“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.