A Decade of Dross
It was the summer that did it for me. That`s when my confidence in Forest - once oaken, now twig-like - finally snapped. When any residue of optimism, any further willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt, was swept definitively away.
It was the first day of the season. On a glum Saturday afternoon, I was stood in the Market Square, watching an excited gaggle of shoppers, all huddled together, camera phones aloft; they in turn were watching a gang of Forest fans besieging the Bank, clearly very excited that football had returned, and that everything was back to normal. Everything was back to normal. That was the problem.
Because by now, I`d come to realise that I - along with Steve McClaren, and 21,000 other Reds that day - were victims of the most elaborate double-bluff the gang of shysters running Nottingham Forest had ever pulled. They`d kicked out a trouble-maker (drawing as little attention as possible to what a successful trouble-maker he was), and replaced him with a legitimate, A-list manager. "Why would he have come here without the funds?" we wondered aloud. "Who do you think he`s going to sign?" Because we needed signings. As repeatedly diagnosed by said trouble-maker, and echoed by said A-lister.
From that point on, though, the summer panned out with despondent familiarity. Yes, players came - but freebies. Players who you struggled to believe had ever once blipped on Steve McClaren`s radar. Periodically, the discontent on the forums and the phone-ins would bubble towards critical mass, and as always - with immaculate timing - the names would emerge onto message boards. The in-the-knows, and the nailed-on-links, and the it`s-definitely-happenings. Forest, in the mean time, did what they do best: they implied. Never confirmed, never promised, never even denied... but implied. And the expectations blossomed, and the interest lurched back to life, and the people who run Nottingham Forest stood back with their arms folded, watching the season ticket money roll in. In the mean time, another wedge of Forest fans - myself included - came to the conclusion that you`ll see more forward-planning and ambition on top of Beachy Head than you will in the Forest boardroom.
An hour later, and I was walking down the embankment towards the Trent End, as utterly underwhelmed as I've ever been before the start of a football season. I remember looking up, and noticing something I hadn't seen before. When you approach the Trent End, side-on, look to the top of it; there`s great stalactites of grime, green and brown and grey, marching down the side of the stand. Get a bit closer, and have a look at almost anything that`s supposed to be red: it`s dulled now, into a weird shade of chestnut. It`s not something I`d noticed before, but the stand - the entire stadium, really - had stagnated. How`s that for a metaphor to get your season up and running?
It`s only over the past few years that I`ve started to join the dots, and understand Forest`s rather traditional holding pattern of self-harm... the old 'one step forward, five leaps back` thing. On reflection, and in the grander scheme of things, Forest`s ability to snatch defeat from victory, to fail in that final, basic step, to trample any emergent sense of goodwill and optimism into the dirt, is about the only consistent thing the club`s managed in the past 12 years.
Think, for a moment, of exactly what has come to pass since the summer of 1998, when Forest kicked off their final Premier League campaign. Back then, we didn't yet have the Euro, or Google. Bill Clinton was still in the White House. Dusty Springfield was still singing - Jill Dando was still doing Crime Watch. People knew everything about the Millennium Bug, and nothing about iPods. And some of the people who were wittering about Y2K were in even greater danger, because they were drawing their prescriptions from Harold Shipman. There were still only three Star Wars films. The Scottish Parliament was the whiskey-laced dream of a madman, and the residents of Hyson Green didn't yet have trams thundering past their front door every three minutes.
It`s been a long time. Not, necessarily, that I've minded. But measured alongside the acres of bullshit that have spewed from the club over the intervening years, that failure (and it has been a failure, if you`re assessing it against the club`s alleged ambitions) has raised more than a few questions.
A few years ago, I wrote a piece in the aftermath of Colin Calderwood`s dismissal, when I was just as confused about where, exactly, the club was going. The point I made was this: I - and most others - don`t support Forest on the proviso of glory. That would be stupid. Life in the Championship is arduous, thrifty, and ferociously competitive - in this punter`s graveyard of a division, no fan from West Ham to Barnsley could confidently hope to predict success. Lazy, Clough-centric journalism tends to have Forest fans pegged as oppressive, demanding and bratty, yet I don`t recall any foot-stamping or harrumphing about titles and trophies. Most of us are realistic people, and have long since come to accept the consistent inconsistencies of life outside the Premiership.
What I do expect, though - in return for my time, my energy, my money, and all my idiot commitment - is to see us learn from the mistakes and the failures that naturally arise. All I've ever wanted to see was a prescribed, coherent business plan, that rolled with the inevitable peaks and troughs of life in modern football. What we`ve had instead is a cluster of abortive, under-developed ideas that lurch from one extreme of ambition and expenditure to the other. The result? Twelve years of infamy, ten perplexed managers, and a repetitive strain injury for Nigel Doughty`s cleaning lady, who`s spent the better part of a decade emptying scrunched up action plans from his waste paper bin.
As I said - this was the summer it changed, for me. This was the summer I confirmed to myself that Nigel Doughty`s Nottingham Forest experiment has failed. In the grand scheme of experiments, there are scientists in subterranean laboratories attempting to attach bollocks to bees with more success.
I'm writing this having just seen Forest (comfortably) beaten by the weakest Derby side to visit the CG in living memory. It didn't ruin my weekend though, as it once might have, and this surprised and disturbed me in equal measures. Because when I ask myself why, I realise that it`s not because I`m any more resilient these days, and it isn't because I care any less: it`s because I expected it. I expected it of that single game, as I expect it of most Forest games, as I expect it of the club. And this is why I`m writing this article. Not in the expectation that anyone at the club will read it, and more the hope that they will: and if they do, I want them to understand one important thing, as true to me nowadays as it is thousands of others, and it`s this...Whatever you do as a football club, I expect it to go wrong. It`s abundantly clear by now that you don`t like us, and we - by and large - don`t like you. But regardless of all that, this is your legacy: you have stripped from a great number of people their faith and their belief in something very, very dear to them. Not in the past week, or the past month, or since the summer: over the years of this whole miserable exercise in debt-building, mismanagement, and ruinous public relations.
I do wish I`d allowed myself to enjoy Billy`s years a bit more. Unfortunately, then as now, I was anchored in that same weary anticipation that things were always on the cusp of going tits up; and lo, they did. Looking back, I think I`d have enjoyed it a lot more had I felt at any point that the form we were showing and the triumphs we promised were the fruits of a plan. The rewards of a coherent, unified effort. And not - as always seems to be the case with Forest - an accidental clash of form and fortune. But they weren't - without foundations, it was just the efforts and the tenacity of a small bunch of people, making their own luck along the way. Without help, it couldn't`t last. And it didn't. I struggle to think of another team who could have promised so much, and hit such heights, against a backdrop of such total pessimism and discord. It was almost an achievement in itself.
Forest were (terminally, it would seem) relegated from the Premier League in May, 1999: in the days that followed, Nigel Doughty secured his stake as Forest`s majority shareholder. I blame Ronan Keating for much of what followed, as it was around this time that he and Boyzone were Number 1 in the charts, explaining to a clamorous, menopausal throng of British women that "you say it best / when you say nothing at all." Nigel was clearly also a fan, as he managed to wedge Ronan`s wisdom into his overarching communication plan for Nottingham Forest; since that day, PR at the club has traded at about the same market value as rocking horse poo.
No one knows what`s going on, Nigel. We never have. Year on year, there is a studied and maddening silence, that you can set your watch by. We`re left with guesswork and conspiracy theories, and all that tends to do is draw some distinct and rather emotive lines between fellow Forest fans. That`s one of the reasons why the club has been characterized, year on year, by an ever-diminished sense of unity and direction.
I feel for Steve McClaren. I was - and am - unconvinced by him, but after the whole grubby pantomime of his 'resignation`, when he re-emerged broken and bruised before the media to emphasize just how okay everything actually was, he might as well have been sporting a black eye, behind a pair of over-sized sunglasses. Steve clearly had not counted on quite the level of duplicity and spin from Nottingham Forest`s senior management that we have. In fact, I`m beginning to think that beneath the cuddly exterior of a plumy millionaire in his Rupert the Bear jackets, Doughty actually has the ruthlessly persuasive steel of Ike Turner: when Steve was mumbling his assurances to the press, I could picture Nigel in the wings, stroking a baseball bat and murmuring "be cool, bitch..."
As I say, I feel sorry for the bloke. Just look at him - he`s a broken man. Every day, his hairline is accelerating further away from that one mutinous little tuft he`s got left: never has a man`s forehead announced so transparently to the world, "my God, what have I done?" Bare in mind the guy managed England, the most comprehensively unpleasant job in world football - even in the midst of cajoling that gang of dope-fiends, aspiring rapists and under-achievers into some state of usefulness, he still wouldn't have encountered as sapping an obstacle as Mark Arthur. As serial revisionists go, Arthur was plumbing Stalinesque depths when - with more than a touch of "these aren't the droids you`re looking for" - he chirpily announced Chris Cohen as the solution to the LB situation (a situation now so farcical that I can only assume that it`s not so much a problem, as some sort of mad dare).
At the age of 30, I`m of the last generation of Forest fans who would have seen their team achieve anything of note. But regardless of age, I've struggled to find anybody who enjoys their football as much as they used to, and that`s not a mark of success (or lack of it) - it`s a symptom of the disconnect between the club and its patrons. Following Forest has become an increasingly arduous ordeal, and I struggle to see how the club are managing to encourage new generations of supporters these days. The fans are unappreciated, the ticket prices are exorbitant, and Forest`s presence is almost non-existent. I've already said that if I had a son, and things were to continue in this way, I wouldn't impose on him that inescapable commitment of supporting Forest: having been introduced to the club and the game by my own dad, I find that incredibly sad. It says a lot to me about how I felt then, and how I do now.
"At some stage," John Pelling said in his radio interview last week, "enough is enough." John, I agree wholeheartedly. And I`d love to think that after all these years, the two parties - you and us - could go our separate ways, quietly into the night, and chalk this one down to experience. That your paymaster could hand over the reins, pocket a worthy return on his frustrated efforts, and stride out into an autumnal evening. But we can`t. So profound is the financial mire we once again find ourselves in - the mire that you assured us we`d never again return to, the exact sort of mess that we were supposed to avoid because we were being "run properly" - it`s very hard to see how this is going to end well for anybody.
There's talk now - as there always is, in the fairly routine moments of crisis we've endured over the years - of protest, and action. It's hardly surprising. My only concern is that after all these years, Forest fans have been worn into a state of such lassitude and disinterest that the thing just won`t muster the life (and the unity) it needs. Just look at the attendances at Leicester, and West Ham. 2k shy of a sellout against Derby. It`s already started. And history dictates that it`s a tough trend to buck.
Be warned, Nigel. This isn't something that`s on the horizon - it`s already begun. This is round about the time that someone at Forest pops their head above the parapets to issue some thinly veiled threat or other... when they do, I hope - for their sake - that they word it very, very carefully.
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