As the final whistle – finally – blew (how long can nine minutes of added time feel? Answer: infinity!) scenes of ecstasy filled the City Ground stands and our TV screens. On a balmy Saturday evening Forest secured Premiership status in their last home game of the season. Fans and players alike let loose an emotional wave of joy mixed with relief. Of the many highlights caught on camera, one in particular snagged my attention. Morgan Gibbs-White fell to his knees as if to bless the turf on which he’d played a starring role. A momentary act of humility in recognition of what the Reds had achieved, under what circumstances and where.
So many stories have been played out on the Trentside pitch, from past momentous European cup ties to more recent struggles to stay in the Championship. This triumph over Arsenal (in a black away kit seeming to act as a premonition of their defeat) was a taste of life harking back to the glory days, the stuff of dreams, and it had me watch that bowing-to-the-ground gesture with a tear in my eye.
Sport unlocks spontaneous emotions in ways that most human activities do not. Sometimes it’s the occasion, sometimes the hope, sometimes the dream. In ‘Field Of Dreams’, a 1980s American sports-fantasy film, a farmer (played by Kevin Costner) yearns to build a baseball pitch in one of his corn fields. It’s a response to voices he hears and visions he sees. Ghosts of baseball legends gather to help him realise his dream. He made something special out of a place. It’s a sentimental piece of cinema but it’s also uplifting and left me wiping away a tear.
Part of the special quality of football is a sense of place. Fixtures are ‘home’ and ‘away’ and the ground – home – where our team plays, becomes as familiar as our own back garden. Forest moved to The City Ground in 1898. It was given its name to mark the city status which had just been awarded to Nottingham.
That’s a long-time home.
Look at a black and white photo of the ground then and you’ll see a couple of wooden stands by the Trent which flows into the distance of open countryside and farmland. The grey shades of the image seem to have the river merge with the hills on the horizon and then into the sky. A field of dreams! And the football follows, season after season, story after story, supporter after supporter. That accumulation might well have us consider The City Ground somehow sanctified, not by some greater power but by the collective spirit of people over generations. My granddad used to joke of having his ashes spread on Forest’s pitch! (As it turned out, he was buried in a graveyard in Beeston).
Back in the land colour, it’s all brilliant Garibaldi red, fans hugging and celebrating, heads held high … and Gibbs-White bestowing thanks on the pitch, surrounded by his joyous team mates in the centre of what has affectionately been named ‘Fortress Forest’. That hasn’t always been so and certainly not always so this season. But it’s an apt description for the atmosphere that’s been generated by supporters in this campaign and they’ve played their part in willing the Reds to success, relentlessly encouraging the players. It’s resulted in a home record that has kept them in the league.
The fans have been consistently appreciative of Steve Cooper too. His achievement in guiding Forest to safety cannot be overstated. Not a miracle worker, not a magician, but a manager, a supremely gifted and honest one. Cooper has got some things wrong, by his own admission, but he’s got most things right. With so many new players, the season was inevitably going to be unpredictable but, over time, he’s begun to forge a squad and team-shape to his satisfaction. There is now more than a sniff of success in the air.
Pundits have recognised the impact of both the Forest fans and the manager, particularly after this most significant win. Sky Sport’s Jamie Carragher, not known for any sentimental take on football, had this to say, post-match. ‘Almost every neutral in the country wanted to see Nottingham Forest back in the Premiership. I think most of those people will say they’re delighted they’re back again and staying for another season. Alot of that is down to these supporters. They’ve made this place a fortress.’
The final bow to complete the fixtures comes at Crystal Palace but, for the first time this season, the pressure is off. Forest and Palace will play the game as professionals but the Reds are secure. They have made it and they have filled the city with pride. With Forest safe, Notts County promoted and back to playing League Two football at Meadow Lane, and even news that Nottingham Castle – a place held dear in the hearts of its citizens – is due to re-open in June, the city is rocking!
*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).
*Main image @NFFC the City Ground has been labelled a fortress this season.