For Nottingham Forest, it’s all getting quite real now.
Tuesday’s excellent win against Brentford, combined with West Brom’s continued soiling of the bed, means they’re two points off the automatic promotion places with 17 games of the season remaining. This season is already notable for the simple fact that, barring something truly extraordinary, it will be the first since 2010/11 that they will have started and finished the campaign with the same manager. But if they hold anything like this form then it could become even more notable: Sabri Lamouchi has not swept in and played beautiful football but he has made them a dogged side capable of grinding out victories, outperforming their stats and irritating people hither and thither, all of which has taken them to the brink of the top two.
It’s been a while. Forest haven’t been in the Premier League since 1999, helped along to relegation that season by Pierre van Hooijdonk’s strike, losing 8-1 to Manchester United and Ron Atkinson. Eons seem to have passed. Era-defining players have made debuts and retired. Managerial careers have started and fizzled. Entire clubs have disappeared.
They’ve been away from the top flight for a generation, more than enough time for relatively well-versed football fans to have grown up without them being among the elite. A 25-year-old almost has no memory of them in the Premier League. Erling Haaland was a year or so away from being born when Forest were last relegated from the top tier. Billie Eilish nearly two. The Sopranos was in the middle of its first season. The Simpsons was still funny – that’s how long ago it was. Forest have been away so long that they could quite easily have been written off as a historic irrelevance, filed alongside Wanderers and the Royal Engineers as far as younger fans are concerned, a sort of quaint relic of what football used to be like in a landscape dominated by the biggest and the shiniest.
They have only actually participated in five of the Premier League’s 28 seasons and yet still, whenever people do those “if I could choose the teams in the Premier League” thought experiments, Forest are usually in there, despite frankly not having done a huge amount in the intervening 21 years to justify it. In that time they’ve been down to League One and only intermittently threatened promotion back to the top division: three play-off semi-final defeats, a fairly distant third-placed finish in 2010, but beyond that and a couple of scrapes with relegation, it’s broadly been a melange of mediocrity.
dear Reddit, I can't stop thinking about a football club (155?) even though I (36M) haven't actually seen them do anything good for ages. is this blind nostalgia? should I give them another chance or will I get hurt again? their badge is a tree if that matters.
— Andrew Thomas (@andi_thomas) January 29, 2020
But such is the power of nostalgia. A quick and unscientific survey of The Internet suggests that it really is mostly the misty remembrances of a pre-1995 time (the season when Forest finished third with Stan Collymore and Bryan Roy) that make people want to see Forest back among the big boys.
Forest’s modern history is littered with “oh yeah, that guy” players, the sort who might never have been top class but fans of a certain age remember them with fondness, players who pop up every now and then on Premier League Years. Steve Stone, scuttling baldly down the wing. Steve Chettle, looking like that bloke you’ve met – you know, Karen’s husband, chartered surveyor, coaches the kids’ Sunday league team, your mum fancies him a bit. Jason Lee, being bullied on national TV by some proto-banter lads in blackface. Ian Woan, languidly thriking one into the top corner with that left foot of his. Chris Bart-Williams, who seemed to be one of the Premier League’s youngest ever players for about ten years.
And of course the players who would actually belong in most seriously esteemed company. John Robertson. Stuart Pearce. Nigel Clough. Tony Woodcock. Stan Collymore. Brexit’s Peter Shilton. Viv Anderson. Johnny Metgod and the greatest celebration of them all. Des Walker.
Then there’s actual glory, long enough ago that the mists of time has leant it slight mythical elements, recent enough that people can still remember it and there’s reliable footage to wallow in. The Forest story can be pretty intoxicating, the plucky little engine that could, and indeed did win the league and a couple of European Cups, as well as a smattering of other trophies under Brian Clough, the great character of English football for 20-odd years in the 1970s and 80s. Through that and being in the Premier League in its nascent years, they have lodged themselves in the collective consciousness to the point that people just assume they are a big club – which might be true, depending on your definition – and would thus like to see them on their TV screens every week.
because i had that sky sports vhs from the season when ian woan scored a bunch of long-range belters (32)
— Tom Victor (@tomvictor) January 29, 2020
Forest being a relatively inoffensive club probably plays a part too: apart from the usual local rivalries and a slightly odd enmity with Sheffield United that dates back to some spicy games in the early 2000s, nobody really has anything against Forest. Again, that has its roots in nostalgia, the association with a particular style of football, the nice lads who were told not to bother referees, the underdog who gave the big boys bloody noses and, occasionally, smashed their faces in. Figuratively speaking.
And then there’s the ephemera, the intangible reasons you warm to a club that don’t really have any logic to them. The stadium is pleasingly weird. Teams wearing red are inherently attractive. The 90s aesthetics of those Labatts Umbro kits. The badge being a tree, arguably the most aesthetically-pleasing logo in the game. The name.
The name is a good one. During his press interviews after being appointed as manager last year, Martin O’Neill went slightly off-piste for a spell and started talking about what a brilliant name Nottingham Forest is, and he’s right. It’s so strange and unusual, set apart from your Citys and Uniteds and Towns, in that enclave of eccentrically unique names along with Wednesday, Hotspur and Argyle. Nottingham Forest. You’d never name a sports team that if you were setting one up today. It would sound stupid. But of course, it actually sounds brilliant.
Fuzzy nostalgia for an imagined past has got society into quite a few scrapes in recent times, but hopefully if Forest do go up it won’t set the world on fire and people won’t go tonto when they realise things aren’t what they used to be, and Mark Crossley isn’t in nets anymore. The badge is still the same though, so there’s that.
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