My brother pinged a photo my way soon after he’d watched Forest’s 2-0 win over Aston Villa last week. Post-match social-media traffic is always busy but, on the back of an inspired performance by the Reds, it was buzzing. It was an ‘old mates together’ image of two blokes sharing a word at the City Ground.
Perhaps the photo was snapped at half-time and they were enjoying a spot of reminiscing. They might have been reflecting back on Ola Aina’s fifth minute opening goal, (his first for the club) a delightful side-foot shot delivered with the sort of precision we associate with snooker players. Or it could have been taken after the final whistle, against a background celebratory roar from Forest fans. Either way, they looked happy to be in each others’ company.
Their faces, of course, would have been familiar to most Forest fans as we had John ‘Robbo’ Robertson and Stan ‘The Man’ Collymore side by side. Contrasting in stature and dress and of different playing styles in different eras they might have been but they shared at least one accolade: as Forest legends.
That single screenshot transported me back through time, a ticket giving access to the past. Instant replays of moves, passes, goals and celebrations tumbled through my head, as if this most recent Reds’ victory over Villa wasn’t enough! For that’s how football is: a game of the moment as drama unfolds before our eyes; and a collection of memories stored and shared over a lifetime.
Players become touchstones to our own past and none more so than Sir Bobby Charlton, whose memorial service this week had the feel of a state funeral. ‘The passing of an era before our eyes’ remarked one quoted fan. The location was Manchester but the man straddled continents in the football world. His career at United began in the black and white, flickering TV world of 1953, played through Beatle-mania and George Best hysteria and ended with the biggest prizes in the game. His individual Ballon d’Or award was sandwiched between1966 World Cup winner and 1968 European Cup winner medals.
But ‘Sir Bobby Charlton: The First Gentleman of Football’, as a recent (very good) BBC documentary has him, was more than a gifted footballer who could glide over a pitch and produce thunderbolt shots. Numerous eulogies point to his model conduct on and off the field and to his remarkable record of service at one club. He was also a symbol of survival. Hauled from the burning wreckage of a plane by teammate Harry Gregg, in a disaster that forever links Manchester and Munich, his life was shaped by tragedy. Eight members of the team, amongst many others, were killed that snowy night in February 1958. He lived to be the last link with that disaster but his legacy is an inspirational one. Charlton became central to rebuilding the club, led by Matt Busby, into a formidable force in football.
I only ever saw Charlton on a television screen yet I can recall, second-by-second, the build-up to so many of his goals, none more so than during that momentous World Cup ‘66 victory campaign. His every shot seemed set to burst the net and had me shudder even more than my sherbet lemon dip that I clutched as I sat on the sofa totally absorbed by his football feats.
The past becomes more vivid with each retelling and why not? Memories are what help make us who we are. Those players who endear themselves to us are freighted with our individual and collective memories. Anthropologists tell us that in primarily oral cultures, events and stories, legends and creation myths are remembered through retelling and sharing, re-enacting and rhyming, singing and chanting. Sound familiar? Football culture on match day is electric with pub chat recollections as well as predictions and terrace talk is running commentary punctured by sudden reminiscences. All part of the rich spoken history of football, passed along seat-rows and down through generations of supporters.
And so back to that photo and our own Reds. Robertson distinguished himself at Forest by the length of his career there … and by his brilliance. Small in stature, his presence on a pitch was huge. I recall standing in the Bridgford End kop as time seemed momentarily to freeze. ‘Robbo’ had the ball at his feet and he had stopped. We’d lean in to the pitch and then watch his familiar drop-of-the-shoulder move, a three yard sprint and a perfect cross. He did that in the 1979 European Cup final against Malmo, providing for Trevor Francis’ headed winner. And ‘Robbo’, who could appear to shuffle rather than shimmy, was a goalscorer. Plenty at the City Ground and, a year later, his winner in Madrid to land Forest with the cup again.
Without wishing to diminish those trophy achievements, though, Robertson was a performer as well as a winner. He could do tricks you couldn’t quite believe, mesmerise a defence without seeming to move. We were in awe of his wand of a left foot. The man defied the laws of physics.
What Collymore did in his two-year stint with the Reds was more straightforward but no less effective and impressive. In 77 appearances, he scored fifty goals. Give the ball to him and we stood on tiptoe so as not to miss his movement. ‘Stan The Man’ was a player who combined power with technical precision. Any contact between him and the ball ignited excitement in the crowd. Many would say that, for numerous reasons, he never fully realised his full potential. Frank Clark – who played alongside Robertson and went on to manage Collymore – said as much but also that he was the most naturally talented player he’d ever worked with.
In their contrasting ways, both Robertson and Collymore have etched themselves into Forest folklore. They held us in suspense and created their legendary status pass by pass, goal by goal.
They reminded us of football’s essential ingredient: entertainment.
*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).
*Main image @StanCollymore two legends together in Stan Collymore and John Robertson.