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.
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.
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.