Then And Now

Some people have it in spades; some people can barely muster a teaspoon full: emotional intelligence. It’s a fancy phrase to describe how well we communicate with one another, how we mange relationships at a personal or public level. To be effective, you need self-awareness and empathy.

Forest fans currently don’t have to stray far to experience a fine example of someone who ‘gets it’, who can read the big picture past and present and turn it to everyone’s advantage by putting himself in other people’s shoes. I probably only know as much about him as the next person – or less – but Steve Cooper clearly has the capacity to connect with people. 30,000 at a time will do. His now-familiar clench-fist gesture to all corners of the City Ground come the end of a game, is both a rallying call and his recognition of what a win means to supporters starved of success for seasons.

And he knows how to choose the right words for the occasion. Following the Reds’ first Premiership victory in 23 years over West Ham, he dedicated the win to supporters who could not get their hands on tickets for the match. (That’s me, for one!) He also said, simply but profoundly, ‘I talked to the players about how there were probably three generations of supporters here today, one who remember the really good old days’. He understands the hunger for success now and he has a sense of what the history of the club means to fans. He acknowledges the importance of continuity between club and community through the generations.

That’s how I come to find myself thinking back to the time I introduced my own children to Forest and the City Ground. Each with a red and white scarf and a supply of sweets in their pockets and we’re off, heading north to Nottingham to pick up Grandpa and then to the ground.

It’s Saturday, March 1st 1998 and my daughters’ first experience of watching Forest live. The fixture is set to be a ‘top of the table’ – Division One (now Championship) – clash against Middlesborough. En-route, the girls entertain themselves in the rear seats, asking occasionally about when they can hold their tickets, where we’ll sit, who will win and what the score will be. I confidently answer the first two questions and give them a couple of player names to familiarise themselves with. Mention of Pierre van Hooijdonk causes some chuckles and silly word-play and then we fetch up at my parents’ house before heading to park the car by the Embankment. We’re in high spirits that keep off the chill of a bright, spring day and Nanna’s made a handsome supply of sandwiches.

As our three generation group walks beside the river, we pick up the flow of fans and my girls become aware of mass-movement, sudden chants and the swirls of red in the air. They wave their scarves, pick up the pace and we’re marching over Trent Bridge. The excitement is palpable for young and old. More collective singing rippling through the snaking crowd and then the smell of hotdogs and onions and the calls of programme sellers and we’re there. Wide-eyed entry through the clunk of turnstiles and into the cauldron of expectation because Forest fans sense a return to the Premiership and they have a goal-scoring machine in their team: Hooijdonk.

Every club has its talisman, sometimes a charismatic leader like Stuart Pearce, often a prolific goalscorer and match-winner. As the girls point and turn, watch and listen and try to make sense of pre-match rituals and catch tannoy-talk, me and Dad discuss a striker who’s clearly caught his imagination. We share past names, from Joe Baker (‘You are the king of the Trent End’) and Ian Storey-Moore (‘Give it to Moore, he will score’), through local boy Tony Woodcock, to Stan Collymore (spectacular goal specialist) and now Hooijdonk. Dad can barely contain himself. ‘If Forest get a free-kick, he’ll score. Actually, he’ll score anyway.’ He’s that confident.

By the end of the match, we’re hoarse and on the verge of delirium. Forest trounce ‘Boro 4-0 and Hooijdonk scores twice. The trip back down the M1 is a joy. My daughters laugh at how Grandpa celebrated the goals, sing bits of songs they’ve heard, giggle over things seen and chat about a new character in their lives. Pierre van Hooijdonk’s name is on repeat until they sleep and we’re home.

But if the end of that season ends in the fairy-tale of Forest becoming champions, the next chapter is a horror story. Lack of investment in players – and selling one of their best, Kevin Campbell – leaves Forest looking ill-equipped for the Premiership and Hooijdonk feeling very disgruntled. The striker goes on strike!

There’s not much emotional intelligence running through the club that following year and it ends with the talisman leaving and Forest bottom of the league. Such a contrast with the sense of intent in the club this time round. Of course, it’s what happens on the pitch that counts but that’s affected by what happens off it.

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

*Main image @NFFC Pierre van Hooijdonk celebrates with strike partner Kevin Campbell in 1998.

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