Think Robbie Burns and you’d be forgiven for bringing to mind ‘Auld lang syne’ but there are plenty of other fine lines written by the great Scottish poet. “The best laid schemes o’ Mice and Men, Gang aft agley.” (Things often go wrong.) Sound familiar? These days, most of us come across that quote via the novel ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck, a staple book on most school reading lists. (Stay with me, a Forest link is coming!) Steinbeck felt the sentiment of Burns’ words captured the essence of his story. In it, dreams turn sour for a couple of itinerant farm-workers in California.
Those words, though, resonate well beyond the world of fields and crops. Take football, and what better place to start than the beginning of a new season? Managers, players, owners and supporters would do well to note the message. You can’t stop a club dreaming but it has to come with a health warning. However hard you work and prepare, things do not automatically go to plan. (Manchester United these days, bless ‘em, would be a good example, even having the audacity to nickname Old Trafford ‘The Theatre Of Dreams’!)
Realistically, Forest will be thinking of survival in their first season back in the Premiership for 23 years. Fans, of course, are at liberty to let their imaginations run riot. It’s part of the excitement, part of what we pay for. We might have the Reds – for those who can remember! – steam-rolling through the season to finish champions, as they did in 1977-78, a year after returning to the Premiership’s forerunner, Division One. Such thoughts should be tempered by reality.
Since then, we know the game’s changed almost beyond recognition. We talk about the strength of the squad rather than the team and tactical set-ups that have long-since replaced the old ‘W-M’ formation. (Ask your grandparents if you’re not sure about that configuration!) Players are expected to multi-task and remember carefully prepared and rehearsed moves and responsibilities. That’s a long way from Brian Clough’s pre-match team-talk. Planting a football on the table in the middle of the dressing room, it went: ‘There’s the ball. It’s your best friend. Look after it’. Much of that anecdote is probably urban myth but I love it. Easy to imagine the plain-talking boss reducing the game to its essence.
And there’s the money. Never has there been so much of the stuff swilling around in football. Eye-watering amounts coughed-up to buy every-day players. So called ‘star’ players (like Paul Pogba, signed for £89 million and leaving Man United on a free transfer) cost more than a medium-sized company and show how cash flows in and out of the game in ways unimagined a couple of decades ago. How has this come about? TV of course. Global coverage of a quality product with sharp promotion brings in advertising, investment and sponsorship (some of which is pretty dubious). There have always been well-off and less well-off clubs but the gap has widened – pretty much like society – to produce a cartel of supremely rich clubs and the rest. And some of the rest are up to their ears in debt, including teams in the Premiership. Burnley, superbly managed by Sean Dyche until his star faded with sacking prior to relegation, will find the coming season a struggle on and off the pitch.
We don’t want to see the demise of professional clubs. They’re woven into the fabric of communities. When Bury FC found themselves in the graveyard a couple of years back, the town lost more than football. Pride, tradition, history, identity: all took a hit. I don’t know how that club became so financially insolvent but plenty of others are in a precarious state. There’s little point in having dreams if the only alternative is to become defunct. It shouldn’t be reduced to one or the other. As we watch Forest and hope that they punch above their weight, that they make astute signings – as they seem to be doing – and play attractive football, I also want the club to be around for generations to come. Dream a little, take the odd gamble on a player or change of personnel but a club needs stability and, it goes without saying, to be efficiently run at all levels.
Norwich City, WBA, Watford and Sheffield United have all suffered the ‘yo-yo’ effect in recent years, bouncing back and forth between the Championship and the Premiership. Forest, too, had a something of the same syndrome back in the 1990s. That’s not to say the clubs were necessarily badly run or on the brink of financial ruin but it’s not a great place to be and you can’t dream your way out of it. In the end, we have to turn to planning and preparation and it’s to be hoped the Reds have that in spades under Steve Cooper.
Come the end of the calendar year – and after the World Cup – I’d love to sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ with Forest top of the table. But, for the moment, it’s just nice to see them back in the top division and having the chance to pit their wits and skills against the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea. I will have a private dream, though. Surely Leicester City’s wonderful season as champions in 2016 can’t be the last for an East Midlands club?
*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).
*Main image @NFFC Forest fans will be appearing in numbers this coming season.