Vera’s Club

Five seconds into the video clip and I had a lump in my throat. Ten seconds and I had a tear in my eye. Come the end, after forty seconds, I was wiping both eyes. As we hear Forest fans sing ‘Mull of Kintyre’, the camera focuses on the face of one supporter. 92 year-old Vera Hill hasn’t been to the City Ground on match day for over a decade, following a diagnosis of a degenerative eye condition. Her daughter contacted the club after Vera said she wanted to hear fans sing their familiar anthem before kick-off and Forest obliged with an invitation.

It’s the sort of story you get to hear about in numerous clubs over the course of a season. They’re reminders of particular ways in which football teams connect with their community. Often operating at a local level and under the radar of the media, a kind gesture sometimes finds its way to national fame. It touches the ‘good news’ nerve in all of us. So it is in this video, with supporters in fine voice and before Forest notched-up a welcome win over West Ham.

On the back of that victory, it might be the fag-end week of February coming up but, for Forest fans, it’s something of a football feast on the fixture-front! First up, on Saturday, is Aston Villa at Villa Park, followed by Wednesday’s visitors to the City Ground when the Reds play Manchester United in the 5th round of the FA Cup. Then it’s Liverpool at home to take us leap-yearing into March.

That’s quite a line-up of clubs, verging on the unique, over such a short period. Add Manchester City and Chelsea (who respectively head Nottingham way in April and May) and it really would be the winning hand in any card game. Why? Because these are the only clubs in England to have lifted that most coveted of trophies, the European Cup, now the Champions League trophy. Exclusive membership indeed!

Book-ended between United’s first win at Wembley in 1968 against Benfica and Manchester City adding their name to Europe’s most prized competition in defeating Inter Milan last season, are Forest’s triumphs in 1979 and 1980. Those days sound – and are! – a long time ago and beyond the memory of many Forest fans. To reach their finals, the Reds played four teams, home and away, in a knockout competition of 32 clubs.

A shift to the Champions League kept the limit to 32 qualifying teams but meant more games to play. All competitions now comprise of mini-leagues progressing to knockout stages. Manchester City played six group games and three two-leg games to reach the final. That’s twelve games against Forest’s eight. As well as making more revenue for clubs, does this structure enrich the experience for fans? Many would argue that it’s more inclusive, that the Europa League and Europa Conference League are competitions giving more opportunities for clubs to gain ‘European experience’.

Next season, the Champions League increases to 36 qualifying teams, a trend replicated at international level (where a new competition, the Nations League, has been added to the calendar). England won their 1966 World Cup in a competition of sixteen nations. The last World Cup, in Qatar, had 32 countries competing. The 2026 World Cup will have 48 teams qualified to compete in 104 games, spread across Canada, Mexico and the USA.

You don’t need to ask FIFA who stands to benefit from this expansion. With TV rights and advertising on multiple platforms, it’s to be a money-maker of eye-watering proportions. What about the fans? Oh, them! You wonder how much thought (clue: not much) was given to travelling supporters. Football might have the capacity to make train-loads of money but, in so doing, could lose sight of its Unique Selling Point: the game itself.

The 2026 World Cup is on the verge of becoming a parody of football’s ultimate stage-show: a bloated, over long competition with too many games and too many miles between venues. Geography is a key factor in generating drama and a festival feel, with success measured on many levels. Stretched out, as it will be, the intensity of the occasion could evaporate rather than gather momentum towards the climactic final.

Industries, businesses, corporations and institutions cannot stand still and survive. They have to change and develop. Football is no different and plenty of initiatives have improved the product – the game – over recent decades, like safety in stadiums and the wider use of substitutions. A club is a company and finances matter. But money alone should not be the singular driving force in the sport.

Football was born in local communities. As they evolved, clubs became central to their communities and supporters became the heartbeat of their clubs. Individuals identified – and continue to identify – with their team, committed for life. All of us fans can testify to the strength of that bond but it has to be nurtured. If we experience exploitation by cost, match schedules always compiled to suit the media at the expense of attending fans, and a deterioration of quality on the pitch because of over-exposure and too many games played, live attendance will drop. We all remember the surreal, somewhat sterile Covid-affected fixtures in recent years. An empty stadium resonates with echoes of decline.

For the genuine health of the game, we need to remember all of the Vera Hills in the stands. Well done to Forest and to all clubs who keep in mind that they are clubs with memberships and responsibilities. Forest, to judge from making available the video clip of their gesture to Vera, understand the importance of reciprocity: we can all support one another to our mutual benefit. Now for a week of fixtures between European champion teams, all located within a hundred miles or so!

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

*Main image @NFFC Vera Hills listening in to Mull of Kintyre at the City Ground.

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