League Tables Don’t Lie

Forest are currently third in the Championship. I love league tables. Let me rephrase that. I love football league tables (as opposed to those devised by politicians to spread the fallacy that ‘performance’ in education, health and much else can be quantified in such terms alone). They crystallise the competitive essence of professional sport.

There’s pain and pleasure in the temperature-check on your team’s position and health and any Forest fan will be quick to tell you it’s been a pretty downbeat experience, to say the least, these past few seasons. There’s not much satisfaction to be found in watching the points gap grow bigger as you try to stave off relegation and fail to gather much more than a scrappy draw here and there. Or to be within sniffing distance of play-offs and then to implode and follow your team slipping down the greasy pole.

I can trace my affection for league tables to an early-age friend who bought me a cardboard league ladder for a birthday. The rungs were slits where you inserted individual team-colour tabs bearing the name of each team. Sunday morning was a walk to his house and sitting at the kitchen table, newspaper open at the football results page, with our league ladders at the ready. We’d rearrange tabs according to the latest wins, draws and losses and cross-check our coloured record for accuracy. (My childhood wasn’t all quite as sad as that!) What that weekly tracking and tactile handling gave us was a real feel for the ups and downs of a team over a season.

Of course, there’s plenty that league tables don’t reveal. There’s no ‘hard-luck’ column, ‘near-miss’ tally, special allowance for long-term injuries to key players. Nor is there a ‘best team lost’ reward or quality of performance measure. For any of those insights, go to match-reports, memoirs, club programmes, websites and supporters’ club correspondence. League tables are brilliant but brutal. They tell the beginning through to the end. We know the score, as it were, and it’s been like that for 150 years or more.

There are still some old soccer books kicking around (ha!) in our house full of end-of-season league tables. That’s another quality they have: fluid and fixed. They capture moments but remain in constant flux until the last whistle is blown. Then they’re history. I can remind myself of Forest sitting in Division Two decades ago or vying with Liverpool, in late 1970s, to be champions of the First Division. Or see just how closely they were to relegation this or that season.

Scrutinising the Championship league table at the start of the 2021-22 season took our eyes to the bottom of the table. There sat Forest, winless and already into mid-September. Points were being deducted from the likes of Derby and Reading but no complimentary bags of points were being gifted and it was difficult to see where the Reds were going to find any. Out of ideas, out of hope and out of the league if this carried on. Enter….well, we know the rest.

Football has a habit of spawning clichés and playing them to death (we don’t hear much about the sick parrot these days) but the enduring ‘take each game as it comes’ is not one to be dismissed. Over a long season of 46 matches, maintaining momentum comes with a focus on only the next fixture. And if that turns into strings of victories and unbeaten runs then there’s satisfaction to be had from following your team making incremental progress up the table. One game at a time.

Opposition teams and fans must have checked out Forest – ‘where did they come from?’ – with increasing frequency in recent months. They will have tracked their move from fellow-strugglers, through mid-table respectability and knocking at the play-off door, to spearheading a late attack on the clubs who’ve sat in automatic promotion places for so long this year. Fulham and Bournemouth have put distance between themselves and the rest but the journey’s not quite done. Forest are yet to visit them both.

For now, though, Forest fans can – should – keep checking that league table just to see what we’ve achieved to date. To be in third position is a fine feeling. It’s a fine place to be. A time to make the most of the moment for a few days at least. It’s also – and this is an extra pleasure to be derived from league tables – worth flicking back to the September story of Forest woe, a raw reminder in stark statistics, of how things were then.

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

*Main image @NFFC Forest are now third in the Championship table with seven games remaining.

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