be stuck with the PTSD of 21st-century Forest. Those haunting, Yeovil-fed whispers of “they’ll fuck this up, you just watch. It’s what they do.”

But increasingly, they don’t. There’s Forest then, and there’s Forest now. They’re two very different animals. But the comparisons are as valuable as they are unavoidable. They remind you of how far we’ve come, and the job that’s been done. Indeed, the job that’s still to be done.

Because when I see all four sides of the ground undulating and twirling and stamping and singing, I remember a stadium almost half empty in the Dougie Freedman era. The banks of empty red seats, and the heavy, sullen silences, and the guy on my row who’d periodically rock his head back and roar “fuck me” in a primal expression of boredom.

When I watch Morgan Gibbs-White, I can’t help but think back to Lee Tomlin, and how gutted I was when his loan finished. He was the only thing worth watching in a Forest shirt back then; the only real reason to stand up. The next season, he was on loan at Peterborough.

When I watch Felipe, I remember Matt Mills and Michael Mancienne, the uncommissioned centre-half sitcom: I can still see Mancienne losing his mind against Preston, 0-3 on a Tuesday night, and Karanka describing it as the performance of “a team without soul, without spirit”. The next day, we went and signed ten new players, and accepted them on the simple premise that they ‘couldn’t be any worse’, which was basically our motto back in the day. (They should’ve put that fucker in Latin outside the changing rooms: non potes facere quid peius or whatever, written on a scroll, wrapped around a picture of Nicklas Bendtner burning fivers.)

I see the tifo and the flags, and I hear MoK at progressively deafening volumes — always somehow a little louder than the game before — and then I think back to a football club where it seemed impossible to find any kind of emotional foothold.

I see all of that, I remember all of that, and so the feeling that’s underscored every minute of every game has been the simple, powerful plea of please don’t make us go back there. Not to the Championship — I mean ‘back’ in the wider sense. Back to what we were, as recently as 2017. A shell.

But they did it. We did it.

And sacked-by-Christmas Stevie Cooper did it.

A man I love even more now than I did this time last year, and I didn’t think that was medically possible. The walking, talking personification of ‘the bigger picture’. It’s come to the point now where that love supersedes whether he’s got the balance right in midfield, or why Ayew’s playing ahead of Surridge, or any individual factor of any individual game. It’s bigger than that. We’ve stumbled across a generational relationship here, one that’s truly for the ages — wherever it takes us, and however long it lasts.

Think of all the crap managers you’ve ever had in your own job; the people who didn’t give a toss about you or what you were doing, who chucked you under the bus for their own mistakes, and who snatched up the credit for your hard work. The blaggers and the bullshitters, whose only real goal in life was just to be in charge of something.

Then imagine the best bits of Stevie Cooper, and the difference that’d make. The passion. The positivity. The culture-setting. That microscopic attention to detail; that manner.

Imagine how well you’d do your job. Imagine how much you’d care. That’s how you end up with thirty random footballers coalescing into a unit, in the most unforgiving environment in world sport. That’s how you achieve and sustain the mania in the stands. It’s how you get lads turning up to every game on crutches, with knackered knees and smashed jaws, because it’s their family. It’s where they belong, and what they believe in — whether they’ve been here ten years, ten months, or ten minutes.

With all of that in mind, I find myself thinking back to the man on the train. What I want to tell him now — and can’t, because I don’t know where he is, and it’s not like he’d understand or care anyway — is that Forest won’t finish the season surrounded by trophies, but then City won’t have had what we had on Saturday evening. They won’t have had that, or a Brighton moment, or a Southampton, or a West Ham, because it’s a different vibe. And vibe is just about the only thing in this life you can’t buy.

For years I’ve been banging on to my dad and his mates about how it was alright for them; how once you’ve seen a couple of European Cups and enjoyed Wembley trips as a matter of habit, it throws the bad times into more gentle relief. But as the City Ground was broiling and pogoing to ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, there he was, shaking his head, and drinking it all in.

“It was never like this,” he said. “Even when we were good, it was never like this.”

Finally, after all these years, we’ve found what we were looking for.

Finally, by some measure, in some new and modern way, the club’s better than it was at its very best.

Finally, we’re making some new stories.


So yeah, I cried a bit.

It was pride more than anything else. Pride will do that to you. The older I get, the more I find myself crying at basically anything. Adverts, three-legged dogs, interest rates — anything. But you only cotton on to the idea of ‘happy crying’ when you’ve moved through your twenties, I think; when you’ve got a proper, working sense of success and failure; when you understand what hard bloody work it is to achieve anything special in this life.

And yeah, it’s just a football team — but then it isn’t, is it? Tell me of a time in the past three decades when the city of Nottingham was as collectively euphoric as it was on May 20th, 2023, or May 29th, 2022. Because Christ knows, we need it. Who doesn’t, these days? There’s fuck all else to sing about.

The age-old truth of football is that come the end of the season, you’ll get what you deserve. I’m not so sure about that. It would’ve been terrible to give the world a few hints of everything we could become, taste it for ourselves, and then fall at the first hurdle. Fall, whilst the likes of Everton survived to circle the drain for another year, bitching and moaning every step of the way. There’s something bigger and better going on here than at Goodison, or Elland Road, or the King Power Stadium. We don’t sing ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’, we don’t chase our players down the street after they’ve lost, we don’t send them death threats when they miss penalties, and we certainly don’t have to hand out bloody clappers before must-win games. We do our business properly, authentically, and with a titanic sense of heart.

We said we’d be fine with 17th, we meant it, and when the reality of finishing 17th began announcing itself — losing more than we won, taking semi-regular spannerings, having about 3% possession — we just got louder and louder. What we said, we meant. And until you can prove that, until you’re clapping and stamping and singing through three or four-minute spells of Forest not even having the ball, it’s just a platitude. It’s noise. It’s the essential difference between a fan and a supporter.

One more step. That’s the way I see it. One more step towards what Forest could and realistically should be. Just as last year’s lot were the pioneers, so these were the war dogs who clawed and chewed their way to safety, facing scorn and ridicule from every corner of the media. If we get this thing right, that fight will be slowly finessed into something sleeker, sexier. And if in three years’ time we’re knocking the ball around like Brighton, I won’t be comparing it with the days of Lica or Barrie McKay — I’ll be thinking about the stubborn bastards who got us up, who held their ground, and who kept us here.

It’s a novel experience, this. Not wanting to reset, not wanting to start again.

Not bored with any of it.

Only waiting to see what happens next.


25 thoughts on “Freed from Desire (Reprise)

    • Great article and as an OAP Reds supporter, you hit so many nerves. But your Dad got it spot on (and I’ve seen us lift the EC twice) “Even when we were good, it was never like this…”

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Another wonderful piece of writing. I was sobbing at full time for the exact reasons you’ve so beautifully outlined and, thanks to you, I now feel like crying those happy tears all over again!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Spot on again.
    If you’ve seen a couple of European Cups and enjoyed Wembley trips as a matter of habit, you’ll know that the football we could play back then was better.
    But what we’ve got now is better in different ways. Like Mr Cooper says: these days, we’ve got soul. We’ve got spirit. We are doing this all together.
    And next season will be even better.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Flipping heck. That was brilliantly written and captured the turbulent, soul churning emotion of the season. What a f*cking club and what a job Steve Cooper has done. COYR! ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well done Phil. You really capture the ‘soul’ of what it is to be a Forest supporter.
    Pissed myself at the description of the bloke near you in the Dougie Freedman days and the Citeh full kit wanker (FKW) on the train!!
    Never stop what you do!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This articulates my thoughts far better than I could! I was there too in the Junior Reds section for Des Walkers farewell lap of honour, and I was there too on Saturday. My overriding emotions when reading these words are just pride and gratitude. Forest is truly the most special family there is.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Excellent piece, so many parallels in there for any football fan. My lot (Arsenal) play in red thanks to your club so in a way it is somehow fitting that it was us lot that you beat to keep your foot in that so long cherished Premier League door. Well done Forest ,well run Forest and always well sung Forest.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is for every fan who braved the New Year’s Day thumping at Boundary Park.

    For Matt Lockwood, whose 35 minutes in a Forest shirt was a monumental disaster.

    For Fuentes, whose brave first half performance ended his career with an ACL.

    For every single person aged 25-36 who had to deal with endless jibes at school and university about how toilet Forest were on and off the pitch.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I was born in Nottingham in 1959. My first match at Forest in 1968. We had rubbish times BC and then the glory days happened and they were wonderful. There were some more great days about 10 years later which is when I introduced my kids to Forest.
    I took my third kid to the City Ground about ten years after that. His first game and we won 6-0.
    I said it’s always like this!
    I love your writing.
    Cheer up a bit though, I expected us to beat Arsenal but then I’ve always been foolishly optimistic 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Last Saturday I must have got a bit is grit or something in my eyes, two bars into MOK, before kickoff!(I do most weeks recently at TWFCG). At the final whistle did that same bit of grit find its way back into my eyes again? No, I wept unashamedly. My two sons were hugging each other in tears too.
    I’ve been going down to the CG since the 50s and it’s never been like this!
    Thank you, a brilliant piece of penmanship that sums up being a Forest fan these past few years.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. My first game was Forest v Man City in the Trent End when I was 10 in January 1968.
    We lost and City went on to win the First Division

    In the BC days the singing was mainly A block, Trent End,Bridgford End but now it’s all around the ground.

    Phil you have absolutely nailed the the past and present of pure joy of being a Forest Fan since SC came to Forest
    Well done excellent piece 👏

    Liked by 1 person

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