A guest blog from Arthur Annabel
This has been the worst year of my life by a wide margin. It’s also had some of the most deliriously, life definingly joyful moments I’ve ever experienced.
The fact that both those statements can be true suggests Dickens may have been on to something.
On the 9th of October my dad died suddenly. No warning, no build up, no anything. I went to bed one Friday night oblivious to how my entire world was about to change and then a phone call at one in the morning realigned everything.
I’ve spent the last few months trying to work out what my life looks like without him in it, how I manage to move forwards with this chasm of grief suddenly smack bang in the middle of everything I do.
I’d always understood that losing a parent is one of those life defining moments, but understanding and experiencing are two vastly different things.
The months since have been a real challenge, with both the loss and the illogical abruptness of it bringing out the worst in my mental health. Depression and anxiety are constant companions for me, but for the past eight months they’ve threatened to overwhelm me multiple times a week. Sometimes like the slow building pressure of a crowd that only seems dangerous when it’s already far too late to extract yourself from it, sometimes like someone running up and punching you in the face with no warning. I’ve spent those months discovering just how much truth lies behind so many of the clichés about loss and grief, and finding that they inevitably don’t do justice to it at the same time.
So it has sat truly oddly with me that interspersed throughout these months are some of the most enjoyable moments I can remember.
As with so many emotional reactions that don’t really make sense in my life, Nottingham Forest are behind those moments.
My dad never really got being a football fan, he vaguely supported Mansfield Town as his friends dragged him to games in his teens, but the idea of a football club having the ability to trigger despair or joy always seemed illogical to him. He’d often decry (at least 50% of the time to wind me up) the nature of tribal loyalties and the way they bring out the worst in people. Stubbornly individualistic in everything outside of his family, he never truly understood or approved of what I loved about the collective experience of being part of a crowd, a group of people defined by their shared devotion to a concept, a cause, a club.
He was frequently baffled by why I spent so many of my weekends jumping on trains across the country following a team that seemed to mostly only bring me disappointment. The idea of going to Birmingham or Bradford, Peterborough or Preston only to see us lose was alien to him. He never really got the escape I found when in a packed away end, that sense of being with “my” people, of for 90 minutes it not mattering how awkward I felt, because we were all there for one shared reason, the way Forest even at their most disheartening, were something I could invest emotional intensity in, whose failure couldn’t be blamed on me, where there were thousands of other people sharing in the exact same joy or despair I was.
As someone who struggles to just be in any moment due to my anxiety and over analysis, football and Forest in particular, have always somehow existed in a separate realm and those little pockets of breathing space have always been priceless to me. Much like when I’m playing football, when I’m watching Forest so much of the background noise drops away.
I inherited my love of Forest from my mum, a devoted fan who along with my uncles and aunt saw us win practically every competition we set our sights on in the late 70s and 80s. Growing up in Sheffield, being the only Forest fan in my year at school, was often not fun at all. Particularly when Forest conspired to throw away a lead in the play-off semi-final against United in 2003. That was the birth place of my occasional theory that Nottingham Forest Football Club is a specially designed science experiment intended to engineer the most depressing experiences possible for an individual in order to test how much they can tolerate. It’s the kind of self-indulgent theory that requires ignoring all the other football fans so much worse off than you, but I suspect we’re all prone to it.
My first in person Forest game was a premier league draw against Leeds United, unaware that my first game would also be the highest I’d see us play for more than two decades. My life time of being a Forest fan is one that’s been spent listening to the stories of how good we once were while watching us be relegated, fall short of promotion, be relegated again, scramble our way out of league one, fall short of promotion a couple more times, avoid relegation on a final day and then throw away a play-off spot from such a seemingly secure position that you’d almost wonder if there was a fix involved, if you didn’t subscribe to my dad’s theory that cockup wins out over conspiracy 99% of the time.
There’ve been good days, but they’ve been few and far between.
I don’t believe that things happen for a reason or that there’s any grand design to how things pan out. I lean towards the chaos theory end of the spectrum when it comes to trying to explain why what happens, happens.
So I can only turn to thank the universe in all its random variations, for the fact that in a year where I so desperately needed reasons for hope, belief and unbridled joy, Nottingham Forest picked this year to suddenly deliver the best season in my time supporting the club.
The whole journey from being bottom when Steve Cooper came in, to securing a spot in the Premier League on Sunday has been joyous and better writers than me have captured that (check out Daniel Storey and Paul Taylor in particular), while Phil Juggins at the The Loving Feeling blog captured the way that that wonderful, wondrous Welshman took all our apathy and frustration and threw it in the Trent to be washed away.
What I want to focus on is on four particular moments. They’re not necessarily the most important games to the turnaround or the triumph, though unsurprisingly there’s plenty of overlap, they’re the moments that meant everything at the time and still stand out knowing exactly where they fit within the overarching story.
October 19th 2021
One day after my 31st birthday. barely a week after my dad passed away. Me and my mum sat at home, watching on tv as Forest took on Bristol City. Results had turned around significantly but I’d be lying if I’d said I’d had any sense of what was building at this point. There was no sense of what was to come or belief that there was anything more at stake than three more points away from the relegation zone. No this was a scrappy away game that for 90 minutes offered me an escape and a distraction from every unavoidable feeling I’d been experiencing. Given the gap between the dates I suspect birthdays will always be difficult from now on, but even a few months on I can’t put words to the cocktail of emotions I felt with that one.
We’d played ok but were 1-0 down. The rain was pouring down in Bristol. And then goals in the 91st and 92nd minute saw us snatch a win from the jaws of defeat (a reverse of the pattern we’d seemed to perfect for so many years) and as Taylor scrambled home the winner I got a minute, maybe 90 seconds of unadulterated, uncomplicated, utter joy. My sister, who shares my Dad’s minimal interest in football, wandered in to see what the fuss was about and got whisked off the ground and spun around several times, much to her bemusement. In that moment this Nottingham Forest team gave me an invaluable moment of delirious glee at my lowest and I can’t help but think about how often football must throw up those moments for so many fans. The right goal, scored at the right time and that escape hatch on everything else you’re dealing with right then opens up and you just get to revel in it.
February 6th 2022
By this time the novelty of not being terrible had worn off slightly and those delicate little tendrils of hope were starting to creep out. We’d seen off Arsenal already and now we had Leicester at the City Ground in the FA cup. Given we’d already had one shock win and were now playing the holders, I fully expected Leicester to see us off without too much fuss. Instead, what happened was perhaps the most unbelievable 9 minutes I’ve ever experienced in a football ground. One goal followed another before we’d even settled down from the one before and suddenly we were demolishing a local rival from the league above like it was nothing as the crowd reached a volume and intensity I’d seldom experienced. While there’ve been the occasional shock win in the cups before in my time (the 3-0 win at the Etihad in 2009 stands out, or the Eric Lichaj inspired 4-2 against Arsenal), they were anomalies in otherwise underwhelming seasons.
What made this different was that, personally, it truly felt like something was building and it scared me how far we might go. A lifetime of supporting Forest had taught me that hope was not just dangerous, it was downright foolish. I’d only ever really feared how we’d screw things up or fall apart, and on that Sunday afternoon I started to believe that maybe, just maybe. this year might be different. When Spence put in the 4th and we knew there was no way back I got to revel in a full City Ground unified behind a team and a manager in a way I don’t think I’d ever experienced before. As Cooper did his now customary fist pumps towards each stand, I remember I started to lose the fight with daring to wonder just how far we could go.
May 17th 2022
Of course, it was Sheffield United in the play-offs. And of course, we threw away a potentially commanding advantage to make it unbearably tense.
I was sat in my seat, feeling beyond sick with nerves, with two thoughts circling around: “how can this be happening again?” and “why, oh why, did it have to be United?”, a club that comes with fans I count as my closest mates, who I suspect would have driven me close to murder if they’d won.
But somehow United didn’t get that winning goal. Or more accurately, because of Samba they didn’t. A keeper I, and almost all Forest fans, already loved because of rather than in spite of his eccentricities, then went on to deliver one of the best goal keeping performances I’ve ever seen in a penalty shoot-out and suddenly, somehow, history hadn’t repeated itself and we were actually, really, truly, going to Wembley. One of the last sides in the Football League to make it there but we’d done it finally.
It was another skeleton laid to rest on a personal level, trauma from just shy of 20 years ago melting away as I celebrated.
Despite my earlier profession of belief in the randomness of the universe, I think we all occasionally indulge in a belief in fate or destiny, however illogical we believe it to be deep down. As I stood there in the Trent End watching the celebrations, it really did feel like something had shifted and we were going to go all the way this time. It’s been interesting to see, since the final, that so many fans shared a similar sense, that some two-decade long curse or prophecy or sheer, baffling incompetence had finally been overcome and we really could dream of that promised land that had evaded us for so long. Which brings me to Sunday 29th May.
May 29th 2022
The less written about the game itself the better, a dour affair settled by an own goal and the officials missing probably two penalties for Huddersfield.
What I will always remember from the day was the sense of the collective experience that I talked about earlier. From the moment I arrived at St Pancras (I’d stayed over near London with a friend the night before so missed the travel drama so many other fans experienced getting to London), everywhere I looked it felt like there was someone in a Forest shirt. When we came out of Wembley Park station and I saw the ground looming at the end of a Wembley Walk painted red, I felt a rush of adrenaline unlike any other I’ve felt pre-game.
When I got to my seat behind the goal an hour before kick-off and saw how our half of Wembley was already starting to fill up the nerves did kick in, but if I’m honest I don’t think at any point in the final they reached the level they had during the semi-final, I suspect because I truly believed we would do it. Thankfully I never had to find out if that belief would have held if Huddersfield took an early lead.
Then the game took place, as cagey as you’d expect from a game with so much riding on it.
The explosion of emotion on the final whistle was unlike anything I’ve experienced in a football ground before, and probably ever will again. I have no idea what noise I made but I know my voice didn’t fully recover until mid-week. Around me some were crying, some were laughing and others just stared into the distance, soaking up a new reality. 36,000 fans realising a dream come true that they’d long ago abandoned hope in.
I teared up a little watching the players climb those Wembley stairs to lift a trophy, a sight I don’t think I’d really contemplated that I’d get to see. Watching that team of local lads, young loanees who’d found a home on the banks of the Trent and a sprinkling of experienced characters like Samba and Cook, dance around in front of the delirious masses, it slowly started to sink in that we’d really done it
All of the above, taken individually or collectively will stick with me for a long time.
But most of all, what I’ll remember is that I got to share this season with my mum, who needed it every bit as much as me. We didn’t explicitly talk about that need until we were sat in the pub at the station waiting for our train home. I suppose to do so would have felt too much like tempting fate or asking for help from higher powers neither of us believe in. But as the season went on, we both started to feel it. This year has been horrible and would have been regardless of Forest. If we’d had a season like so many recently where we spluttered to a mid-table finish it wouldn’t have been any worse really.
But just this once things fell into place right when we needed them most. And I know we weren’t alone in that. Not at Wembley and not amongst the wider fan base. The crowd and the fan base will have been full of people struggling, people grieving, people lost and people who had become numb to it all, and I hope that for a moment, maybe if the universe was kind slightly longer than that, football provided one of those escape hatches I mentioned earlier for all of them like it did for me and my mum. It doesn’t solve the problems and it never can, but those moments of fresh air, of breathing space, where something as joyous as that drowns everything else out with such intensity that the happiness becomes the only thing you can focus on, are inconceivably valuable.
Football is often a distraction at best from the rest of our lives, but sometimes it becomes something so much more, because we invest so much more into it than we probably should in something that is, despite all our protestations to the contrary, fundamentally “just a game”.
For one season, culminating in one May afternoon, it meant everything that we needed it to be and I will never forget that.
Samba, Spence, Worrall, Cook, McKenna, Colback, Yates, Garner, Zinckernagel, Johnson, Davis, Horvath, Lowe, Figs, Cafu, Lolley, Mighten, Grabban, Surridge, Taylor. Gary Brazil and Dane Murphy. Steve Cooper. Steve Cooper. Steve Sodding Cooper. I hope they know what this season has meant to people like me and my mum, to Forest fans and the community as a whole, because it will stay with me for the rest of my life and I can’t thank them enough.
I know my dad would have been delighted for us, baffled as to why we cared so much, but delighted all the same.