Is there anything quite like a match at the City Ground on a winter’s night? Something about darkness intensifies the experience as senses shift into hyper-alert. Every smell becomes essence of, whether it’s fags, beer or burgers. Every sight gains another characteristic, from a black velvet, rippling Trent, to a stadium so illuminated it has the appearance of an enormous alien craft landed from another planet. The emerald green pitch looks lacquered and players emerge from the tunnel as if kitted-out in Day-Glo primary colours.
And then there’s the soundscape. From wherever you’ve arrived, hawkers’ calls and fans’ quips, incantatory chants and familiar songs bounce off the river’s surface to echo and ring in the air. Far off, they are disembodied voices but, drawn towards the magnetic force that is the swell of supporters convening at the stadium, you catch sight – in this new light – of massed humanity and then get consumed by it. The tingle of anticipation in a game at night is shot through a thousand rows of seats with its own energy source, an electric current of expectation. It’s an incubator for the cross-cultivation of the real and the romantic.
Time was when I’d be stood on the roofless, Bridgford-end kop, scarfed-up against a keen wind and topped with a bobble hat to keep off a shower of sleet. Either side of me, Dad and Granddad, in their upturned-collar overcoats, would act like a pair of groynes, repelling waves of fans who’d lose their footing and surge towards the pitch. I never understood the danger as I was lifted and swept down, only to turn with a smile towards my frowning dad as he snatched me to him.
Fixtures came and went through childhood. Leeds United, Fulham, Aston Villa and the rest, all got to strut their stuff at the City Ground. Dad took me to Saturday games, our pockets stuffed with Mum’s morning-made pastries. Sometimes, he’d rush home from work and we’d make a night match. It didn’t much matter to me who Forest played, I just wanted some of the magic on show under the floodlights. And so it went, season after season, until the time I was told – categorically – that I would not be going to the only game I had pestered him to take me to.
The week up to the match had been full of my pleading and his silence. Dad didn’t waste words at the best of times but this was a drought. It came at a time when there had been several points of contention in the household as I tried to assert rights-for-ten-year-olds. He’d refused my request for ‘Fab Four’ Beatles wallpaper when my bedroom was decorated. Then a winkle picker saga lasted for weeks. I wanted some pointy shoes and dug my heals in (so to speak) but he was unmoved. Mum tried to reason – ‘they’ll deform your feet’ – but the argument was lost.
This situation was altogether different though. No discussion, no explanation and only a couple of days to kick-off. I followed the build-up in the Evening Post (which was really working up a head of steam for the fixture) and tried to share my enthusiasm with him. Then I wondered if I’d upset him with my infatuation. Was that the problem? It was all over now, I told him, and he smiled. ‘Cooled off, Have you?’ he said. ‘I can understand why they caught your imagination, what with that forward line. But, no, it’s not that, Son. It’s to do with safety and I’d be worried for you. I’m not even taking your granddad.’
I knew what he meant. Break-time talk at school that week was all about United’s visit and Mum said she sensed excitement in the air on her way to work across the other side of the city. Still, I tried to press my case, that I’d got over my love affair with Manchester United and, more specifically, with the Best, Charlton, Law forward line. I’d even stopped emulating the latter’s shirt sleeve, cuff-holding habit. But it wasn’t to be. One of my most remembered night matches and I wasn’t even there!
I did get to stay up for Dad’s return and I did get to understand why he wouldn’t take me. On that January evening in 1965, over 43,000 fans packed into the Forest ground and, by his account, there was a steady stream of supporters being sat by the pitch following safety concerns. The exit was mayhem, he said. Then a deep breath. ‘What a match, Son! Law snatched their goals, like he always does, and they’re a good team. But so are Forest and Hinton’s first goal was a scorcher.’
The game ended 2-2. United went on to win the league and Forest impressed with a 5th place finish. Next morning, I read the paper’s match report before school, saw the photo of Law, arms raised in celebration, and went back over Dad’s account until I could almost convince myself I’d been there. Nearly sixty years on, I’ll be doing the same come Wednesday evening’s Carabao Cup semi-final against United. No ticket but pub access to TV coverage and enough memories to recreate the magical atmosphere of a night match.
*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).
*Main image @NFFC Nottingham Forest’s City Ground at night.