Lessons For Life At The City Ground

Bill Shankly, legendary Liverpool manager (1959-74) once famously said – half-jokingly – ‘Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that’. I’m not sure I’d go that far but there’s certainly a lot to be said for the relationship between football (or any other sport) and life. You get to learn a lot about things like perseverance, patience, pot-luck and more, as a player or supporter or both.

‘Oh no you don’t!’
‘Oh yes you do!’

Pantomime time! (No, not a sarcastic comment on one of Forest’s best-forgotten performances.) It’s my annual birthday treat from Mum, who introduces me to the world of grease-paint and cross-dressing at a very tender age. By six, I’m an old hand and have caught on to the lines and actions you join-in with, the boos and cheers and lots of ‘oh yes she is!’ and ‘oh no he isn’t!’.

The Theatre Royal sends shivers of excitement through me the moment I see its front columns from Market Square. I know I’m in for a treat. It’ll be warm inside, we’ll have comfy seats, sweets will get thrown to the squealing audience (mostly around my age) until the auditorium’s bouncing with excitement and Mum will buy me a drink and chocolate bar at the interval. And the show always has a reassuringly happy ending.

The same month, on a cold February Saturday, Dad decides it’s time to introduce his own birthday treat to me. We head for the City Ground in a car – his first – he’s recently bought from a friend. It farts through Clifton, stutters through Wilford and hiccups into West Bridgford. Granddad, sat in the back, asks more than once if he thinks we’ll get to the game and I sense Dad is tense. The journey sets the tone for the afternoon.

Parked-up, Dad insists I take the box he’s made for me into the ground. ‘Other lads have them,’ he says, and they do. It’s a bit of a feature to see young fans balancing on boxes on the the steps of the kop to get a better – or any – sight of the match. (I’d asked for a wooden rattle but he refused to make one. ‘’Too bloody dangerous.’) I don’t want to carry the box so Granddad mediates, tucks it under his arm and off we walk at pace. ‘Whatever happens, hang onto me,’ instructs Dad as we hit the push and shove and funnelling through clanking turnstiles and calling-out dads who’ve already lost their lads. I grip on to him but keep tripping over the serpentine scarf Mum knitted for me, one of her ‘you’ll grow into it’ specials. (These were the days when supporters were stitched – literally – into the fabric of their clubs!).

The box wobbles, even when I’m perched between parent and grandparent, so Dad tells me to make my way to the wall that separates the stand from the pitch. I know he means well and I can see that’s where lots of youngsters have fetched-up and been left but I’m not that brave. I just want to be with my dad and granddad so we climb back to where we were and a game gets under way. The roar from the crowd tells me that. What do I get to see? Some glimpses of the red of Forest and the white shirts of Fulham, but it’s mostly hats, the backs of people’s heads and overcoats. Dad has me on his shoulders at one point for a grand view until a bloke behind us complains.

I don’t see a goal but I feel when Forest score as the crowd lurches forwards and some fans tumble down a few steps and I lose my footing and Dad snatches me up in his arms. I hear Fulham score by the groans around the ground. It’s a long afternoon looking at nothing much and I’m cold. No cup of tea at half-time so Granddad slips me a boiled sweet once in a while and tries to cheer me up by saying I’m not missing much. At the end of the match, I have to check the score with Dad.

‘A draw.’
‘Why didn’t they win? I ask.

‘Didn’t score enough goals!’ He and Granddad laugh. ‘Just because it’s your birthday treat doesn’t mean they’ll win.’ But that’s what I half-expected, that Forest should win, and here was my childhood logic: Fulham were ‘visitors’. When I went to birthday parties in our neighbourhood, all the games were fixed so the birthday boy or girl won the prize. (It was never announced but we knew.) It was their house! We all competed and cheered and looked forward to jelly but, when it came down to the last two in musical chairs, there would only be one outcome. Why couldn’t a football game be the same?

I’m a boy in a sulk on the way home and gaze out of the car window as the adults chat over me. Come the end of that 1959-60 season, Dad shows me the First Division league table. Forest finish third from bottom. ‘Escaped relegation by a point,’ he says. ‘They all count.’ Decades later, flicking through a football book inherited from him, I see they would have been saved by a marginally better goal-difference anyway. But I take his point: a lesson for life learned!

*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).

*Main image @NFFC a young boy plays football at the City Ground in 1960.

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