Al Needham gets nostalgic over a clash of two sides still hoping to return to a time of former glories
I don’t mean to bang on about the past, but this fixture really brings it out in me. Forest v Ipswich was the first game I ever went to, on October 4, 1977. I stood as a nine-year-old in the Trent End with Ian Marriott and his dad, gasping at the sight of the blues and reds merging with the green, floodlit pitch – just like the picture on the Subbuteo box that I’d just got from him in exchange for an Action Man (in one of those undersized tanks, where his arms hung over the side) – my head fizzing as Kenny Burns, Peter Shilton and Viv Anderson ran about in front of me just like they did on the telly.
Forest played as if Brian Clough had told them that I was coming and they were to make absolutely sure that I’d not want to do anything else on an alternate Saturday ever again. I have this indelible image of the three of us and Peter Withe in a huddle, pumping our fists at each other like mad after he had scored his fourth goal in a 4-0 rout that put Forest on top of the league. Sure, he was 40 or so yards away from us, but he saw us. There’s no doubting that.
The next time I saw the two clubs – in 1981, when I was old enough to go on my own and when I wanted to, which was all the time – I witnessed the encapsulation of everything that was great and horrible about English football before the Premier League. It was the FA Cup sixth round, in an era when that particular fixture would fill the ground to bursting and generate the feeling that the rest of the country was outside the gate, listening intently on the radio.
It was also the era when the Trent End was fenced off and while Forest found themselves up against a team who had had their number all season in a 3-3 barn-burner, I spent most of the game up against an eight-foot tall chunk of wire on one side and a pregnant woman on the other, who understandably freaked out during the post-game crush and was on the verge of giving birth right there and then.
When we finally got out, the Ipswich coach had been scratched and bricked. Anyone heading for their cars in blue and white scarves were subjected to the kind of abuse meted out to paedophiles on sink estates. Both teams were in pinstripes. Forest got knocked out in the replay, which effectively closed the book on the first and best chapter of the Clough era. No prizes for guessing who Forest played in the final game of the whole of the Clough era, but that was at Portman Road. I wasn’t there.
The two clubs are inexorably linked in my mind, but the similarities should be obvious to everyone: unfashionable clubs from unknown provincial areas, who were dragged up by a charismatic and sorely missed manager who taught them to punch way above their weight. Both clubs have not managed to adapt fully to the new era and are now treading water in the second tier, linked by a former player/current manager who happens to be automatically associated with another, far more glamorous club.
Unlike myself, however, Forest can’t be accused of living in the past. Depending on what happens in a conference hall far, far away in early December, this might even be the last time I see the two teams at the City Ground. Forest are itching to start a new era and move away from the fringes of the city. Like a lover jilted at the altar years ago, they’re finally ready to properly play down the Clough era and move on.
Yes, two silhouettes of the European Cup hang over the main office, but only as part of a banner that lends equal weight to the UEFA Super Cup, the League Cups and even the Full Members Cup. There are now two stars on the badge, lending the already cartoony tree a Super Mario-ish tinge, but the blown-up team photos in the press area are of the 1898 FA Cup-winning side and a black-and-white team sporting an incredibly obscure Robin Hood badge that I’d never seen before. As for the supporters, the only concession to the spirit of ’78 before the match (and at the beginning of the second half) is a quick burst of Mull Of Kintyre – with lyrics amended to take in the City Ground and the River Trent – and an old-school flourish of scarves, as if to say: “Yes, we’ve done this, but we’d also like those of us under 35 to see something in the trophy cabinet too, if you don’t mind.”
There’s a feeling of urgency at the City Ground now, and an impatience with being comfortably ensconced in the Championship; although our home record is impeccable (unbeaten for over a year, unless you count the play-off defeat against Blackpool), the team is already injury-scarred and the lack of any real pre-season transfer activity caused huge rumblings of discontent. A few years ago, the visit of Roy Keane – seen at the time as the ultimate badge-kissing Judas – would have been cause for serious needle in the Trent End, but the initial reaction borders on entrance-of-pantomime-villain levels; it’s generally accepted that he was the last in the line of Clough prodigies who had the chance to get out before it was too late. In any case, what remains of the old Trent End has been shuffled along to a corner of the Main Stand, where they stand under a sign that reads Please Remain Seated. “Keano, Keano, give us a wave,” sing the A Block as the game starts. Keane looks round and gives a dismissive downward flick of the hands, with the merest flash of a smile. Everyone cheers. Needle removed.
Forest take charge early on with Chris Gunter, filling in at left-back, opening up the Town defence with a back-post cross to Luke Chambers, whose nod-back into the box finds Chris Cohen, only for Town keeper Marton Fulop to cut out a clear-cut chance. The momentum swings back when Lewis McGugan – the form player of the moment, with six goals so far – stutters badly and lets the ball bounce over his shoulder to let Town in. As the whistle blows for offside, you can see him self-consciously attempting to shrug it off, as if he’s been made to jog around the entire school field in his vest and pants for forgetting his boots.
It’s not long before the first proper chance is taken, when Radoslaw Majewski – Forest’s formerly on-loan Polish midfielder whose permanent move to the club was the only real transfer move last summer – surges down the left and feeds the ball to Cohen, who strokes it across the six-yard box for David McGoldrick to sidefoot into the top corner. Majewski almost doubles the score four minutes later, after beating two defenders to fizz a shot by the post.
From then on to the end of the half, it’s back and forth. Jack Colback breaks for Ipswich and finds space in a packed box to shoot, but it’s headed off the line by Chambers, only for a second attempt to be cleared off the line by Chambers again. Forest manager Billy Davies, with all previous Derby-related associations seemingly forgiven, traps an errant pass on his instep, to applause. The tackles get more urgent as the rain stops and the sun comes out. Roy Keane stands in the technical area, hands folded, scowling into the distance, as if he’s just come out of the paper shop to see his dog halfway up the street, dragging the outsized ice cream cone he’d been tied to behind him.
With seconds to go until half-time, Cohen is clipped by an increasingly tetchy Grant Leadbitter, leading to a 35-yard free-kick attempt from a resurgent McGugan that automatically joined the ranks of Johnny Metgod v West Ham (1986) and Stuart Pearce v anyone you care to mention (1985-97) – an audacious guided missile of a shot that I implore you all to go and dig out on YouTube. As I had to, as I’d nipped off for an early crowd-beating trip to the toilets and missed it completely. I did manage to see three middle-aged casuals get hustled out of the ground by security for what seemed to be an illegal fag break, but that’s not as good as witnessing a potential goal of the season. And I was given a talking-to by an unenlightened steward for having a tug on my completely-legal-to-use indoors, never-mind-in-the-open-air electric cigarette.
As the second half commences, and an Ipswich attempt at a resurgent flourish is gradually dampened down, my attention turns from the pitch to the stadium, as this season might see the death knell for the City Ground. To my mind, that would be a terrible loss; as post-Taylor stadiums go, Forest’s manages to retain more atmosphere/abuse towards away supporters than most. As an enraged yet porky Ipswich supporter attempts a pitch invasion, only to fall over like an It’s A Knockout contestant in an oversized chef costume, there’s a nice communal chant of “What a twat, what a twat” to Sousa’s Stars And Stripes Forever (or, if you will, “Here We Go”) from both Forest and Ipswich supporters. It appears that the police even hold him up just that little bit more so he can see the entire A Block waving him goodbye.
After Forest threaten to extend their lead further – with a strong penalty claim when Nathan Tyson is brought down by Gareth McAuley and another Tyson effort in the dying minutes – it’s apparent that they could have a decent season. And if they can pull off a few deft transfer moves in January and a bit more belief in themselves come play-off time, who knows? As for Ipswich, maybe their League Cup run will kick-start their season properly.
But by the time the whistle blows, I find myself gazing down upon my spot on the Trent End, feeling that down there in 1981 was miles better than up here in 2010, which would be infinitely better than way over on the other side of Nottinghamshire in 2019.
From WSC 286 December 2010