Hopes and Fears (Leicester City NFFC Programme Notes 2012/13)

Of modern times, one football adage has become synonymous with this time of the season; ‘It’s the hope that kills you’.

Since the moment I first started going to watch Forest, I’ve been engaged in a relentless battle of wills: between me, the eternal optimist, and my dad, the eternal pessimist. Two opposing forces, both equally unyielding, have collided on long journeys to and from Nottingham for nearly two decades now.

My first visit to the City Ground, a midweek home match against Everton in the unforgettable 94/95 season, was one I will forever cherish. Fish and chips before the game, a buzzing crowd chanting in unison as we walked along the Trent toward our seats and a magnificently dangerous team in red, zipping the ball along the floodlit grass. These are just a few of the things I remember … though none of them have stuck with me quite like Dad’s pre-match pep talk!

I was only ten years old and the possibility that we might lose the game hadn’t even entered my head. Such negative ideas rarely navigated their way beyond my Garibaldi red tinted glasses. Each and every player was a hero, incapable of letting me down. I had an unwavering belief in Nottingham Forest. I suppose little has changed.

Children can display unshakeable faith in even the darkest of hours; they have a capacity for optimism far greater than that of the average adult. So, having already beaten Manchester United at Old Trafford earlier that season, this ten year old was supremely confident of victory against the Toffees and ultimately securing UEFA Cup football the following season. Dad was keen to suppress this excessive optimism.

Just as we got onto the motorway, and my excitement at the thought of seeing Stuart Pearce in the flesh reached fever pitch, he said some words to me that were to be repeated every week thereafter for the next twenty years: “I don’t think they’ll win today, son.”

He used the rest of the journey to forewarn me of the perils of being a football supporter and all the inevitable despair it was bound to bring me if I continued to support the Reds in such a gung-ho manner.

Despite his Churchillian delivery, it was a sentiment that failed to dampen my defiant spirit, nor prepare me for the heartache that all true football fans must one day face. His intentions were pure, his efforts valiant … but naivety and blind hope proved a formidable duo; my faith did not so much as quiver.

Of course his attempts to cushion me from disappointment didn’t end there with general tidings of impending doom; he gave an in-depth analysis as to why we would lose that game against Everton. At the centre of Forest’s supposed unravelling was Scottish powerhouse forward, Duncan Ferguson.

Blinded by my conviction that no player of merit existed outside of my Panini sticker album, I had never heard of Duncan Ferguson, so was reliant on my dad’s description to prepare myself for the threat he might pose to our chances of three points, and a swashbuckling journey home.

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Dad warned me that Ferguson was a colossal man of 9ft tall, who bench pressed wild oxen in the dressing room before games. The very heat from his breath could scald a kitten and with one flare of his right nostril, he had hardened centre-backs reduced to blubbering wrecks. He possessed the force of an army in his right boot and the flair of the navy in his left. His legs were as thick as tree trunks, though his footsteps were as light and elegant as a baby mink tiptoeing through a snowy meadow. Rumour was that if his eye caught you just right, all your organs would fall out in alphabetical order. He was also good in the air.

That was the gist of Dad’s player profile anyway. I remember feeling sorry for poor old Steve Chettle. Suffice it to say, I am still having nightmares about Duncan Ferguson to this day. Although, in fairness, I don’t think I’m the only one.

Over the years, Dad has made a habit of talking up the opposition players, once again in an effort to protect us both from emotional trauma. We’ve seen Forest in various leagues and watched thousands of players, but one individual struck fear into his heart more than any other. Pele, Maradona, Zidane, Messi? No, the man who Dad revered with such zest was Paul Shaw, bald-headed journeyman of the lower leagues.

Whenever Dad saw the attacking midfielder’s name on the squad list of our opponents, he would literally abandon hope of getting even a draw, regardless of any other factors. One time, when we were due to play Gillingham at home on the Saturday, he rang me on the Friday night, genuinely asking if I still wanted to go, just because Paul Shaw was returning from injury to take his place in their starting eleven. Fortunately, I believe he’s retired now.

Paul Shaw

Even if he can’t single out a player likely to bring about our demise, Dad has a unique talent for finding a reason why Forest won’t win on any given Saturday. The weather not suiting our style of play, the absence of key players, the birthplace of the referee, the fact that Joe Kinnear is picking the team. These are the sort of paranoid justifications for pessimism that Dad has conjured up over the years. I know why he does it though … because it’s the hope that kills us.

We won that night almost twenty years ago against Everton, despite the tangible threat of Duncan Ferguson, and we went on to finish third in the Premier League that season. I always believed, without question, that we would.
Though I still remain ever the optimist, I’m no longer that ten year old with faith in abundance. Us adults, and I use the term loosely to describe myself, know too much and fear too much! We could do with investing in a bit of kamikaze faith, regardless of all that might, and probably will, go wrong.

Let’s set ourselves up for a fall, invest every ounce of hope into the future of Nottingham Forest and be, once again, child-like on trips to the City Ground.

After all, sometimes it’s the fear that kills us.

2006 World Cup Final: The Game that Changed Everything (Blackpool and Barnsley NFFC Programme Notes 2012/13)

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The 2006 World Cup Final. Italy versus France. The game that changed everything.

Amongst a cascade of geographical, political and ethical reasons not to, there was one purely footballing reason to support France ahead of Italy. They had the best player of the past decade on their team – Algerian born Frenchman, Zinedine Zidane, whose last ever game was to be that night in the World Cup Final. This event had been marked as the ‘Zidane Final’, the showcase for a man who had won everything and embodied all that was still beautiful about football.

More conjurer than footballer, more artist than sportsman, Zidane could do what he wanted with the ball – things that scientists might struggle to explain, let alone demonstrate. When his shoulder dropped the entire football watching demographic were sold a dummy. He was a hypnotist, an inventor, a magician: the best player of our lifetime.

Having a ball near to him was like a compulsion, an addiction; as soon as he passed it he wanted it back again. Zidane was drawn to the ball and the ball drawn to him. In all my years of watching football, I never once remember him giving it away.

Bald with piercing eyes, fleet footed and strong, if the universe were to implode and earth be reduced to an atom, this man would still remain, balanced on the edge of a piece of string somewhere, ball at his feet.
‘The Gaffer’, an acquaintance of mine not renowned for his subtlety, had joined me to watch the game. He didn’t have the same romantic view of Zidane that I did:
“Garlic, baguette eatin’, stripy jumpered, beret wearin’, slimy frog!”

If a doctor had witnessed The Gaffer’s outburst he would have diagnosed him with a nasty bout of ‘French Tourettes’. A close up of Zidane’s distinguished face had stimulated a surge of thoughts – everything he associated with France came out in one resentful rant. The words were venomous; he hated the French!

The Gaffer was not prejudiced; in fact, he hated all nations in equal measure. So, in the interest of equality, what Zidane received in hatred, Marco Materazzi, the Italian defender, received tenfold in mockery.
“Ow’s ‘e in a World Cup Final? He’s s***, ay he mate?”

As with a lot of The Gaffer’s wildly expressed opinions, what he said was somewhere between a question and a statement. On this occasion, I had to agree with him.

Marco Materazzi was a notoriously dirty player, formerly of Inter Milan and Everton. He was at Goodison Park for one full season, during which he was sent off three times before being shipped back to Italy.

Despite having come under intense scrutiny from the Italian media for his inept performances, here he was playing in the World Cup Final, eyes rolling around his head like a sinister deranged clown. He was extremely ungainly by Italian standards and would not have looked out of place as an extra for the film ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’

For every Zidane, there had to be a Materazzi.

Kick off was imminent.

Thirty Five seconds in and the drama had already begun. Thierry Henry clashed with Fabio Cannavaro and went to ground. He was down for a long time and, to all rational and objective human beings, he looked seriously hurt.

“Diving b******!” cried The Gaffer at the top of his voice.

He shouted the same thing when we went to see ‘Lord of Rings’ at the cinema and Gandalf the Grey fell tragically to his death. The wizard from Middle Earth was a foreigner in The Gaffer’s eyes and thus was tarred with the same brush as the French and Italians.

Even when Henry was stretchered off and given smelling salts, The Gaffer remained cynical:

“Prob’ly sniffin’ garlic, ay e?”

The idea that Thierry Henry was some sort of garlic junkie who feigned injury so he could leave the pitch for a line made me laugh. That only spurred The Gaffer on. He spent the next six minutes embracing his French Tourettes with volume and passion, whilst I tried to watch the game.

“Penalty!”

Seven minutes in and France had a penalty. You can probably guess which Italian journeyman gave it away …

“He is absolutely s****! Told ya!”

I hated The Gaffer being proved right, but it was a lot quicker than him being proven wrong.

Zidane, the bald maestro picked up the ball, looking solemn and uneasy – to miss in his own showcase game would be unthinkable. He had formidable eyes that could not display fear, only induce it. His bowed head briefly awoke the possibility in my mind that he might not score after all …

“Yes!” screamed The Gaffer, punching the air with delight.

The ball had bounced down off the crossbar and back into play. Zidane had just missed a penalty in the World Cup Final. He turned and ran back toward his own half without so much as a flicker of expression on his face.

The referee blew his whistle and pointed to the centre spot. Bizarrely, a goal had been given! The Gaffer and I looked at each other in utter bemusement.

Zidane had conned the entire world into thinking he’d missed when he had, in fact, done something quite extraordinary. As he ran toward the ball, Zidane saw the Italian goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, poised to dive to his right, so rather than hit the ball with pace, he simply chipped it toward the centre of the goal. It was more of a kiss than anything else.

It hit the underside of the bar and bounced down, distinctly over the line. The spin he produced from the laces of his right boot had made the ball bounce back into play!

As soon as he had stroked the ball with his foot, he was on his way back to his own half, safe in the knowledge that he had scored the most audacious goal in World Cup Final history.

Even The Gaffer had to admit that the goal was something special; he did so with complete silence.

If only it had ended there, while Zinedine Zidane was simply a genius …

The Italians were not the type of team to chase a game, rather the type of team you could knit a jumper to. They would score early on, probably from a corner, and then defend with eleven men behind the ball for the remainder of the game. Having gone one behind it didn’t take a master tactician to work out that Plan B would be imminent.
They took the game to the French.

In the nineteenth minute, Italy were rewarded for their pressure with a corner. Pirlo, the elegant Italian playmaker, swung it in beautifully.

“What a goal!” screamed The Gaffer, “**** off France!”

The Gaffer wasn’t always as pleasant as this. The perplexity of wanting both Italy and France to lose the game had mellowed him somewhat. This was him at his most reasonable, and eloquent.

We couldn’t see who had scored at first, but the camera soon zoomed in to reveal the Italians hugging and kissing none other than Marco Materazzi. The lumbering Italian punched the air, knowing he had rectified his previous error and scored a goal on the biggest stage of all. I suppose Materazzi must have felt a bit like a pub singer, who had had somehow managed to get a gig at the Sydney Opera house.

“Still s*** though, ay e?!” snarled the Gaffer.

And there was nothing the Italian could do to prove him wrong. If the Gaffer didn’t like someone from day one, they could jump in front of a bus to save his life and he still wouldn’t give them the benefit of the doubt.

I had always admired his conviction for a cause, but was dubious as to whether Materazzi would be worried that, despite scoring a goal in the World Cup Final, somewhere in the heart of the Black Country, a portly alcoholic quantity surveyor, who once wore a comic relief red nose on his genitalia for over a week, was questioning his ability.

I spent the next ninety minutes or so pointing this out to the Gaffer, while the game whimpered on, without incident, until …

Bang! We were drawn back to Berlin and the maestro himself. It was the 109th minute of the game and chaos was ensuing.

Something had happened, nowhere near the ball. Something had happened, missed by the cameras, at first: a turning point, not just for this game.

Marco Materazzi and Zinedine Zidane had been talking to each other. Zidane raised a wry smile at something the Italian had said. Materazzi continued to speak to Zidane, taunting him it would appear. And then the unthinkable occurred.

The French wizard, the greatest player of our lifetime, completely lost his mind! He squared up and launched his bald head into the sinister Italian’s chest, with all his might and majesty. Materazzi was floored. He went down like he’d been shot at by a sniper in the crowd. The impact was so fierce and purposeful that even The Gaffer, as cynical as they come, didn’t claim Materazzi had dived.

Zinedine Zidane had gone from legend to villain with one crazed impulsive action. Immediately, he was shown the red card, as a result of the offence being noticed by an eagle-eyed fourth official.
Zizou walked off without protest. His head was bowed, but for a brief glance at the World Cup trophy he was forced to pass on his way to the dressing room. It was a moment of pure tragedy.

This was the most sensational event we had ever witnessed; things are so much more shocking when they are not part of anybody’s script. It was most certainly not supposed to happen; a hero’s career tainted forever by a moment of unadulterated madness.

What made him do it? What possessed such folly?

A series of suggestions were concocted while we savoured the final ten minutes of extra time. My personal favourite suggestion is that the two were arguing over whose name was worth more in scrabble. Though, I fear darker words were spoken.

An earlier nipple tweak from Materazzi had failed to get any kind of rise from Zidane, where a few wayward words made Zizou deliver the most vicious head-butt we had ever seen. There are no winners with a head-butt; Zidane was prepared to hurt himself just so he could hurt Materazzi more, just so he could put him on the floor and look down on him. The Italian’s cunning had somehow flicked a switch within Zidane, blocking out all rationality, leaving only a swirling red mist.

Whatever had prompted his action, my hero Zidane had fallen from grace – and this changed everything in my head. I poured myself a straight glass of Tobagan rum and prepared to walk the plank.

For Materazzi to have beaten Zidane, for evil to have triumphed over good in such an emphatic way, was enough to convince me that something had to be done. This was the game that changed everything. This was the game that started a revolution!