Nottingham Forest and the Prison of Belief

Empty promises, repeated mistakes, another season going backwards not forwards… what keeps Nottingham Forest fans coming back after almost a quarter-century of failure? Tom Head is beginning to wonder


Nottingham Forest and the Prison of Belief: It sounds like something J.K. Rowling would have written, had she been a Trent End loyal. The young wizard, perhaps named Andy Reid, would have to overcome an evil master of the dark arts — unquestionably named Neil Warnock. However, in this version, ‘Colin Voldermort’ would absolutely come out on top…

Empty analogies aside, that ‘prison of belief’ refers to something even more sinister than the villains within a children’s book. In real life, a mix of empty promises, repeated mistakes, and emotional blackmail has kept Forest fans shackled to their club – which now resembles the rotten corpse of a cellmate who should have been sent to Death Row as an act of mercy some time ago.

Sorry, that’s another analogy… and today, we’re here to discuss realities. Let’s just look at this past season. Of course, we’ve not had any fans in and life under COVID-19 restrictions has been grim. Perhaps it’s best for Forest not to achieve their first promotion in 23 years while we are all stuck at home doing Zoom quizzes and avoiding Joe Wicks, ironically, like the plague.

It’s 23 years and counting… and frustrations are coming to the boil

But in the wider context of things, it’s another wasted year. It’s another season where we’ve gone backwards, not forwards. It’s another campaign that began with chatter about promotion, only to spit us out at this current juncture. Forest are *still* in a relegation battle, and will be until we’re mathematically safe. We’re back in the same position we were in five years ago.

The 2019/20 season was the first time in eight years that we’d mounted a credible play-off push. Even that blew up in our stupid faces. This ‘full lockdown season’ soon became a salvage job, and kicked a familiar chain of events into gear. A new manager comes in, he can’t get the best out of the squad, he needs a summer overhaul, and will have very little time in the new season to prove he’s the right person to take us forward. It’s Groundhog Day all over again.

And what has kept fans coming back after almost a quarter-century of failure? Hope. Blind, stinking, good-for-nothing hope. In our first season down from the Premier League in 1999, we were hoping for an immediate bounceback. That didn’t happen. We had a rocky few years, but by 2003, our best chance of a top-flight return was cruelly dismantled by Paul Peschisolido and Colin Voldermort.

Megson. Melville. Friio. Curtis. Powell. Padula. That squad of the damned did a sterling job of condemning us to League One in 2005. Even then, we were lured back: ‘It’s new grounds, it’s a different way of watching football, we will win more at this level’. The hope was there.

Getting promoted from the third tier was half-a-job-done, however. Never again should that be held up as a benchmark of success. We had our opportunities thereafter, too — once again fuelled by hope. But DJ Campbell intervened. Darren Pratley morphed into Andrea Pirlo… And eventually, our ‘billionaire’ Kuwaiti owner turned out to be a circus clown.

Serving time in the prison of belief — but parole looms

It goes on and on. Amongst the madness, there has always been that carrot dangling from the stick: ‘We have a good squad this year, we should be up there’. That’s been said untold times. As has the old favourite; ‘Just IMAGINE what it will be like when it finally happens, and we’re back in the Premier League’.

Well, with all due respect, that’s getting harder and harder to imagine. Maybe not for those of you with warm memories of legally being able to buy a pint during our last Premier League promotion (meaning you’d have to be AT LEAST 40 years old), but for those born after 1980, the walls that surround this prison of belief are beginning to crumble.

There are only so many times you can say you’re ‘serious about promotion’, only to bring in Joe Kinnear for a rescue mission six months later. There are only so many times you can promise a Dwight Gayle in the January transfer window, only to plump for Nuno Da Costa instead. There are dozens of false dawns, red herrings and meaningless platitudes that have kept Forest fans wrapped around the finger of the club. That, however, can’t last forever.

What constitutes success for Nottingham Forest? Anything but this…

The younger generation has been starved — utterly, utterly starved — of any real success. Now, when I say success, do I mean league titles and European runs? No. We’ve not had a cup quarter-final since the mid-90s. We’ve had no trips to the new Wembley, nor have we had a fixture at the showpiece stadium since 1992. That would have been nice, I guess…

Just one play-off campaign that didn’t end in a dramatic implosion. Just one season above League One, where we are consistent enough for 40+ games to say we achieved something. These would all qualify as success and, in the top two tiers, we haven’t even got close. It’s not just twenty-somethings and the ‘FIFA generation’ starting to see through the false hope, either.

After tweeting about the matter last night, I received these eye-opening responses.

• “I’m 35 and I’ve been going on my own for five years. Used to be six or seven of us go. They all do ‘proper stuff’ now – they’ve missed absolutely nothing.”

• “I’m turning 50 this year and supported Forest all my life. I’ve had a season ticket for the past five seasons and tbh I’m not renewing this season.. I’ll pick out the odd game, but we’re a circus and I’m not sure I wave to be a part of it.”

• “Almost 60 years a Red and never felt so miserable about my team!”

• “I‘m now 30. Me and my dad had season tickets since I was 12. Second kid on the way and my dad wanting to travel. First time we have even thought about not renewing.”

• “I’m 41 & I’m done with them. I’ve thrown all my Forest shirts in the bin. I don’t miss them, don’t need them… I feel absolutely nothing towards that club now”

The threshold of people who don’t have fond memories of success at the City Ground during their adult life is now pushing 40. To reiterate, people IN THEIR FORTIES are now struggling to say they’ve witnessed anything truly awe-inspiring since reaching working age. And that, my friends, is utterly unsustainable.

Disappointingly, this issue has been raised before. One of the most serious questions facing Nottingham Forest — a football club with a rich heritage but perennial underachievers — is how do we keep the disillusioned fans happy? What’s really in it for them? Of course, the younger fans — myself included — are very much part of the ‘win or lose, on the booze’ culture that has sustained the club and its ability to draw crowds year in, year out…

What does history really mean in the modern age?

But we then spend at least four or five days of the week sober. Our cavalier approach to matchday soon dissipates, and by time the alarm goes off on Monday morning, one is left to stew about the low standards that have dogged this club from 1999 onwards. We have tried to explain that we want change, and that we want better for the club. And what are we met with?

“We’ve won two European Cups — you should be grateful for that! Two stars on the shirt… John Robertson… Cloughie knew what he was doing… bloody John Aldridge!”

Let me make this clear: it won’t be easy for many of you to read this. But you have to at least try to sympathise and understand. Try hearing us out on this one more time.

If you have a family member whose blood pressure goes off the charts whenever Meghan Markle is on the box, you might have to tell them to skip the next two paragraphs…

The European Cups are NOT MY HISTORY. They are not the history of people who’ve never seen us in the top flight, nor do they mean a great deal to people in their thirties and over, who could only celebrate our last Premier League promotion with a Panda Pop and a new cartridge for their Game Boy Colour. Those accolades have not propelled us forward in any manner over the last two decades. Instead, these past achievements were weaponised, in a bid to keep fans coming back. Martin O’Neill got a managerial gig out of it, for heaven’s sake…

If you’re in your fifties, then yes, it’s your history. But let me tell you about my history. It’s 5-0 away at Oldham. It’s two years of David Platt and the three Italians of the apocalypse. It’s going 1-0 up in the 97th minute away at Reading, and still not winning the game. It’s Fawaz stealing the FA Cup. It’s Alex McLeish lasting seven games in charge. You cannot expect others to indulge in the success that is now so far removed from Forest’s current identity, it sits in a different solar system. Please, I ask, stop bludgeoning us over the head with these trophies and let’s try to get on with the rest of our lives.

Have Forest fans reached breaking point? Some have, more may follow

So, will Forest face a mass exodus of fans in the near future? It’s not impossible. The ‘COVID-bounce’ comes at a perfect time for the club — fans will be gagging to get back in the ground and stick out some of the more dour performances if it means being able smash a £4.50 Amstell in the concourse at half-time. But what happens when another season is a dud? And another after that?

These aren’t just my ramblings. You’ve seen the testimonies earlier. People are already asking where their line is with Forest. Unconditional love will always be there, of course, but for many people — rocked by the pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns — finances are being re-evaluated. If football really is just about ‘win or lose, we’re on the booze’, then surely that makes Forest even more irrelevant?

People can have a much cheaper, much more fruitful matchday elsewhere — and still enjoy a skinful with their friends, family members and regular match-goers. So, I ask what are Forest going to do about it? Because sticking a Trevor Francis DVD on isn’t going to cut it, now that generational gap of fans who witnessed something special has widened.

I don’t ask this because I’ve lost interest in the club, or because I’m happy to see us lose — do I sound like someone who is thrilled with what’s happening right now? No. I ask difficult questions because I SUPPORT this club with my whole heart. I’m not a happy-clapper, and one of your responsibilities as a fan is to raise concerns about certain affairs in a clear and concise manner.

As much as we wish it could happen, ignoring the impact these repeated failures and misfirings could have on what must be roughly half the fanbase WON’T make the problem go away. Interventions, on and off the pitch, are needed now to keep the home fires burning.

Indeed, that prison of belief won’t be able to keep us all captive forever…