Down Wembley Way

It’s late on a Friday evening in March when I turn off the A1 for Nottingham and lose control of my car. A spin, a bump up the curb and I come to a stop. Snow has been with me from Cambridge – where I live and stayed at work too long – and it’s now heavy and drifting. Traffic has thinned and there’s no-one around and it’s pre-mobile phone days. I turn the engine again and again but nothing and the battery is losing power. Should I abandon the car and head for the nearest settlement and a phone box? A conundrum so I sit a while to recover and shiver and clear my head. A last try of the ignition and we have contact so I head for my parents’ home.

Mum’s gone to bed but left door-stop cheese sandwiches for me and Dad sits by the gas fire supping a whisky. It’s near midnight. I eat, share a drink with him and hit the sack. We’ve a coach to catch in the morning, leaving the City Ground soon after dawn, as I recall. It’s a cold, grey, slush-snow Saturday when we fetch-up in the diesel-smelling air of engines running to keep fans warm. We find the right bus and seats and settle down and we’re a convoy pointed south for Wembley. It’s 1979 and, if you’re a Forest fan, the world feels fine.

The M1 rumbles under the wheels as we pass by Leicester Forest East services and the first beers are cracked open and the back rows are in full voice. It’s contagious. By Watford Gap, the bus is a hot-metal tube of pent-up energy released in familiar chants, some new lines, quips and community clapping. Anticipation and expectation. We are the warm-up act for what’s to come in the famous football cauldron. The road to Wembley isn’t paved with gold (more likely to be peppered with potholes these days) but it’s always full of hopes and dreams leading to the stadium and jubilation or disappointment on all routes leaving it. Time was – starting in 1923 – when there was only one occasion a season that clubs could play on the hallowed turf and that was as finalists in the FA Cup. But times change. These days, FA Cup semi-finals have graduated to the Wembley venue, as have the EFL (currently Carabao) Cup final and the play-off finals for the Championship and Leagues One and Two.

Opportunities abound for teams to play at the world famous stadium. Not that Nottingham Forest fans will have felt that in recent decades! The Reds are one of only a handful of teams not to have appeared at Wembley stadium since it re-opened in 2007. Turn the clock back and you could pencil-in Forest for a Wembley spot through late 1970s to early 90s. It felt like they owned the League Cup! On the day I’m there,
between my dad and my brother, Forest – and read this very slowly, even if you know it – are the holders of the League Cup (having beaten Liverpool the previous year) and League Division One champions.

But that was ‘so last year’! They’re now European Cup semi-finalists in a competition they go on to win. But it’s very early spring and very cold and this afternoon Southampton haven’t just driven here to make up the numbers for a League Cup final. Much as Forest are favourites to win, at half-time they’re a goal down. Me and Dad share the contents of his hip flask but, if I’m a bit dispirited, he and my brother appear sanguine and exchange banter about some of the fixtures they’ve been to that season and how all came good. (My move from Nottingham and a new job have meant this is the first time I’ve seen Forest that year.) They ooze confidence about how the second half will show a different performance, as if part one was a tease. Whisky-warmed and chewing on more of Mum’s speciality sandwiches, I’m reassured.

The next 45 minutes pass in a flurry of goal celebrations. First up is a Garry Birtles equaliser, six minutes into the half. He slots in his second goal on 79 minutes and Tony Woodcock adds the killer touch on 83. Yes, Southampton snatch a late consolation goal but the end result is never in doubt – even to me – once Forest have levelled. John McGovern lifts the trophy with a 3-2 win and we’re all in the happy lane on the way home.

That’s how finals go. You put your fate, fortunes, faith in your football team and watch it all unfold in real time. And win or lose, you remember – for always – the details of that day. Forest’s last appearance at Wembley was a 1-0 defeat by Manchester United in the 1992 League Cup final. (There was also a win in the obscure and now-defunct Full Members Cup the same year, with Forest defeating Southampton.) Thirty years on, no wonder the city is hungry for the end-of-May Championship play-off final against Huddersfield Town! Young and new fans need their own memories to mint and recall in years to come.

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

*Main image @NFFC Garry Birtles scored for Forest in the 1979 League Cup final.

Leave a Reply