Connection & Continuity

The connection between a Romanian market-stall holder in Prague, me, and Forest’s Brennan Johnson might seem unlikely but there is one. More accurately, it would be with his dad, David, but you’ll get the point. Wandering the bustling streets of that beautiful city one evening, I came across a stall dripping with football memorabilia. Replica shirts flapping in the breeze, baskets of ‘signed’ balls stacked high and badges, pendants, figures and a whole lot more strewn across trestle tables.

‘Any chance of a Nottingham Forest of England shirt?’ I asked. The seller looked puzzled, drew on his roll-up and shook his head. I wasn’t surprised. By 2005 Forest were well and truly a Championship club and, on the European scene, had fallen into obscurity. I turned away and he disappeared into his emporium. Moments later, though, he called out ‘Mister!’ and beckoned me over. Through his patchy English and my elaborate gestures, we established that he’d been an ardent follower of the Reds in the Clough days. ‘Ah, Mr Clough,’ he sighed and then pretty much reeled off the European Cup winning teams of 1979 and 80. ‘But now?’ He hunched his shoulders. ‘Not so good,’ I replied.

Then he took my arm. ‘Maybe something,’ he said and rummaged through boxes of his stock. We both smiled when he found a wooden Matryoshka doll of Forest players and I gave him a few korunas for it and left. What I had was a set of figures, one fitting inside another, from a tiny Gareth Williams, through Darren Ward to Marlon Harewood and, finally, all of them sat inside the hollowed-out figure of David Johnson. Back home, it sat – as a novelty – on one of my daughter’s shelves for a while before being consigned to the bottom of a cupboard. Come the emergence of his son, Brennan, into one of the shining lights at Forest and the figure came out again, now endlessly taken apart and fitted together by my toddler-granddaughter!

In any organisation – including a football club – It’s fine-line alchemy (and luck!) to find stability without stagnation, continuity without constipation (lack of movement, as it were). Always a process of blending the established with new blood. And connectivity goes without saying: between players, management, back-room staff and supporters. There are numerous ways in which players come to consolidate their reputations in a club and its fan-base. It could be as a product of the academy system (like Brennan Johnson, Ryan Yates and Joe Worrall), through long-service, as a captain, through family connection (think Nigel Clough), as a local boy, by sheer personality or any combination of these.

Such cult-hero status and respectability is hard-earned. At most clubs, it must include length of service and leadership on the pitch – as well as talent and consistency – and some players have statues in recognition of their contribution. Go to Blackpool and you’ll find Jimmy Armfield, at Molineux there’s Wolves’ Billy Wright, Kevin Beattie stands at Portman Road, Ipswich and Arsenal’s Tony Adams can be found at the Emirates.

We all have our own selection of players for Forest’s potential statue gallery and they’ll surely include these names who made their mark at the City Ground in a particular period and under particular circumstances. Bob McKinlay made 614 appearances for the Reds, including a remarkable 265 consecutive games in the First Division between 1959-65. Nottingham born and educated Henry Newton spent a decade, through the sixties, covering every blade of grass on any pitch he played on for Forest. During the European Cup years, you couldn’t ignore the contribution of Kenny Burns. Signed from Birmingham City, he was captain when Forest won the League Cup in 1978, Clough and Taylor’s first major trophy. He stayed through the glory years, a striker turned defender with a no-nonsense attitude.

And then there’s Stuart ‘Psycho’ Pearce, one of the most charismatic and iconic Reds players ever to grace the City Ground. A colossus. Twelve years service and 88 goals and he was a defender! He was also ‘Mr Motivator’ and ‘Captain Courageous’. His famous snarl, caught on so many TV cameras over the years, symbolised utter commitment to Forest or England’s cause and his bond with the Reds’ fans and the Trent End was Bostik-strong. From a player who advertised his electrician services in the City Ground programme in the early days to a player who became an international regular, Pearce was someone who you sensed never took his rise to fame for granted.

So, here we are in 2022 with pretty much a new squad and wondering who will stay the course, endear themselves to the fans, be seen to give their all for the club, spread a bit of magic around the team, forge that vital connection with the Reds that secures their name in Forest folk-lore. Brennan Johnson? Perhaps. Characters need to emerge and establish themselves soon if Forest are to capitalise on last season’s success. Would Forest currently have enough established players to make up a Matryoshka doll’s many layers? Not yet.

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

*Main image @NFFC a dolls collection of Nottingham Forest 2005.

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