The City Ground — our forever home or not?

Just a few months ago, the Nottingham Forest chairman called The City Ground “our forever home”, yet now the owner is talking about moving to a new stadium. As Peter Blackburn argues, the club is more than a business — and the ground is more than just an emotional tie

The English war poet Edmund Blunden found the words to outline the importance — the near-spirituality — of sport as well as anyone before or since.

Writing about his beloved game, he described cricket as ‘more than play’. It was, actually, much more significant. He described it as ‘worship in the summer sun.’

It was a line I used for inspiration in one of the first pieces of sports writing I ever put together. And, on Saturday, it dislodged itself from my long-forgotten memories and came to the forefront of my mind.

It’s been some months since I’ve felt the strength of emotions at a Nottingham Forest match as I did on Saturday. My love for the place — the stroll from the pub lightly bouncing from beers and chat, the view, that view, the smells and the sounds both horrid and enchanting — remained unchanged but the religious fervour had become slightly more muted.

It was, I suppose, the result of a number of factors: a painful and draining combination of our break-up with Steve Cooper; financial mismanagement and punishment off the pitch; difficult results and the controversy around refereeing decisions and club reactions to those; and despair at club decision-making around areas like ticket pricing which left many of us feeling ignored and unloved.

The most recent previous occasions of raucous worship at our special place feel like they run through me now — alive, beating, still so poignant — almost as part of me as any piece of flesh or pint of blood.

There was the pride in the community around me as we all roared our side on in the play-off semi-final at home to Sheffield United — Forest are magic an endless, pulsating, rhythm — when the team were under the cosh but the magic in the stands kept the ball out of our net and seemed to breathe other-worldly qualities into the decisions and dancing hands of Brice Samba.

Then there was Wembley. The anticipation. The hopeful hugs and pints brimming every bit as much with promise as with ale. And then the relief.

And there were the great moments of our season back at home in the Premier League. Upstarts with a leader who loved us as much as we loved him. The adrenalin hit of being back in the big time against West Ham. The pride against Liverpool and Man City. The sense of things turning with a dispatching of Brighton.

And there are so many more — back through time and dotted through my life; poignant markers of growth and change, the journey from childhood to adulthood.

Stand up for the City Ground

But on Saturday it was different. It was — in some ways — even more special. Amid glorious sunshine, and the freedom of results elsewhere, the City Ground became a powerful place of worship once again.

It began with a dispiritingly poorly received burst of “F**k off Toton” which erupted from me as I surveyed the surrounds and all my Forest memories flooded back. Overwhelmed with Proustian reflection I couldn’t not shout something — even if it was just screaming into a void. Two others joined in. It wasn’t the most dignified of moments, but emotions aren’t always cultivated and preened — sometimes they are raw, even embarrassing.

But minutes later, more composed and thoughtful choirs had the crowd up on their feet. “Stand up for the City Ground,” rang out. It was joined by other chants, similarly uncompromising to my brief outburst, describing a potential stadium move and the proposed location for that move.

It was magic.

We’ve heard so much about the Rebel City in recent months but this was it — the real Rebel City. This was us channelling the brilliant words from that Forza Garibaldi banner: ‘Whoever’s name’s above the door, whoever holds the key. They’ll never own my football club, it belongs to you and me.’

At the pub, after the game, I was as emotional as I had been when those chants rang out. I was torn between two nagging thoughts — tussling for primacy.

One voice said: “They can’t ignore that, can they?”

The other: “Perhaps this is the countdown now. How many more times will you feel the pride and the power of that place?”

Evangelos Marinakis’s intervention, via The Daily Mail/Mail Online, confirmed all of my worst fears.

After an undignified and dispiriting spate of public briefings and a largely one-sided blame game with the City Council, the truth was out, straight from the owner’s mouth. The custodians of the football club put on record their desire to find a new home — to remove one of the fundamental cornerstones of what this football club means to me and many others.

It will always be true that Marinakis and his family have spent lots of their money at this football club. And if ambition were, or is, measured by extensive funding for playing and coaching staff then that word most often used to describe his ownership is true in the most definitive of terms.

But away from the basic principle of money spent — for this is often money spent rather than straight-up investment in the city, as Marinakis proclaims in the interview — there have been problems too. And it feels like they have been piling up in recent weeks and months.

None are more fundamental than the ongoing situation around the future of the City Ground — our place of worship and our home since 1898.

Five years ago, the club announced it had agreed a new 250-year lease of the site. Then chairman, Nicholas Randall, said: ‘When we announced our plans for the redevelopment of the stadium, we recognised the importance to remain at our iconic home. We understand what it means not only to our supporters but also for the people of the City and we are now delighted to have secured our lease for a further 250 years.’

In September last year, the club were proudly tweeting pictures of the ground on its 125th anniversary accompanied with #alwaystobehere.

And, just four months ago, a smiling Tom Cartledge, Forest fan and then recently instituted chairman of the football club, looked confident when asked: “Are we definitely staying at the City Ground?”

In response Cartledge said: “To answer that question specifically, every conversation I’ve always had with the ownership is that the City Ground is our home to stay in. So we’re here to stay. We’ve been here 125 years. We have no intention of finding locations to move to. The City Ground is our forever home.”

Our forever home

It feels hard to understand how so much has changed since then. It is perhaps even harder not to view the briefings and interviews through the gloom of bad faith. Blame aimed at the City Council appears somewhat superficial in the light of recent reports and arguments have now moved to profit and sustainability rules. A sense of greater honesty and transparency might have made this seem less like betrayal.

The football club would do well to remember that commercial revenues and corporate dreams can become nothing if the people who turn the field of play — wherever it is — into a place of worship are no longer with you. It’s much harder to ask companies to buy into a half-empty, silent, stadium. And it might one day hit us that a raucous City Ground in the most iconic spot in English football was actually a prime draw — among our best pitches — for brands and global audiences.

There may be good arguments for a move. Aside from some fans making fairly empty comments about how the game has moved on and that new rules mean this project is a necessity, those have not been made well at all yet. I would like to see those — and the football club would do well to move its energies from politics and sniping to proper, public, process if decisions about our future are being considered.

Once the arguments have been made, those of us with steadfast positions, and indeed those of us ready to be sympathetic, can make our own minds up.

This football club is much more than a business — it is a community institution and a deeply ingrained part of our lives. It is for all of us, not just whichever millionaire or billionaire is currently paying the wages of the players who wear the Garibaldi. We, the congregation, should be considered and heard. Both for the practical present and future of this football club, and because it is the right thing to do morally. This is our church. All of ours.

For me, engagement and transparency would have cleaned away the grubbiness and some of the sense of betrayal. It would — and will always — take significant convincing for me to feel comfortable parting with any of the special things that make us what we are. Our name, our badge, our home.

For custodians to actively consider and explore doing that is deeply challenging. For them to consider doing that through a move miles away from our spiritual home to a site which has few positives apart from space and would loom large over the Derbyshire border is even more hurtful. But for custodians to do so in private, shielded by excuses and blame, without the voice of the fans in their hearts and minds, is unconscionable.

For us this is more than play. It is more than business. It is worship — in all weathers.

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