WORDS: STEVE WRIGHT
This summer a Nottingham Forest hero returned to the City Ground dugout, bringing out the sentimental side in many long-suffering Reds supporters, but can Stuart Pearce’s managerial tenure really restore the magic of the past, or has the game changed too much for the footballing romantics to prevail?
Image: Dave Rutt (via Flickr)
I have walked many times across Trent Bridge. When you head away from the city up London Road, the flats at Turner’s Quay fill your view so that as you pass them you experience the great reveal; the bridge, the river and, on the far bank, the City Ground.
I cannot imagine that I will ever tire of that view: the dated Main Stand with its low profile allowing you to see through to the seats of the Brian Clough, Forest picked out in white capital letters on a sea of red, anything still possible as the crowds gather before kick-off.
This hints at the nature of my relationship with Nottingham Forest, both its power and its foolishness. It is a romantic fantasy that exists only deep within me, built on my own personal experiences and notions. In a sense it is a shared communal devotion but in reality the thousands of people who support this one club all have their own unique connection to it.
The seeds were sown in me longer ago than I even remember but they took time to set down root and flourish. While my dad and older brother were watching Forest sweep the greats of Europe aside, I was largely oblivious – too young to sit and spectate while others played the game. I do vaguely remember watching, on a television set in a Spanish hotel, Kevin Keegan’s growing frustration as Forest beat his Hamburg side to retain the European Cup, but it was another six seasons before occasional games turned into a lifelong passion.
In the summer of ’86 the World Cup in Mexico took hold of our group at school. I drew France in the sweepstake and, too naïve to understand that Europeans don’t win in South America (at least they didn’t until now), I threw my hopes behind Platini, Tigana and Fernandez. Having overcome Brazil on penalties in a classic quarter-final tie, those hopes were dashed in the semis by the Germans. France finished third but I had come of age and was ready to commit to a season on Trentside – a season that has yet to end.
It is easy to understand how a child gets drawn into following a football team. The noise and excitement of the crowd captivates and the way that adults behave differently in a group enthralls. The players are glamorous heroes who (at least back in the eighties) are tantalisingly accessible and the community of fandom is natural and empowering. But why in middle age do I still feel this need for Nottingham Forest? Why do I feel the same excitement about Henri Lansbury that I once felt for Steve Hodge? I’m almost scared to ask.
But the reason is simple. Despite everything that has changed in football over the past 20 years, the game remains fundamentally the same. I might have grown taller, broader and hopefully wiser but in the moment that I stand among fellow supporters, as a player in Garibaldi red strikes a ball into a bulging net, I am a plain fan of Nottingham Forest caught up in the shared emotion of following my team. It is pure magic at any age.
The bigger picture of adulthood, however, simultaneously casts light onto the magic and destroys it. The game is basically the same as it ever was, but everything else has changed. It isn’t that money was never considered an issue historically; it is just that now it has become so central that it possesses the power to decide everything. League positions generally follow wage bills but, even more than that, every decision taken by the game’s authorities is designed to keep the status quo and make sure that those at the top are not challenged. The idea of a sporting chance is heretical.
Something else has changed too. I now have clear and strong ideas about what I think a football club should look like. I want my club to align with my values so that I can be proud of it no matter what results it gets out on the pitch. The problem is that it isn’t my club, I am just one of many fans and the only way to mould the club is to be rich enough to buy it. As a result I can find myself more closely aligned with even Derby fans and owners at times than I do with the supporters and owner of my own club. It’s a strange sensation that would not have been possible for the boy me.
These things combine to make my week a frustration. In fact, when Billy Davies returned for a second stint as manager, and his entourage seeped into every corner, it got even worse than that – even Saturday could not provide a relief. I am a Forest fan but I could not support what was happening at my club. The logical answer would be to find a club that reflects my values and support that instead, but here is the crux of my problem. I am a Forest fan, it is a part of me, and, although I can admire other clubs, even if I never went to the City Ground again I would always belong to Forest.
It is easy to get nostalgic for the past, but in all honesty I do not know how much of my feeling that it was better in the eighties is real and how much of it is a result of the fact that I am looking back on those days as a different person. If I was a child now my experience of football as it currently exists would probably be very similar to how it was then. It is the prism of experience that makes me baulk at the amount of money in the game and the appalling mismanagement of it and it’s my small amount of acquired knowledge that makes me want to shape my club’s future. Perhaps ignorance is bliss, especially when fused with the enthusiasm of youth.
The return of Stuart Pearce to manage the club that he captained has only served to blur those lines between adult and child. While the adult can see that the excitement I feel about this appointment is really for the name and the memories it evokes, the child is bouncing around with an enthusiasm that has been sadly missing in recent times. Pearce, as both the player I remember and the manager who talks of developing young players and putting a smile back on this club, represents the Forest I want to be a part of. I’ve no idea how results will pan out, or what the owner’s reaction will be if they are not positive enough, but for now I see a vision of Forest that I want to get behind.
It will probably make or break my relationship with the club to be honest. If Pearce can turn Forest back into the club that was almost universally popular for the way its teams played and behaved, and if he can embed a culture and a structure that sees us once again producing home-grown players and bringing through our own coaches, he will have delivered as far as I am concerned…and I will be proud to be a Red.
But, after a difficult couple of years, I am conscious that things could be very different. Owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi has already shown that he will build up and tear down structures without a second thought. I committed to the ideas of Sean O’Driscoll but he’d gone five months later. I was all set to give up my season ticket on the back of Billy Davies’ “revenge and payback” but I blinked and he was no more than the memory of a nightmare in the first moment of wakefulness. This summer my childhood hero has returned, but the romantic in me is now fighting with a cynic born out of the modern game. Pearce has begun to rebuild the club around an exciting vision but how long will it last and how will I feel if my hero falls?