And We’re Off!

There was a time (well before the advent of the internet) when newspapers traditionally published football league tables after the first three games. Not any more! Hype, micro-coverage and the speed of information gathering-and-giving have combined to make us hunger (apparently!) for measurements of success and failure even before some teams have kicked a ball. All part of the pressure of modern-day football and, by definition, modern-day living.

The weekend before the Premiership started, my Sunday newspaper gave a generous number of column inches to supporter-pundits of the twenty teams that make up the league this year and it made for depressing reading. Every individual had Liverpool or Manchester City as Champions or runners-up. Clubs to be relegated? Bournemouth, Fulham and Forest were almost everyone’s chosen three, with the odd appearance by Leeds or Southampton. The remaining two Champions League qualifying places – i.e. 3rd and 4th – were predicted to be contested between Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham. That’s it. No dissenting voices.

Has football at this level really become so predictable that twenty voices can virtually agree on each key end-of-season position even without consultation? The answer, I’m afraid, is yes. The cartel is alive and well.

Newcastle United, victors over the Reds on Saturday, are likely this year’s ‘pretenders’. Having in their kitty a fortune and being basically bankrolled by the bottomless-pocket of Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, they might push for a top-six place but don’t put money on it.

The supporter-voices in the extensive Sunday article were also asked about their favourite and least-favourite ground to visit. Forest – well, the City Ground, to be precise – received the most positive votes. That won’t change! Worst venue by most pundits was deemed to be West Ham’s London Stadium. The message is clear: Nottingham needs to become a fortress to match its popularity, a venue feared by the great and not-so-great!

I remember when such wishful-thinking was reality. In particular, the home fixture against Newcastle United in March 1978 comes to mind, mostly because I was there. One of the very few games I attended that season (living away from Nottingham at the time) there was a very pleasant sense of inevitably about the whole afternoon, from the pre-match pint with my dad and brother, to the outcome of the game.  Forest cruised – and I mean exactly that – to a 2-0 win and it could have been many more. Newcastle went on to be relegated and the gulf in class was certainly evident that day. Forest, as if any Reds’ fan needs reminding, went on to be champions.

And, since we’re now back in the ’77-78 season, who would have bet that Forest would finish top of the pile a year after they’d scraped promotion from Division Two? Even my cut-me-open-and-I’d-blead-Forest dad didn’t fancy their chances until Christmas. This year – flash-forward forty-odd seasons – and that festive time will be the end of part one of the Premiership (World Cup in-between, remember) and who knows what the league table will show? After last season’s Championship adventure which saw Forest rise from the ashes like a phoenix after Steve Cooper’s appointment, there will be a twinkle in the eye of City Ground fans. The circumstances are different, of course, but hope is a word that got rediscovered last year.

One game gone and Forest are in the bottom three. No pressure there, then! Well, actually, no. Media sports-writers will salivate over early struggles and dreams unravelling (it’s only August!) but we all know how long a season – this season – is and will consider each game and result on its merits. At least for a while.

The Leicester City supporter-voice in the article provided the one critical comment to set Nottingham fuming in the ‘best and worst grounds’ section. His worst away trip? “There’s only so many times I can hear the tannoy welcome me to the ‘world-famous City Ground’ without dying of laughter.” (Sound like sour grapes after last year’s thrashing of the Foxes in the FA Cup?) If that’s not motivation enough to put fire in the bellies of Forest players, I don’t know what is! The highlights and successes of all those years – decades – ago are part of a proud past now. But the current vibes from the club are good, the City Ground will soon be in full-swing and the stands will be resonating with the collective voice of hope.

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

*Main image @NFFC Forest lining up for their Premier League return at St James’ Park.

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