It’s difficult to try to sum up what Nottingham Forest’s unlikely promotion to the Premier League means. Even now, two days on, it’s not really sunk in properly. From a purely self-indulgent point of view, this is an attempt to put into words what it means to me.
Being a football fan can feel like being in a toxic relationship at times, but punctuated by occasional dizzying highs. We’ve waited for more than two decades to reach the top flight of English football, three decades since we last played on the hallowed turf of Wembley.
In the intervening years I’ve oscillated from being a full on home-and-away fan whose life was totally mapped out by the fixture list, to disinterested observer as the lures of girls and going out took centre sway from mid-to-late teens, back to full on season ticket and away games, forum moderator, blogger and occasional radio guest.
More recently a combination of factors – disillusionment with the previous owner, life events making attendance less of a priority for me and my brother saw us make a collective decision to hang up our long-standing season tickets, him to spend more time with his kids, me to be in festival fields and gigs.
But the pull is always there, the app to check the scores not too far away to click. I’d pop down a few times a season, but never felt like I’d made a bad call. The thing I missed most were the acquaintances who became friends through Forest. The camaraderie.
The first time I stepped back from Forest back in the 1990s, my brother was busy gallivanting around Europe in the UEFA cup run under Frank Clark.
“It’s okay, I’ll go next time” I naively thought, much more interested at the time in burgeoning first loves and an adolescent social life. What foresight, huh?
This time round our partially Fawaz-inspired withdrawal looked like a reasonable bet. Even the initial acquisition of the club by Greek businessman Evangelos Marinakis looked set to follow the same blueprint for a while, meddling at all levels, a continued revolving door of managers – I’d still pop down now and again, I’d still follow from afar.
This season has been crazy. Hughton’s awful start consigned him to the sack, Steve Cooper duly arrived and well, has delivered what so many have failed to do before. Suddenly “oh I’ve got a free weekend coming up let’s pop and see the Reds” became impossible, matches were sold out a week in advance. I couldn’t even avail myself of the spectacularly awful-yet-amazing “fruit salad” third kit, if anyone has one in L or XL they don’t want then get in touch!
Fortunately I was able to amass sufficient ticket purchases to be able to qualify for the playoff games at the City Ground and Wembley, and it’s just impossible to put into words what it means. I sat on my own at the City Ground for the visit of Sheffield United – ironically in the same stand as my very first game – and celebrated maniacally with strangers after the penalty shootout took us into uncharted playoff territory.
More happily I spent Wembley with my brother, nephew and two friends. I saw countless others in the concourses and outside the ground. Wembley (old Wembley, of course) was an annual trip as I was getting into Forest. My record then was 3 visits, 2 losses and 1 win. It’s not a nice place to lose, that’s for sure. My Dad would take us down there on a bus, that’s what we did with my nephew, passing the baton down to the next generation.
Despite the Wembley experience doing its best to suck the soul out of you with no discernible queuing organisation outside and surly humourless security inside, it couldn’t suppress a magical afternoon. Sure, the match was underwhelming, we got lucky with some decisions (for once!), but ultimately we ended with that unbelievable cathartic moment.
For fans older than me, who witnessed real glory, and for those of my generation who at least saw us lift some cups and be an established top flight team it was tears, years of pent up frustration and that gradual gnawing acceptance that we’d never get there, released in a burst of emotion we can’t quite understand and certainly can’t put into words.
Joe Worrall described Nottingham Forest as the equivalent of a dog that’s been beaten to the point of its’ spirit being crushed, left to either lash out or sink into depression, until Steve Cooper arrived to rescue it and nurture it. It’s the same for the older fans. We’ve had years of accepting our lot as mediocre second tier fodder who occasionally might threaten the playoffs or flirt with relegation (whilst being constantly reminded that apparently we live in the past).
For the younger fans it was outright euphoria – and this next phase of Forest is for them. They’ve stuck with the team through some lean times out of pure unadulterated loyalty – not with hazy memories of past glories, aside from those they’ve read about or heard from older family members. A generation of fans have never known us as a top flight club, but they’ve stuck with it and are reaping their rewards.
I think about Connie, who used to sit near us in our season ticket seats. She still does now, long after it could be argued we gave up the ghost. Her Dad is of a similar vintage to me and my bro (a bit older, so he can remember much headier heights), this is for her. But it’s also for us, for enduring Megson, Chester away in the cup, Oldham away, absolute misery in the play-off semi finals in both the Championship and League One, countless other humiliations.
I think about the kids at Nottingham schools with Forest shirts on non-uniform days not being outnumbered by Man City or Liverpool shirts, or being asked what their Premier League team is. This promotion is for them. They can collect Forest players in Match Attax or Panini albums.
And on a more practical level the frankly immoral imbalance of wealth distribution in football means our financial future is a lot more secure now. How Forest move on now will be interesting, the owner sounds ambitious, and frankly there’s cautious cause for optimism based on the way we seem to be run these days with very few misses in terms of player recruitment.
What Steve Cooper, the team and all the staff have done – and the fans too (I was dead against the displays and things when they were mooted years ago, I was wrong – they are brilliant, Forza Garibaldi take a big bow) isn’t so much as awaken a sleeping giant or any other such lazy hyperbole, but they’ve given a fanbase emaciated by a lack of success genuine cause for celebration, a sense of pride that reverberates around the city and a massive shot of delight at a time that is tough for many.
It’s likely tickets will remain hard to come by for the foreseeable unless the local authorities can get a wriggle on and work with Forest to redevelop the City Ground, and whilst it denies me the chance to pop down to the game on a whim, I don’t begrudge it at all, the folk that held out longer than me deserve to be there, and the team deserves a full house each week.
I’ve had a blast re-immersing myself in it, but can’t imagine going back to the world of season tickets and regular away travel these days. And given, by and large, when I have been a home and away regular the only things we had were play off failures, relegations and a solitary promotion from League One (oh, and Frank Clark’s promotion back to the promised land in the 90s too), maybe that’s not such a bad thing for the greater good of the club!