Two Ways Forward
By Tom Head
Our Premier League journey very much feels like one of those dreadful nights out you have. The ones where you end up deviating from your standard routine – usually at the request of some newcomer – and swap your old haunts for something a bit more ‘upmarket’.
You’ve been promised the time of your life. But instead, it’s five-deep at the bar. Everyone is ordering either pints of Guinness or a round of cocktails. The wait to get served is torturous, but you endure. The drinks cost a fortune, but you pay for them anyway.
The whole place is packed-out with people more attractive than you, more affluent… more accustomed to the venue. In the end, you’re all stood there in the smoking area, with no intention to spark-up, and everyone agrees… ‘it’s shit in here, isn’t it?’.
Then, in moments of weakness, you start getting nostalgic for the refuge you so heartlessly, and yet so recently, abandoned. Maybe it won’t be so bad if we just cut our losses and go back to The SkyBet Arms? Jordan Rhodes is doing the card bingo tonight. Pub landlord Neil Warnock will let you vape if you’re ‘not a dickhead’ about it. David Prutton has just put a quid down on the pool table.
We’ll walk in there, and rest assured, Johnny Howson will be the first to give us some hammer; ‘what time do you call this?’, he’ll chirp. No doubt his mate Tony Mowbray will be the next to pipe-up, telling us that ‘they’ll let anyone in here’ with his acidic tongue.
BUT. We’re still here, at the fancy joint. No-one has made a dash back for last orders yet. Some are drinking-up, but not all of us are convinced that this soiree is over. And after picking up a crucial three pints, there’s renewed hope that we can find ourselves at home in this place.
Brentford Football Club tried to throw a spanner in the works, mind. Grassing us up to the bouncer the minute we started to enjoy ourselves again. Not cool. Thankfully, we’ve got away with a warning. A stark, sobering warning. But the night continues – and collectively, we learn the name of the bar has changed recently. As it turns out, we’re in The Last Chance Saloon.
‘Forward’ is the only way forward
Shite analogies aside, the Brentford result epitomised our return to the top-flight perfectly. There was so much promise, so much hope, and so much we did right. But once again, we were the engineers of our own demise. Defensive mistakes, lapses in concentration, and failures in basic practice cost us once more.
That’s now 23 points we’ve lost from winning positions this year. So often, we take the lead. So often, we lose it. There hasn’t been a home game in the league this year where we have been comprehensively beaten. The only times we have lost by more than one goal, the second has come late on in the game. We remain competitive, if not clinical.
And there are two ways we can look at things.
We can mope and bemoan what could have been. We can look back at these 34 games and identify where we should have picked up more points. We can focus on the stuff that we cannot change.
Or, we can go the other way. Look forward, not backwards. We can be grateful that we still have a better-than-fighting chance of remaining in this division. We can accept that mistakes have been made, but that they must not define the four games that lie in wait. Our last two away performances have been our best in months, regardless of the results. Our home form always gives us a chance, no matter who we’ve got left to play. Our situation is not ideal, but it’s also no Greek tragedy.
Me, I prefer that second way. The one that doesn’t rely on hindsight or retrospect, but instead, on things that actually matter. The aftermath of Saturday’s result was raw. Nobody wants to hear about sunshine and rainbows in the moments after you’ve conceded a last-minute winner. But once that disbelief has been subdued by a couple of Bank Holiday lie-ins and an ‘eat your feelings’ takeaway, the only thing that’s left is that spark of hope. That thing inside us that drags us into the ground each week, even when the odds are stacked against us.
Keep calm and quote Kipling
No-one should be forced to pledge allegiance to Steve Cooper. There should be no attempt to shut down discussions about what we’re doing wrong. Not a single employee of Nottingham Forest should be exempt from constructive criticism. Hell, if the tea lady is getting the milk-to-boiling water ratio wrong each week, she too must hold her hands up and find a way to improve.
However, we should all probably accept that the only way forward is through. We still have reasons to stay positive. We have been dead and buried once before this season, and responded admirably.
Two of the biggest home games of an entire generation are just around the corner. This is a team that can, and has, rose to the occasion when required this season. And as for the fans. Well, we don’t need a briefing. What we need is to keep our heads, even if those around us lose theirs.
Again, as we are seeing at our relegation rivals, there are two ways of dealing with this level of pressure. We can either fall apart, or stick together. Sure, we have held inquests amongst ourselves over what went wrong on Saturday. But when Southampton come to town, those discussions will be a mere footnote in the final chapter of our story this campaign. Lads, we know what our job is…
The Garibaldi Note
There’s a certain noise that is pretty much unique to the City Ground. A frenzied crescendo that explodes at fever pitch when all four stands are up on their feet, making an ungodly ruckus. When two or three chants amalgamate into one. When everyone starts to believe that the louder we shout, the bigger influence we can have on a game. Maybe it’s the slope in the Bridgford Stand. Maybe it’s the corrugated sheets that innocuously line the very back of our stands. Whatever the acoustic arrangement, Forest fans are capable of creating a noise that’d rip the roof off Fort Knox.
The feeling it creates is euphoric. Almost evangelical in its nature, every fan becomes a preacher. Every voice lifts the mood that little bit more. There are fanatical devotees to Kim Jong-Un in North Korea who could only dream of declaring their partisan loyalties as vociferously as we do. And if we can reach that just twice more in our remaining home games, we will certainly be doing our bit.
The rigours of top-flight football have proved to be a tough adaptation for a club that spent a generation plumbing the depths of incompetence. A rapid, swift change in fortunes – compounded by an almighty overhaul in playing staff and boardroom appointments – created a disastrous mix.
For a brief stretch of the season, it looked like we’d got the balance right. Steve Cooper looked every bit the ‘future England manager’ many tipped him to become. We went toe-to-toe with a financially-doped Manchester City side and took a point off them. Then we didn’t win for another 12 games. Just last week, you could make a fully formed starting XI out of our injury list, matching our current formation, and expect them to compete in a Premier League game.
So that’s what we are contending with. There has been a typhoon of things beyond Cooper’s control that have threatened to derail the season at every turn. We’ve also witnessed things within in his control fall flat on their face. Every minor tweak and change he makes now falls under immense scrutiny. For a man still learning his craft at the highest level of the game, that can’t be easy. We’ve been presented with two ways forward when it comes to the gaffer, on more than one occasion. Each time, we’ve chosen to stand by the man who falls to his knees in sheer delight when Forest win. That’s our guy…
Together we stand
He has conducted himself with immense dignity since his arrival in Nottingham. In the next few weeks, it is surely more important to stick together than to drift apart. Whatever happens, we must remain steadfast in our commitment to backing this team. Just because we’ve been knocked down, it doesn’t mean we can’t get back up and start throwing some booming right hooks again.
Every one of us will find ourselves flat-out on the canvas at some point in life. But when we find ways to rise up, wipe the blood away, and come out swinging once more, there’s nothing that can stop us. We should wear our knockdowns – ones like the Brentford result – like badges of honour. Because when we get back up and show we still want to fight, THAT is what really counts.
The Forest Way
That’s something I’ve learned living with ‘Brittle Bones’. It’s a proper ‘Ronseal’ condition, doing exactly what it says on the tin. It has a fancy Latin name, but I don’t want to summon Jacob Rees-Mogg, so I won’t bother with it.
Go down to Kings Mill Hospital and look for my X-Ray files. There’ll be about 200 separate scans in there. There are a few in the drawers at Leeds General Infirmary, Sheffield Northern General, and my hometown favourite, Queen’s Medical Centre. With upwards of 80 fractures in my life, ranging from hairline to compound, it’s fair to say I’ve spent more time on the deck than Neymar.
Time after time, I’ve had to fight back. I’ve had to suffer. I’ve gone backwards way before I could move forwards. I’ve woke up mid-operation. I’ve spent entire summers on crutches and in casts. I’ve never so much as played for a Sunday League team.
But after all that, none of it defines who I am today. Because I know I am more than my setbacks. Every time I’ve been punched in the gut, I refuse to let it sting for longer than it has to.
So beating ourselves up and wondering ‘what could have been’ this season is ultimately pointless. Our lads can only control what happens next: We are taking the way forward. The way where we all stand together, as one, and do whatever we can to get over the line.
This is ‘The Forest Way’.
Feature image courtesy of NFFC / Richie Sumpter.