“You’re like a weird part of the furniture.” After 1,000 (almost) consecutive games, Mat Oldroyd looks back on two decades drenched in Garibaldi.
words: Matt Oldroyd
You don’t need to dig too hard to find someone with a hell of story to tell about following Forest. Indeed, these very pages have shared some glorious ones to date – wonderful tales of a time when we swashbuckled along at the top table. Wembley adventures, barmy European nights and season after season of dancing with the stars.
My own personal Forest journey doesn’t feature anything near as precious. My story here isn’t of glory, nor is it of boundless optimism or even a happy ending. It’s Nottingham Forest in the new millennium. My generation.
Only once have I not been present at a game during this almost two-decade period. The reason? A ban on visiting Forest fans at Millwall in 2002. That unfortunate but enforced blip stains a record that otherwise stretches back to a League Cup fixture at Bristol City in 1999. I therefore have the undoubted misfortune of seeing every excruciating step. I take some solace in seeing a couple of very good Forest sides as a young lad in the 90s, but my arrival in the stands on an ever-present basis coincided with what we all probably agree is the lowest point in the rich history of the club. On the whole, it’s been twenty years of uncensored horror.
If not for Millwall, I would otherwise mark 1,000 consecutive games at the end of February 2019. I’m more embarrassed by this than anything – 1,000 bloody games! Get a life, mate. And when I was asked by the overlords at Bandy & Shinty to write a piece on it, I initially baulked at the prospect.
For a start, I’m conscious that there will most certainly be others who possess greater streaks. And I don’t have the sub-plot of travelling over from Germany every time... (does he still?!) Besides, a record of games like mine doesn’t turn you into a super-fan; it transforms you into this weird part of the furniture.
You’re a face to others, and they’re a face to you. I’ve known some of these folk for twenty years, but we’ve barely ever exchanged a word. Some have inherited affectionate nicknames; there’s Winton (after the mob leader in 1995 football hooligan film I.D), Man in the Moon (his face does genuinely look like the face in the moon), Lovecurl (based on the giant curl of lacquered hair that covers most of his forehead), and many, many more.
Others have become lifelong friends. When I got married, my two ushers were people I’d met through Forest. One of them actually had a nickname before we knew him – he was one half of the Pinnacle Lads, so-called because they travelled everywhere in their matching red training jackets with the old Pinnacle sponsor across the back. All of us share common ground, in that we’re all hooked on the same acid. It isn’t any good for us – but we can’t kick the habit.
It’s incredible how a football club can become so immersed in your life. A good friend of mine was asked recently when his first child was due. Rather than respond with a date, he simply said “QPR away.”
Being a Forest fan has led me to take some fairly extreme lengths to travel with them up and down the land. I learnt early on that my professional career was always going to be at odds with my desire to follow Forest. I’m not proud of it, but it’s become a necessary evil to simply make shit up. Several of my colleagues believe I had a wisdom tooth out in 2017, whereas the truth is I needed to make a night game in Reading.
This appalling behaviour inevitably drifts into other areas of life too. An ex-girlfriend spent her 21St birthday without me because of a Monday night F.A Cup replay in Weymouth. To really rub salt into the wounds, we’d played at Bournemouth in the league two days before on the Saturday, and so it turned into a three-day piss up on the south coast.
My wife has had the chance to run for the hills but hasn’t, as yet. She has had to do without me for large parts of her last two birthdays because of Forest, and she doesn’t struggle to hide her disdain for this rather large third wheel. She very possibly has a long running affair going on every Saturday but, hey, as long as it keeps her quiet.
The funny thing is that despite all of this, I’m not really much of a football fan. My devotion is to NFFC. I hold little interest in the sport itself, and I find myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable with it – particularly that growing chasm between those running the game and the average supporter. Football’s been sanitised before our very eyes. It’s getting harder and harder to follow a team; fans are increasingly an afterthought, and no amount of lip service will change that.
Television in particular has become a major issue for many of us. I appreciate that it serves as a connection for those who don’t get to see their team as much as they’d like, but the disruption it causes to match-going supporters is difficult to stomach. The Forest-Derby games are always frustrating – one occasion above all others where fans want to have ample time to drink and enjoy the day. Yet TV companies shift it around to suit. And on the odd occasion TV leaves us alone, you can be sure the police will want a say. I couldn’t tell you the last time that game was played at 3 pm on a Saturday. Why is this the case? Why are we constantly messed about to cater for TV scheduling and their audiences? “Money!” I hear you cry... and you’d be right.
Other factors have also made life difficult over the years. It would probably be unfair to blame them on Sky Sports, although I’m willing to give it a go. From a broken down car coming home from a Tuesday night game in Southend to an incompetent coach driver who caused us to miss most of a first half in Burnley. And then there was the mother of all snowstorms while driving home from a 3-0 battering at Middlesbrough on Boxing Day 2014. After getting close to Clumber Park in less than two hours, it then took almost another five to do a typical 30-minute journey from there. I had the thankless task of being at the wheel that day, and I’ve never been so relieved to get home from anywhere in my life.
Yet nothing comes remotely close to how hard Forest have made life for themselves and their weary supporters. No club has excelled in such sheer lunacy and incompetence as our beloved Garibaldi Reds over the last two decades. We’ve tried fifteen different managers (Editor’s note: sixteen, by the time this goes out) and the only one who left us of his own accord for pastures new was, yep, David Platt. The rest have been cast out or, on a couple of occasions, jumped before the imminent shove in their back. Of the current Championship clubs only Leeds have employed more permanent managers, which rather tells its own story.
The award for the worst of the lot is a closely fought contest. I’d hazard a guess that Platt or Gary Megson would be right up there for most, but Steve Cotterill takes the crown for me. He inherited a mess, granted – he spent nothing, and did manage that 3-7 at Elland Road. But the man was a buffoon. And not even a likeable buffoon, as so many of them tend to be. His constant lies used to drive me around the bend. He once told Radio Nottingham after a defeat at West Ham that the away end was singing “We’ve got our Forest back.” No we bloody weren’t.
On the subject of away games, we’ve been particularly dreadful on our travels, and a trawl through the stats show that we had a 25.58% win ratio – 112 wins from 437 games – up until the end of the 2017/18 season. This is better than I feared, although it’s certainly one of the worst across English football in the timeframe we’re focusing on. To give you some context, it’s slightly better than Fulham, Coventry and Derby, but worse than Ipswich and Notts County. Not since 1999/2000 have we even managed to finish with a positive goal difference on the road.
This habit takes you to some strange old destinations too. Towns that you would never visit normally – Carlisle, Swansea, Gillingham, Accrington, Ipswich.... even Derby. And yet these places can throw up some fantastic times, and some good memories have been made (though for the record, none were made in Accrington!).
We once took the rather bizarre decision to stay over in Carlisle on a Tuesday night. The night had a rocky start when we succumbed to a dismal defeat, and things got even worse when Walkabout started kicking people out at 11 pm. The bouncer took pity on us and gave us some rough directions to a club that might happen to be open. Fifteen minutes or so later we were on a gravel path and seconds from calling it a night when a gaggle of girls passed us and proceeded through a rather ordinary industrial door. We followed on behind and discovered that the club wasn’t just open, it was bouncing.
You might not have seen it, but there’s a scene in Blade where Wesley Snipes is walking through a silent, abandoned factory and he steps through a door into this scene of bedlam, a full on rave. This was almost identical. Except that to the very best of my knowledge, none of the clientele were vampires.
We were in a field in Carlisle on a Tuesday night and, against all the odds, we had found life. It became a night that we still fondly reminisce about now. I couldn’t with any certainty tell you what the score was or who played for us that evening, but the night is recalled with only a smile.
Alcohol is without question a trusted ally when it comes to Forest. Being rather intoxicated while on the away day trail is, I cannot deny, a huge part of the attraction and the fun, and especially on the train. Leaving the house on your day off before the sun is up and clutching a bag full of cans in the foyer of Nottingham Station while scanning the departure screens is a regular occurrence. Then it’s the hiss of the cans opening at some ungodly hour, more in keeping with the drinking habits of Onslow in Keeping Up Appearances. It must seem like madness to everyone else.
It’s at this point of a typical away day that the destination is largely irrelevant – it could be White Hart Lane or Gigg Lane. The adrenaline is pumping for a day out following Forest. Sure, the football often brings us down a peg or two, but we’ll make sure we make the most of it, and it’s surprising how often a dire 90 minutes can be forgotten.
One such trip that is vividly remembered is the journey home from the first leg of the playoff semi-final against Blackpool – a disappointing 2-1 defeat. One of the group was expecting his first child and was understandably nervous about being so far away from home. What didn’t help matters was us – his supposed pals – borrowing a phone and ringing him from the next carriage pretending to be his mother-in-law and informing that his girlfriend had gone into labour. “WHAT SHALL I DO?” he demanded in absolute panic, much to our contained delight. We did confess... eventually.
And that, for me, is the joy of it. Football is the epicentre of these adventures, but it isn’t always the final word. Savour the highs and try not to let it get you down on the bad days. Moping about, ranting on social media and getting angry isn’t the way – seeing your mate with acute fear in his eyes while the rest of you roll around laughing most certainly is. And if that opportunity doesn’t present itself, just crack open another can. Otherwise NFFC would see some of us into a rubber room.
Despite our shocking away form, the followings have always remained strong. Only on a handful of occasions can I recall us taking only a tiny number of supporters. The chief example being Gillingham in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in 2006. In a rather terrifying turn of events we faced them twice at Priestfield in the space of four days: once in the league, and then in the JPT.
If anything smacked us in the face of our fall from grace, it was this competition. It was the footballing equivalent of a summer holiday to... well, Gillingham. You look at your mates flying abroad or off down to picturesque Cornwall and you realise that you’ve been dealt a bad hand. It might have had some small appeal initially, a bit of a laugh maybe, but you soon realise it’s a godforsaken place. A jaunt to Woking the year before had taught us that.
There was probably less than 100 of us in the away end that night. The official coach had been cancelled due to ‘lack of interest’, and I paid a small fortune to get there on the train despite knowing that I’d miss the last service home if it went beyond the 90 minutes.
It was more akin to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting than an away support. Familiar faces exchanged glum pleasantries. You too, eh? The most sinister twist of all was that we actually won both games.
The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy was, at least, one realistic chance of silverware, but even that was beyond us on our three attempts. As a club we’ve failed at just about everything we’ve tackled since 1999; a memorable but ultimately well-overdue and fortunate promotion from League One in 2008 the only ounce of bona fide success. For a club that’s achieved everything it has it’s a sad, sad thing that a generation can only claim a win against Yeovil to secure promotion from the third tier as their greatest Forest moment.
Nowhere has this failure been more glaringly obvious than in our four playoff encounters. I’d rather avoid this subject, but these games are a further demonstration of how much we’ve suffered, and can’t really be avoided. I’ve heard the odd sob story from fans of other clubs about their own playoff failures, but they should all bow down to the magnificent clusterfuck that is Nottingham Forest’s attempts to earn promotion via this route.
Our dalliances with the playoffs were a dastardly cycle of initial hope being built up before ceremoniously having its head caved in by one of those ACME weights. The same ones the Coyote always tried to land on top of the Road Runner in those old cartoons. And our playoff campaigns were indeed cartoon-like; they were never merely defeats. They were imaginative and far-reaching, all designed to embarrass and crucify us to the greatest extent possible. I’ll mercifully say no more.
Our top goalscorers in this period are Marlon Harewood and David Johnson, each with 52 goals. Forest have scored 1,327 goals in total across all competitions from relegation in 1999 up until the end of 2018. Names like Dexter Blackstock, Nathan Tyson and Henri Lansbury all feature in the top ten. Notably, 'own goal' sits not too far behind on 27 and patiently makes up ground every season.
Still, there have been some special goals in there too. The three we scored at Man City in 2009, that Ben Osborn late winner at Pride Park, Dexter Blackstock’s volley against Bristol City, and that Julian Bennett scorcher against Yeovil. Some lesser-known ones also feature high up on my list: a last gasp Jon Olav Hjelde header rescuing a point on the open terrace at Preston in 2001, where the rain poured down on us; a John Thompson goal to send us 3-2 up at Ipswich 2003, after being two down early on; and a late Lewis McGugan equaliser at Cardiff in 2009. Yet none were celebrated quite so extremely by me as when Lewis Grabban found the net to make it 5-5 at Villa Park. I did genuinely lose myself for a few moments in the euphoria; a polite female steward was gently requesting I climb down off the seat, but my head was gone. It had burned out as a result of the most bonkers game of football I have ever witnessed.
None of the above will register on the list of important goals this club has scored. Only Julian Bennett’s helped achieve something tangible, but I couldn’t have celebrated them more if a third European title was on the line. I think there’s some magic in there somewhere when it comes to being a football fan. Many of us won’t know our club at the very highest heights, but there are those moments every now and again that make our hearts sing and keep us hooked tightly on the string.
These brief flashes remind us why we continue to spend the time and the money supporting Forest. They don’t have to be goals of any real magnitude to cause a joyous eruption from deep inside every single one of us. At that time, in that moment, it matters beyond explanation.
There have been some terrible times at Forest since we last slipped out of the Premier League – I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve wondered what on earth I’m playing at devoting so much to the cause. You possibly have done too. But I can tell you for sure how many times I’ve actually seriously considered walking away. Zero.
There is no greater pain in my life, but there is also no greater shot in the arm. Long ago I made peace with the fact that I might never see Forest resurrected to anywhere near to what we once were. It will take something meteoric to climb our way back to the summit of English football. But that doesn’t bother me.
I know, just like you do, that we aren’t in this for glory. It’s for the sheer love of it. Standing shoulder to shoulder with comrades in the sleet and the snow; forming enduring friendships with people who you would never have met otherwise or embracing strangers like long lost brothers when a goal is scored. Suffering through every blow and every gut-wrenching defeat, but always remaining proud to be a Forest fan.
And always safe in the knowledge that ours is the greatest club of them all.
This article is taken from our latest issue. Click here to buy it or pop into MSR newsagents. The issue also includes the following pieces:
In conversation with...Steve Sutton (David Marples)
If it happened in the ‘80s, Steve Sutton saw it – and probably saved it.
Mass Distraction (Phil Juggins)
Outmoded, outdated, outstanding: a football forum love affair.
“Derby County is Life” (Paul Severn)
Our nearest and dearest on Clough, Attwell, and being ‘shithoused’ by QPR.
You Must Have Come on a Skateboard (Neil Syson)
The only living boy in New Cross, and the only Forest fan in the New Den.
The Song Remains the Same (Nick Miller)
Breaking up is hard to do. Caring in the first place is becoming even harder.
There’s a Circus in the Town (Julie Pritchard)
My family, and other animals: the anatomy of a rivalry.
Who Are They? Exactly (Nigel Huddlestone)
It’s 300 miles from Sussex to Accrington. What do you do when the warning lights are blinking?
Kicking Shins (Steve Wright)
Why a football club should be so much more than just a football team
“God is a Concept by Which We Measure Our Pain” (Richard Harrison)
One day you’re the giant, another day his killer. A world without cupsets is a world we don’t want to live in.
The Football Factory: Pt 1 (Pete Blackburn)
Examining academy life, and what became of two of Forest’s brightest young stars.
words: Paul Severn
Bernard Sullivan, a Forest fan for over 40 years, set off to the City Ground on 7th May 2017 to watch Forest fight for their Championship lives against Ipswich Town.
“From the very outset you could feel the tension in the ground,” said Bernard. “From the first minute, it felt just like we were hanging on with two minutes to go. It was that atmosphere throughout the whole game, all around me. A tension buzz. We all just wanted the ref to blow and end it.”
Few Forest fans know the sounds of the City Ground quite like Bernard. He is registered blind and follows the action using audio description commentary, along with the shouts, gasps and cheers of the crowd around him. Bernard was born with very little sight and attended a boarding school for visually impaired children in Newcastle. His sight gradually deteriorated to the point where he has virtually no vision at all, but he has been a dedicated Forest fan since the late 1970s after moving to Nottingham.
“My heart was ready to burst that day,” he remembered. “When Chris Cohen’s shot hit the back of the net I lost my ear piece. The headset went everywhere. I had to ask three times what had happened – there was no chance of hearing the commentary for that goal! I was tingling all over my body and you don’t need to see it to feel that.
“But there’s also the silences too that I notice – like the hush after a bad tackle by a Forest player or when the crowd is distracted by something off the pitch such as the stewards sorting out some trouble in the crowd.”
Nathan Edge was partially sighted since the age of six and aged 19, lost all sight. He feared his passion for Mansfield Town and playing football was over.
“I was playing a pre-season friendly and I was struggling to see the ball. The hospital said it was due to a bleed in the back of my eye. They tried to save my sight but I lost my sight in one eye and then the other shortly after.
“It was awful. In everyday life there were a lot of challenges, but I had loved playing and watching football. I thought I’d never kick a ball again. I’d been a Mansfield season ticket holder since I was six, going home and away, but it felt like I didn’t belong there any more. But at three o’clock on a Saturday it didn’t feel right if I was at home either.
“It left a big gap. I give a lot of credit to my dad. He encouraged me to go back to football with him. I think he knew it wasn’t quite the same for me, but he missed me going with him.
“We’d come back into the Football League and it was Notts County away. I remember going to that match and we weren’t expected to get anything. We won 2-0 and the atmosphere was electric. I felt part of it and it felt like I’d fallen back in love with football. Football was part of me again.”
Bernard said: “As a visually impaired Forest supporter I’ve sat in various places around the ground over the years. In the late 1970s, I was given a card which allowed me to stand at the front of the Main Stand behind the advertising boards – although it was hit and miss and not all stewards were aware that this was allowed!”
Bernard was then moved to sit near the Junior Reds section in the Main Stand, and then moved to different locations in the Bridgford end but the availability of special audio description headsets have since allowed him to sit where he likes, which these days is in the Castle Club area of the Trent End.
Bernard explains: “From a blind person’s perspective, being a football fan has come on leaps and bounds over the last ten years, but in the last three to five years even more so.
“From the late 80s and early 90s local radio commentary became more widely available rather than just for big games, cup ties or even just the second half, so my guide no longer needed to give an explanation of what was happening. But sometimes the stations could be a bit hit and miss whether they covered the game and still today there can be a slight delay on the commentary to the live action. At some points I’d be cheering something after everyone else. Now the local clubs have introduced the new audio description service and in my opinion that’s been a major step forward. It’s a great innovation.”
One man who has been integral to the development of audio description commentary at Forest, Mansfield and other clubs is Alan March.
Alan picks up the story: “I entered a competition held by the BBC and RNIB looking for volunteer commentators for the blind community at football matches. I won the competition and as a prize I commentated on the BBC Red Button for the Liverpool v West Ham Cup Final. I'd never commentated in my life so technically that was my debut!
“From that day audio description is something I have always done and along with the expertise of my wife, Francesca, Alan March Sport was born in 2012. I was the announcer at the aquatics centre at the London Olympics and Paralympics. We are suppliers of commentators and hosts for a range of sporting events, but the audio description commentary service has never stopped. It never will. I owe audio description a debt for giving me my chance and it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Alan commentated at the City Ground from 2009 and has developed the service significantly since then – taking the full package of equipment and trained volunteer commentators to other clubs – with Leicester City, Crawley Town, Mansfield Town and most recently Wrexham all covered by Alan March Sport.
Alan explained: “Wembley stadium use our company as their sole provider of audio description commentators for sporting events at the stadium and in 2017 we became the official training partners for the Centre for Access to Football in Europe (CAFE), an organisation that works with UEFA and FIFA to improve access for disabled supporters. This has meant commentating on the Champions League and Europa League finals for the past two seasons.”
Liam Hill has commentated for Alan March Sport at both Mansfield and Forest and has gone on to work for the company at other sporting events.
“Football commentating is something that's always interested me and had always been a possible career choice but I never knew how to go about doing it,” said Liam. “I went to a course in Leicester, but being honest, before then, I didn't know too much about audio description commentary.
“The idea that you're bringing the beautiful game to blind and partially sighted spectators by providing a tailored service is fantastic. I love the fact we're providing bridges for people who otherwise would miss out. Nathan has told us we are one of the main reasons he's now back going to see his favourite team and that his overall matchday experience has completely changed for the better. That makes it worth it. And I just love football, so being able to commentate on it is a privilege.”
Nathan explained: “Last season was the first season the Stags got the audio description commentary. I go to some away games where they don’t have the audio description. Commentary streamed from the internet is about a minute behind so I’m listening to conversations around me – picking up the positive and negative vibes.
“Alan March Sport takes football commentary to the next level. Television commentary has long silences when the ball is in play. On radio, there’s good detail but not full detail. Alan March Sport commentators are trained to deliver commentary to visually impaired people. The commentators will add in as much detail as they can and really build up a good picture right down to the colour of the boots and I can follow the action at the same time as the rest of the supporters.
“It has opened up football to me completely.”
Bernard added: “The commentators have a lot of knowledge about Forest. They have all the interesting stats and you can tell they’ve been trained, and they are passionate too!”
Alan explained: “We wouldn't leave fans guessing. Commentators in modern times are more likely to scream a player’s name as he shoots and they say nothing as the ball nestles in the net or goes agonisingly wide. Our commentators would give you the end outcome straight away so that you, the visually impaired spectator, can experience the same outcome as any spectator using their eyesight to form that opinion.”
When it comes to forming opinions about his club, Bernard explained: “I’m always one of the last to go in with my opinion. I listen to all the opinions around the table in the pub, the radio and the professionals and then form my opinion – having listened to the commentary live. It’s the opinions that make the game so wonderful.”
Nathan added: “I’m now part of a weekly podcast called Mansfield Matters. It’s been a challenging thing to be involved in as a blind person because at first, I felt like I wasn’t entitled to an opinion because I hadn’t seen what happened. No one has actually said that to me, but I was always worried and scared of that. Sometimes on the podcast I have to say I don’t have an opinion on something because I couldn’t see what happened. But the commentary and picking up on conversations around me helps me build an understanding of how each game has gone and I’ve gained confidence. I listen to three match reports after each game and gather as much data as I can to form my own opinion.”
Bernard explained: “You follow the noises of the crowd – like the intake of breath when the opposition is through on goal. You pick up the mood. A Forest attack sounds like gentle crescendo, especially if it builds from the back. You are listening to people around you.”
When a Forest goal is scored Bernard can feel the surge of the crowd but says: “Sometimes everyone sees the flag whilst I’m celebrating at full pelt! My son says: ‘no Dad, the flag’s up’ while I’m asking who scored because I can’t hear the commentary at that point.”
Nathan said: “You can tell it’s a good chance when everyone stands up and 95% of the time you know a goal is about to go in. Time seems to stand still as people take a deep breath before the roar. You can feel it happening.”
Around the time Nathan got back into watching football he also discovered blind football and fell back in love with playing again – winning five international caps to date with England.
When it comes to watching Mansfield Nathan joins family and friends at the pub before the game to have a few pre-match drinks before heading into the ground at two o’clock to pick up his headset.
“Going to games and the social aspect is one of the greatest feelings for me,” said Nathan. “I see people I’ve known for years and years – people I’ve grown up with. A football family.”
Nathan is now compiling a study on which football league clubs provide commentary for visually impaired supporters. It will provide information on how to access commentary and to help the push to make English football more inclusive.
“My partner asked recently what I would do if I got my sight back for the day. I told her I’d like to look back on all the goals from the season to see how they compared to what was in my mind!
“I do a lot of things for the charity Guide Dogs, talking about my experiences with different groups – and now integrating football as a new chapter in my life. I hope my story helps others going through a similar situation. It’s something I’m passionate about. It’s funny, before I lost my sight I didn’t like talking to two people, never mind a group!”
Bernard can’t imagine a life without football and Nottingham Forest. It took on a new dimension in the mid-1990s when he started going to matches with his son, Darren.
“This was around the time we had Stan Collymore. There was a flood of expectation when he got the ball. If the pass had gone to Collymore and he had space, you just knew. My son would say ‘yes Dad, he’s got it’ and he was off and away. What a talent.
“Those days developed our father and son bond. He became as hooked as I was as we travelled to games home and away. It became unique to us after I was working all week. Dad and Darren time. We still sit together today. He’s 33 now and we have a couple of beers before in the pub and he gets me to the game.
“I was born visually impaired because unfortunately my mother contracted German measles whilst she was carrying me – these days known as rubella. A lot of rubella cases ended up with deafness too, and some learning difficulties as well. I only got the sight loss and it could’ve been a lot worse.
“People ask me what I get out of it. Football is my adrenaline rush for the week. My wife knows whether we’ve won or lost the moment we walk through the door after a match. If you feel the same way emotionally about your club, you don’t lose out.”