‘The Forest Way’

I always look at Nottingham as a city, as being filled with quite fickle people. I include myself in that because I’m a Nottingham person, and I think the town smiles when Forest do well and the town is down when Forest do badly.

Darren Fletcher, Century FM, 2001

It was Tuesday 4th December 2001 and the news had begun to break. Nottingham Forest’s shares had been suspended. The club’s previous accounts had stated losses of £105,000 per week and according to a statement provided on behalf of the Stock Exchange, the club had ‘continued to incur pre-tax losses at broadly the same level’ ever since. Borrowings had also increased.

The problems were confounded further when Forest failed to publish their accounts for the financial year ending May 31st 2001. That then chairman Eric Barnes claimed to have ‘no idea’ when they would be submitted, only served as a further embarrassment to the club and a damning indictment of how low it had fallen. It was something of a knockout blow to the club’s already spoilt public image.

At this point in time, Paul Hart had taken over as manager from the universally loathed David Platt; Forest having finished the 2000/01 season in 11th place. Hart had already experienced heartbreak with Forest in April 1984, the infamous night his goal was unjustly ruled out by a bribed referee in the UEFA Cup against Anderlecht. UEFA shelved evidence of the bribery for four years before handing out a lenient punishment to the Belgian club and it’s a subject that ‘still rankles’ with Hart to this day. His tenure would be a rollercoaster of emotions, tinged with disappointment and frustration amidst some of the more enjoyable moments in the club’s recent history.

Paul Hart and Jermaine Jenas

During the 2001/02 season, Forest’s squad began to transform. They didn’t spend a single penny in transfer fees, bringing in goalkeeper Darren Ward from across the Trent at Notts County, along with Adam Proudlock (loan) and Nicky Summerbee on a pay-as-you-play deal. Youngsters Craig Westcarr, Liam Kearney and John Thompson made the step up from the youth side. Consider that at the start of the season, every player was placed on the transfer list due to the club’s financial woes. Consider that they sold their youngest ever captain Jermaine Jenas, Alan Rogers, Andy Johnson and top scorer Stern John before letting go of Chris Bart-Williams for nothing and it’s a wonder The Reds stayed up. In the end, they finished 16th and made a profit in the transfer market of £8m, which was largely aided by Jenas’ move to Bobby Robson’s Newcastle.

While Hart will have seen that season as a success, watching the club’s treasured young asset leave will no doubt have hurt. This was a man who prided himself on youth development and moulding players to become something special. His hand was forced in the scenario he found himself in.

Hart’s career with Forest was marred by frustration but what would follow in the 2002/03 season would no doubt remain with him for the rest of his life and would endear him to Forest fans of a certain generation for as long as they live too.

Darren Huckerby

Forest released numerous players at the start of the season, but brought in the vast experience of Des Walker, Davy Oyen from Anderlecht and Eoin Jess from Bradford. Most impressive of all was the February loan signing of Manchester City striker Darren Huckerby. The Nottingham-born forward would go on to form a formidable front three alongside Marlon Harewood and a sparkling David Johnson. Huckerby would play just nine times for The Reds but he contributed five goals to the trio’s 50 that season as Forest finished in the play-off places. This team was a far cry from the one of the previous season; Forest recorded a vast array of impressive wins, including a 4-0 hammering of Sheffield Wednesday, a 3-0 win over Sheffield United, a 6-0 rout of Stoke City, two 4-1 wins over Gillingham, a 4-0 win over Norwich and a first win (3-0) over Derby for seven years.

They would go on to lose in the play-off semi-finals against Sheffield United but Paul Hart’s team of 2002/03 is widely regarded as one of the last great Forest sides. It wasn’t world class and in footballing terms, they didn’t win anything, but what that team did was give hope to Forest fans at a time when there was none. It was a wonderful team that played with a wholehearted commitment that we didn’t see again on Trentside until probably 2009/10. It was Michael Dawson’s breakthrough season at the age of 18. The first team had five teenagers in it and key players such as Andy Reid, Gareth Williams and Marlon Harewood were aged just 19, 20 and 22. It was perhaps the last collection of cult heroes Forest had.

The squad gradually fell apart following the club’s failure to gain promotion. Forest couldn’t afford to keep Darren Huckerby – a potential signing only if they were promoted – and during the season, the sale of David Prutton to Southampton for £3.75m meant that they turned over a transfer profit once again. But at a point in history when many felt that just one or two additions could have taken the club to the next level, there were two departures. The inspirational Riccardo Scimeca and Marlon Harewood left for nothing and a meagre £750,000 respectively.

The 2003/04 season was bizarre in the sense that Paul Hart was told there was no money available to strengthen the squad. In itself, that isn’t so strange, he’d have been used to it, but Forest were under new ownership with Nigel Doughty having taken over in 2002. The real confusion comes from the fact that 2003/04 was the first time in 3 years that Forest actually spent more money than they made. They paid fees for Marlon King, Gareth Taylor, David Tarka and Paul Evans. Had Hart been told the money was there prior to their arrivals, it is possible that Scimeca and Harewood may have stayed. We can only speculate on who may have been available as a free agent that summer, but surely the club could have improved on what they already had without paying fees alongside keeping their best players.

After a decent start to the season, Forest hit a 17-game winless run that started in November and didn’t end until the last week in February. Between 13th December and 14th February, The Reds failed to even score a goal. I still remember Darren Fletcher (now of BT Sport) on commentary for local radio that game and him going absolutely wild when Andy Impey’s goal against Walsall ended that run. It was just pure, unadulterated joy; raucous screaming down the microphone. Were it not for the fact that it came at an embarrassing time in Forest’s history, it would be on the commentary archive at the National Football Museum. Of course, we didn’t win that game though. We never beat Walsall.

That was a great moment, but that season should have been the one where we challenged for promotion. David Johnson’s leg break against Sheffield United proved pivotal in the end and effectively ended our season in September. The team dealt with it fairly well at first but the goals inevitably dried up and the sad thing is that one of the league’s finest marksmen never really recovered. In the end, Forest finished 14th. The following season, we were relegated.

Michael Dawson, Andy Reid and Gareth Williams were all sold and Darren Ward left on a free following relegation. By the time our season in League One kicked off, the squad was virtually unrecognisable from that of the previous year.

Having signed for Forest’s youth side from Borussia Dortmund, Felix Bastians went on to play for Young Boys, Freiburg and Hertha Berlin.

When I look back over my time as a Forest fan, I realise that very little has changed. For the vast majority of our history we’ve been a very average club which every now and then achieved something remarkable or threatened to do so and then crumbled. During my lifetime, we have always been a club who struggles to hold onto its prized assets. Yet we keep generating them at a frightening rate. I’ve been teased with the prospect of promotion to the Premier League, only for it to be snatched away from me time and time again. This is a club that signs players either too early or too late, at the wrong time in their career and often when the game transitions and leaves them behind. Think of George Boateng, Marlon King, Grant Holt, Neil Lennon, Andy Cole, Matty Fryatt and so on. This is the nature of not being a top side anymore.

Gone are the days of Cloughie leaving Sir Alex Ferguson waiting in the City Ground car park out of principle, just to reject a transfer approach he never intended to discuss. We’re adept at letting our top players go. If we ignore the youth products mentioned previously, you can still turn to Felix Bastians, Karl Darlow, Jamaal Lascelles, Oliver Burke, Patrick Bamford and Wes Morgan for further proof of this. The academy has generated a lot of cash for us and will continue to do so long beyond the point when Ben Brereton finally makes his move to Blackburn permanent. It’s frustrating, but if there is to be a ‘Forest way’, this is what it is. This is all I’ve ever known. My introduction to Forest was at a time when they were in financial ruin, an iconic, yet perenially misrun club. There have always been long periods of mediocrity with the occasional thing to get excited about, but they’re mainly players and individual games as opposed to flickers of success. Forest, to me, have largely been a club known to give youth a chance, both out of necessity and a pride in youth development. It’s a club that’s always sold its best players for too little money. I watch the videos from the 70s, 80s and 90s and while I know they were Forest teams, I don’t recognise them as being what this club is about. It must have been amazing to be a part of and I’m glad that at least a couple of generations witnessed this club being successful during their lifetimes, but I wasn’t there, I can’t say that’s the club I know.

Darren Fletcher was right about Nottingham people being fickle, at least with our emotions and the things we say about Forest. We get carried away when we win and we are seriously down when we lose. Nottingham is a city where sport is so important that it really does have such an impact on its people. As he pointed out, he’s a Nottingham lad, he was brought up as a Forest fan, he hosted a Forest phone-in on Century FM alongside European Cup winners Larry Lloyd and Garry Birtles in the early 2000s. He’s been there. His quote from 2001 is still as relevant today as it was 17 years ago, and we’re like that because we’ve seen it all before and we expect to continue to see it time and time again, just with modern twists.

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Serie A: 2018/19 Opening Weekend

Credit: Footballmadeinghana.com

This Serie A season is the first in my lifetime that I’ll be able to follow as closely as I’d like, or at least if Eleven Sports’ app allows me to do so. More on that later.

So far, I’ve watched Lazio v Napoli, Sassuolo v Inter and Atalanta v Frosinone – three very different games, so I thought I’d compile some of the things I’ve learnt from them.

The Stadio Olimpico Pitch

Well, there’s no two ways about it, it’s a disgrace. I had been looking forward to watching I Biancocelesti take on last season’s runners-up, but it didn’t take me long to realise how long this game would feel. Apart from a touch of brilliance from Ciro Immobile and the occasional wonderful play from Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne, the game was poor; it was rife with bad passing, sloppy mistakes and errors all over the pitch. It was embarrassing to watch at times, but as play went on I began to look more at the pitch. For the first game of the season, the Olimpico surface was truly horrendous.

During pre-season, I’ve seen various photos online of my local side Stafford Rangers’ pitch, and that looked bad. Good considering the heatwave we’ve had, but when compared to previous years, very bad. This was worse. It cut up left, right and centre and there were numerous occasions where both teams midfields played balls out wide and the ball slowed down dramatically. Simple through-balls weren’t going through. Whether this was a Lazio ploy to prevent Napoli from playing, I don’t know, but I sure as hell hope that it’s not that bad again for the rest of the season.

Lazio Still In The 1950s

I want to like Lazio, but there are a number of things that hold them back. Their shirts often look shit (last season’s home offering being the beautiful exception) but most importantly, a certain group of their fans are still stuck in a time left long behind by many. Prior to the game with Napoli at the weekend, a leader of the Irriducibili, Lazio’s biggest fan group sent out flyers telling women to ‘avoid their sacred space’. Apparently, the flyers were designed to prevent women from entering the first 10 rows of their supporters section. Deadpsin provided this translation of the flyer’s content:

‘The Curva Nord represents for us a sacred space, an environment with an unwritten code to be respected. The first few rows, as always, have been experienced like the trenches. In the trenches, we do not allow women, wives and girlfriends, so we invite them to position themselves from the 10th row back. Those who choose the stadium as an alternative to a carefree and romantic day in Villa Borghese [public gardens in Rome], should go to other sections.’

If we choose to ignore the childish, patronising quip at the end for a minute, I’d like to make an assessment. During said match, what caught my eye was the sheer number of female fans within the Olimpico who seemed genuinely absorbed and interested by the game. It was quite refreshing to see so many engrossed faces and even my girlfriend pointed out how many of them looked well into what they were seeing, despite the quality being depressingly awful. Alas, it was not until after the game that I read about the ultras behaviour. Unfortunately, I don’t see this pocket of Lazio support catching up with the rest of civilisation anytime soon. Only last season were the club fined due to their fans printing and using anti-Semitic Anne Frank stickers against AS Roma, and there continues to be an issue surrounding their treatment of visiting African players and those of Jewish descent.

Sassuolo Could Be Good Fun

Sassuolo v Inter was always going to be fun, but I didn’t expect to see what I saw. While Inter’s Lautaro Martinez was more concerned about taking regular lie-downs, the midfield filled the role of ‘one-two man’ for their Neroverdi counterparts. In one of the most dominant first half displays I’ve seen in a long time, Sassuolo exuded style and a swagger that they’ll be looking to maintain this season in order to stay clear of the drop.

Roberto De Zerbi was brought in as manager, in order to bring more excitement to Sassuolo’s play and if Sunday’s game is anything to go by, there may be success to be had. Quite what would represent success this season, I’m not sure, considering they staved off relegation last term, but the all-round performance of the players suggested there’s a large dose of brevity, high energy and speed in this team. Not just speed as in pace either; players like Alfred Duncan, Pol Lirola and a hopefully rejuvenated Domenico Berardi provided evidence of a speed of thought that was perhaps missing last time around with some slick, snappy passing that set the tone for a wonderful performance. Duncan ran the midfield with a calmness, athleticism and awareness not too dissimilar to N’Golo Kante. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the game ebbed and flowed according to how his feet dictated. His passes spread the play wonderfully and presented Inter with questions all night long. Questions which, for the most part, remained unanswered by both Brozovic and Vecino.

While Matteo Politano shone last season, Berardi suffered, along with the rest of his team. This game showed that he’s maybe lacking a little bit of confidence in his goalscoring ability at present, as he passed up numerous opportunities to get shots off, but the positions he took up will have been encouraging for De Zerbi. If Sassuolo are to have a good season, they’ll be forgiven for hoping they can rely heavily on Berardi and it’s on him to show that last season was merely a blip.

Everything came off for the Neroverdi in this game, including a couple of hospital balls around the back four. However, they seemed unfazed and surprisingly confident in what they were doing – playing their way out of trouble on more than one occasion. They could be a good watch this season.

Atalanta Show Good Early Signs

I love Atalanta, they’re one of those teams that represent what’s good about the game. They may have been taking on newly-promoted Frosinone and could hardly have asked for a better start on paper, but they fulfilled their task to perfection. The visitors were restricted to very few shots and none on target, which suggests a steeliness in the backline of La Dea, but if truth be told, there wasn’t an awful lot of defending to be done. Bergamo’s finest hit 4 on opening night, with winger Alejandro Gomez involved in all of them, scoring twice. His first one a composed left footed finish from 8 yards out following some brilliant upfield pressing and a lovely through-ball from Rafael Toloi. His second came after 92 minutes, through a long range effort that deflected off of Edoardo Goldaniga’s foot.

Musa Barrow looked lively, while Duvan Zapata provided a very different kind of option when replacing him in the second half. Ordinarily, it’d be hard to pinpoint exactly who the key players in a performance were, because you’re naturally drawn towards the goalscorers, but on this occasion, drawing distinctions is hard due to the fact that every player was magnificent for Atalanta on Monday night. It remains to be seen whether they can qualify for Europe again, but with tests against FC København and Roma coming up, we’ll perhaps be able to more accurately guage where they are. The Europa League has provided them with an especially competitive pre-season compared to most, which should aid them in avoiding one of their infamous bad starts. Monday night’s win was their first opening day win in a decade and this squad is a young one once again, but arguably more versatile and better prepared.

Karanka’s Magic Revolving Door

There are few things I love more than a good transfer window. Let’s get it right, the transfer windows are the best bits when it comes to FIFA and Football Manager, aren’t they? Your opportunity to wield the axe of expulsion on numerous players contracts, carting off the weird-looking, old players that you hated from day one in real life, it’s great isn’t it?

Clearly, Aitor Karanka agress.

The fantastic thing about the transfer activity at Forest both in January and this summer is the number of outgoings and more specifically who the players were that left and how it happened. By January, Zach Clough had gone from a source of relative optimism to simply more of the same, Armand Traore seemed to be too easily influenced by the negative atmosphere around him and Jamie Ward, as much as I love him, just needed games and he wasn’t going to get that with us. All in all, 10 players left the club in January and 7 came in, but getting rid of Mustapha Carayol got me genuinely excited. Not just that, but realising that we’d decided to simply release him to get rid of him as quickly as possible left me feeling slightly emotional, as did the departure of Matt Mills. It was partly down to the fact that they’d gone full-stop, but there was a significant thing about those two departures in particular that seemed to galvanise the Forest support a little.

A couple of awful performances had preceded the January window, but seeing evidence that Karanka clearly felt the same way as the fans about certain players not being arsed in the slightest was a truly magical moment. It felt like fans and manager were pulling in the same direction. It was the start of something potentially special. Aitor Karanka wasn’t here to fuck around.

Tobias Figueiredo, Costel Pantilimon, Lee Tomlin, Jack Colback, Ben Watson, Joe Lolley, Juan Fuentes and Stefanos Kapino all came in and Adlene Guedioura returned, announcing the move as ‘the return of your loyal prince’ in an emotional social media post. The team began to show a semblance of cohesion and whilst results didn’t take a dramatic upturn as such, it was clear to see that dedication was there. Lee Tomlin provided the Andy Reid-like spark on multiple occasions, Joe Lolley was sublime and Figueiredo was a cut above the likes of Michael Mancienne in at the back that we’d been used to prior to the arrival of the Portugese.

Fast forward to the summer and we all expected Lee Tomlin to be linked with a permanent move. That hasn’t happened as yet. There was even talk of Kieran Dowell returning – a move that I can’t say I’d be overly keen on, having witnessed his tail-off in the second half of the season and his sheer lack of appearances. Instead of those two, we’ve seen an unprecedented pedigree of player arriving at the City Ground. Figueiredo’s loan deal has shrewdly been turned into a permanent contract, João Carvalho arrived from Benfica (alongside clubmate Diogo Gonçalves on loan) for £13.5m, smashing our previous transfer record by a considerable margin and Gil Dias arrived from Monaco on loan, following a year in Serie A with Fiorentina. This all thanks to Karanka’s relationship with Jorge Mendes. Michael Dawson came home, Jack Robinson signed from QPR on a free and El Arbi Hillel Soudani signed from Dinamo Zagreb for £2.7m. That equates to a net spend of £16.2m so far. Most of which was covered by last season’s sale of Britt Assombalonga. Evangelos Marinakis also played a blinder last season by paying off all current debts that the club had, meaning that Forest have a 3 year stab at getting promoted to the Premier League. In doing so, the spending of this summer pales into insignificance due to the riches attained from television money. In terms of outgoings, Lewis Walters, Jack Hobbs, David Vaughan, Andreas Bouchalakis, Eric Lichaj and Ashkan Dejagah have all left the club, Chris Cohen retired and took up a youth coaching role at the club which was rightly offered to him.

Every day, a new player is linked. There’s still a chance we could see Max Clark and Lewis Grabban at the club before the window shuts. It really is like a game of Football Manager and it’s something I never thought I’d see on Trentside. For too long, this has been a club that’s been loyal to players who didn’t deserve it and let players go who needed to be kept. At long last, someone is taking a calculated gamble. We’ve seen gambling on promotion blow up in Aston Villa’s face, but with a sports lawyer as chairman, supporters groups on the advisory board, a thriving youth team and the owner of the most successful club in Greece at the helm, it’s with confidence that I can say that this club is finally starting to move forward again.

FORZA GARIBALDI!

Andreas Skov Olsen

Credit: tonsser.com

It’s fitting that FC Nordsjælland have renamed their stadium ‘Right To Dream Park’, due to the sheer number of youngsters they give first team opportunities to each season. They don’t have a large stadium, just 10,300 at full capacity, but they rarely fill it (their average attendance last season was just 3,825) which is both a shame as well as quite strange considering the identity of the club is that of a region rather than a single town or city. ‘Nordsjælland’ translates as ‘North Zealand’ and the club stands to represent that particular area of Denmark. In doing this, a local network consisting of 66 football clubs was formed under the name of FSN, with the sole aim of identifying the region’s top talent and showcasing and promoting it through FC Nordsjælland.

Right To Dream Park isn’t the result of some kind of corny marketing campaign, Right To Dream is an African football academy based in Accra, Ghana and they have partnerships with Manchester City, Chelsea, Fulham, FC Lorient, SC Bastia among many other clubs, including Nordsjælland. If you look through the club’s history, there has been a relatively heavy African influence since around 2009, but it’s become more of an intense source of recruitment since the 2012/13 season with the likes of Dominic Oduro, Collins Tanor, Divine Naah, Abdul Mumin and Godsway Donyoh contributing to varying degrees.

2017/18 saw 4 Ghanaians turn out for the club, but it was a homegrown talent from Hillerød in North Zealand that was arguably the most exciting. He’s been with the club since he was 12 years old and his name is Andreas Skov Olsen.

After scoring against OB Odense’s reserves from the left wing, he was called up to the first team against none other than the Danish giants Bröndby IF. His three league appearances to date have been very late on in games where he’s had no real opportunity to influence anything, but he did play 72 minutes in his side’s 4-0 win in the DBU Landspokal against Vejgaard B, contributing with a goal and an assist for Mathias Rasmussen. Olsen would go on to score 15 goals in 14 appearances for the U19s and 3 in 5 for the reserves last season and that was seemingly enough for manager Kasper Hjulmand to think about promoting him to the first team for 2018/19. The young winger has played a big role in Nordsjælland’s first couple of pre-season friendlies. So far, he’s snatched a 25-minute hattrick against Nykøbing and scored against IFK Norrköping of Sweden in a 3-1 win. The real test will still be to come, with Nordsjælland yet to face PAOK Salonika and Ajax over the coming weeks. If he does feature, it’ll be interesting to see how he does. With a couple of decent performances, he could propel himself into the first team plans at a club that’s all too happy to blood young talent into the side. He’s already played 10 times for Denmark’s U19s and scored 4 goals.

Losing Emiliano Marcondes to Brentford for nothing in January was a small travesty, but 18 year old Olsen could potentially provide the answer to the question of where the goals will come from in years to come. Only time will tell.

Muhammed Kiprit

Credit: Hertha BSC

Whatever you think of Tennis Borussia Berlin, you can’t deny that their youth academy keeps on producing results. The likes of Jerome Boateng, Maximilian Philipp, Ashkan Dejagah, Sejad Salihovic and Christian Tiffert have already come through their academy and gone on to play at the highest level in Germany. One more may also soon hit the big time, in the shape of 18-year-old striker Muhammed Kiprit.

Now of Hertha Berlin since 2015, and captain of the U19s, Kiprit has proven to be a lethal goalscorer in both the B and A-Junioren Bundesliga Nord/Nordost over the last three seasons, scoring 19 twice and 25 in 30 games this season just gone. In the top tier of German youth football, he averages a goal every 100 minutes and has been involved in over two goals per game, providing a total of 14 assists alongside his 63 goals in all competitions. The great thing about him too, is that he’s good with both feet.

They’re figures that really stand out and interest has already sprouted, with Liverpool, Everton, West Ham and FC Köln all showing an interest over the last 16 months and initially, it will have been sweet news to them that at the end of the last season, Kiprit rejected the offer of a new three-year contact from Hertha. It had looked rosy for the Berliners to begin with, but a last-minute change of mind saw them slapped in the face. Hertha did exercise an automatic extension option in the youngster’s contract towards the end of the season which was due to keep him tied down for another year. However, in another interesting twist, just one month after rejecting Die Alte Dame, he signed a contract to stay with the club until 2021.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens moving forward. Kiprit is managed by FSB, which is an agency run by former Borussia Dortmund forward Sahr Senesie and they currently have Chelsea’s Antonio Rüdiger on their books, so a move to the Premier League shouldn’t be ruled out completely. Transfermarkt values him at £23,000 but his stock only seems to be rising at the moment and having represented both Turkey and Germany at U19 level, and with a new long-term contract in the bag, Hertha have the power to demand a sizeable fee in the future.

The Intricacies of Why I Love Football

It’s very difficult to sum up why you love something when it’s unconditional. There are an infinite number of reasons for why you love your cat, for example. It’s the love at first sight when you pick them to begin with, it’s that first 5ft jump when you accidentally drop a cucumber, it’s that moment when they perch all four feet on the edge of the litter tray, only for it to flip on top of them and cake them in a concoction of their own shit and damp, grey, cat litter. Even though it’s a thick, cold-hearted killing machine, you still love it.

Metaphorically, it’s all the same with football. It’ll make you laugh, leave you in awe and it’ll piss you off like a grandparent’s unwanted comment at the dinner table. It all comes together somehow and you can’t walk away from it. It’s the ultimate romantic venture.

PLACES

Over time, I’ve fallen in and out (and back in again) of love with football. I’ve been disillusioned to the point of refusing to watch my team for three years. I still couldn’t give football up altogether though; when it let me down, I turned to Football Manager, then latterly to non-league as opposed to Football League. The sport has been educational for me, as well as recreational. The social aspect of following your team around the country is fantastic and the travel itself taught me about places I’d never heard of. Give me a name of a town in the Midlands or North of England and I’ll now be able to at least give you a fair idea of where it is and how to get there by train.

Football itself has affected my opinion on towns and cities (even villages) all over the world. Would my view of Brussels be more favourable had former Anderlecht owner Constant Vanden Stock not paid the referee £18,000 to fix the 1984 UEFA Cup semi-final against my beloved Nottingham Forest? Would I hate Germany – like seemingly every other Englishman – if I didn’t like so many of their players and clubs? Not being the overly sociable type, it’s safe to say that I probably wouldn’t be as arsed about Amsterdam if it weren’t for the fabled football club, Ajax. Would I even know Ferriby is a place, if I didn’t hate their football club for the way it used to be run? Would I hate Yorkshire were it not for Leeds and Sheffield United? Probably.

CRESTS, CULTURE AND IDENTITY

One of my major loves though are football crests. It’s sometimes down to them just looking great, but more often than not, I see something interesting about them and it forces my hand into learning more about the origins of the club or the history of the place, or it leads me down a corridor of history I hadn’t yet discovered.

Whilst I could have made an educated guess that the portcullis on Arbroath’s crest referred to that which fronts the abbey, I had no idea of the historical importance of it and the Declaration of Arbroath, which marked Scotland’s independence from England.

I had no idea about the Greek huntress Atalanta, from whom the Bergamo-based football club takes its name and I had no idea how implausible the tale of her supposed existence was either.

In the cases of Bastia and Cagliari, I didn’t know that the head on the crest alluded to the Moors. I didn’t know that the Moors were Muslim and I didn’t realise that they inhabited the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and Malta during the Middle Ages. I was wrong in my assumption that there was a meaning behind the head facing left rather than right or vice versa. There’s still a lot that I don’t know about them on the whole, but it’s a mere example of the sort of depths you can reach, just from looking at a club’s badge. It’s often a fascinating insight into a town or city’s past and how much the people value their culture. The number of places that I’ve been able to put on my bucketlist thanks to crests and football in general is forever growing.

Other crests are less like a history lesson and more like a marketing ploy. Take Lübeck for example: their crest looks like a beer mat, and I don’t mean that as a slight either, it’s unique. One of the impressive things is that there are at least two different fonts on it (potentially three, but I can’t tell if the year’s font is the same as the town name’s) and yet they work perfectly together.

Tennis Borussia Berlin’s is just purple, and we all love a bit of purple. Unless it’s Anderlecht. Fuck Anderlecht.

FOOTBALL MANAGER AND CREST CONCEPTS

It’s not always about the real crests though. Sometimes, it’s other peoples interpretations that impress me more. The five below are all fan interpretations. I especially love the Málaga one. Not because it’s vastly different, because it isn’t. It’s just one of those classy and stylish, subtle amendments; one of those where you’re left wondering why it isn’t the club’s emblem already. A similar case could be made for the Porto one.

I touched on Football Manager previously. Sometimes, picking a new team to manage is hard, and it’s even harder for me because I’m still on FM12. I can’t leave it behind, it’s the most perfect version for me. It strikes the balance between depth and fun so well. Everything that’s followed has taken a downward trajectory thanks to Sports Interactive’s obsession with detail. Due to my stubbornness, I’ve had to find new ways to keep the game fresh, and hunting around on Behance.net and Design Football to look for concept crests is perfect for this. Of course, once you’ve found a new crest you love, it looks a bit strange if the kits in the game don’t have the same badges on them, so I design new kits and that gives me further depth. Sometimes though, I find that there are kits that I love and I want to manage the club on FM, but their crest is shit. I don’t have the creative spark and application to make my own crests, so hunting them down becomes quite fun as well.

NOSTALGIA AND LOVING THE UNATTAINABLE

I’ve often seen posts on Facebook where pages ask their fans if playing FM has helped people develop soft spots for clubs. That game has opened my eyes to football in so many countries, including Poland, Russia, France, Germany, Spain, Scotland, Brazil, Mexico, Croatia and Denmark. If I take a look through my scores app on my phone, my list of followed teams reads: Nottingham Forest (obviously), Southampton (girlfriend’s team), Boston United, FC Nordsjælland, HNK Rijeka, Arbroath, Tennis Borussia Berlin, Parma, Fiorentina, Real Betis and Ajax. One of the magical things about football is that it truly is the world’s game. Anytime you fancy an escape into something different, you can find it. Most of the time, that’s great. Sometimes though, when I really think about it, it makes me me a little bit sad.

Ayr United v Arbroath. My FM obsession transferred itself to real life.

I certainly don’t support more than one club – though I was confused for a while – I just love world football. I’ve always been like that, even from the age of 9 or 10 when my grandparents would regularly buy me Match magazine. I was interested in the Premiership – as it was called back then – but I got every issue and aside from praying that one of the posters would be of a Forest player for once, I’d be afforded a couple of pages of foreign football, and it intrigued me. It was a tantalising hint of a suggestion that there was more football out there somewhere. A different brand of football that might be played slightly differently, in funky kits by teams and players with strange names. It was cleverly done, and probably completely unintentional, but it’s clever in hindsight for nostalgic reasons. It’s what made international football interesting to me at the time. I didn’t have regular access to the internet during a lot of my childhood so there was no way of learning more about football abroad other than from magazines and Football Italia. In other words, I knew the names, I understood players reputations, but I had no opinion of how good they were. Not until the Euros or the World Cup.

I remember reading about Denilson, Ruben Baraja, Joaquin and Miroslav Klose. I remember seeing Santiago Canizares’ bleach blonde, spiky hair. I remember when Alessandro Nesta left Lazio for Milan. I remember the baggy kits that all fans could fit into without feeling embarrassed, even in Italy! I just had no first hand experience. I had no way of watching most of these players live every week, and that kept me intrigued. Most people nowadays have a list in their mind of their favourite foreign players based on how impressive they are. I had a list of players I’d have loved to be able to see and a lot of the time, it was down to their name or short short pieces of writing about them in a magazine. We always want more of what we don’t have, and sometimes it’s better to keep it that way rather than making everything attainable.

I think it’s that level of nostalgia that keeps me coming back for more, along with the element of myth. I just want to replicate that feeling through small glimpses. I look back on my time as a child supporting Forest and it’s the small things that I attach so much importance to. Solo visits on the bus, opening a half-season ticket on Christmas day because it was all my parents could afford alongside giving me lifts to and from the games. To this day it’s still the best present I’ve ever received. I have memories of reading books about the club, staring at the crest and pictures of Ian Storey-Moore and John Robertson for an eternity, writing out my favourite lineups as a child, sitting on someone’s wall on Colwick Road an hour and a half before kick off, waiting for the turnstiles to open, failed play-off attempts, losing my seat in Upper Bridgford when Robert Earnshaw lashed one in to make it 3-3 on aggregate against Blackpool only to lose 6-4. The best match I’ve watched in my entire life was a defeat. It’s the memorable moments that we cling to, good or bad. I remember receiving Virgin goal updates on my Nokia 3210 during the wonderful, yet painful, 2002/03 season. Isn’t it funny how you remember the small things so favourably? It was all I had, but I had it and that made me happy.

Football had more mystique about it when I was younger. Information wasn’t so easy to come by. Taped recordings of Football Italia and Match of the Day were staples of my weekends along with Match magazine, text updates, Century FM and Radio Nottingham. It’s true that I sought out as much information as possible, but it left a lot to be desired, and that’s the point, I wanted more and it meant more because I couldn’t have it. It’s too easy now. There’s no thrill of the chase anymore, I just want more and more and I know I can always get it. I’m chasing the fuzzy warmth of nostalgia in different ways, trying to replicate the same feeling. I’m chasing the all-consuming childish excitement I once held for the game, hoping that one day I get it again. My fear is that I’ve learnt too much about what football really is now, for me to get that feeling back. I’m too cynical and realistic about what the sport is. But I’m sticking with it anyway, out of hope and blind devotion. I love it as much as I love to hate it at times.

It’s that illogical and inexplicable relationship we all have with the game. None of us can explain it.

The Winter Break Conundrum

On Friday 8th June, Richard Scudamore announced that the Premier League would be introducing a mid-season break.  Apparently, it’s definitely not to be confused with the winter break other countries have.

‘It’s all come together at a nice time and it’s now definite. We will have this split weekend [in February] and we are calling it a “mid-season player break”. We’re not calling it a winter break. Why is that? Because we’re not breaking.’

Richard Scudamore, 2018

A break’s still a fucking break as far as I’m concerned, AND it’s in winter! But alright, Richard. What is it then? Shall we call it a mid-season pause?

No wonder you resigned…

It’s the ‘long dreaded mid-season break’, as far as I’m concerned. Since the point the idea was casually mentioned years ago, I’ve not been a fan for one very simple reason – it’s unnecessary.

For years, as a fan of a team that plays 42 league games of pure dross each season, I’ve read and heard nonsense from managers of the promised land, whinging about fixture pile-ups and fatigue negating the quality of their expensively assembled squads. I’ve watched on as Jose Mourinho tried to claim that his players were on the verge of collapsing as he hurriedly dispatched bananas onto the pitch during Manchester United’s Europa League fixture with Rostov in 2017; a game which for all intents and purposes should have been more like a training match for United. I’m trying to cast my mind back as far as it will go, but I can’t recall any Forest manager in the last decade complaining about fixture pile-ups, and in the case of most Premier League clubs, we’ll play more games than them if you throw cups into the mix as well.

Make no mistake, the winter break decision is one made solely in the interest of the teams playing in European competitions. The likes of Southampton, Wolves and Huddersfield weren’t born in mind when the idea was passed. What if West Brom had started their survival attempt in February rather than April, only to be disrupted and lose their momentum? With hindsight, we now know that the result would’ve turned out how it eventually did in real life anyway, but the point is that this is the result of managers of major clubs whinging for years upon years. How often do you think Brian Clough complained about fixture congestion? On the very few occasions that he did, it would’ve been valid in any case. Squads were once stretched to breaking point because at one time, they consisted of less than 20 players in a lot of cases. Nowadays, Chelsea win a huge percentage of lower age group leagues and cups, stockpiling the best young players in the country in the process, before cunningly sending them all out on loan to Vitesse Arnhem and start complaining about their sodding fixture list! It’s insanity.

Perhaps if fatigue is an issue, pre-season trips to China aren’t such a great idea, after all?

Another thing that frustrates me is that the winter break doesn’t really solve the problem. To my knowledge, contrary to clubs of every other country in the world that have a mid-season break, the Premier League contingent won’t be allowed to use the two weeks to play friendlies abroad. So, sure, the players get themselves a two week break from playing, but that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s a break from playing. There’s fitness and then there’s match fitness. If anything, to my mind, the break is detrimental. Also, while we’re on the subject, will players be allowed to do anything for their clubs during this time? Presumably, they’ll train, but will they be taking on media duties abroad, perhaps? If so, the break makes a mockery of itself. There’s nothing like a bit of jetlag to replenish fatigued legs and minds.

Apparently, this break will allow English players 10 days’ rest before the European Championship in 2020, when Wembley will host seven matches, including the semi-finals and final. I’m failing to see how having 10 days’ rest 4 months before a tournament will be useful. This is a throwaway line, used as a disguise for the FA’s desire for English clubs to succeed in Europe. More exposure in Europe equals a larger revenue from TV deals, if such a thing is even possible now.

Remember folks…

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