"Forest All Over The World"
The trials and tribulations of following Forest from abroad
(Bandy & Shinty, August 2018)
Those with an interest in football politics will have followed the recent posturing of the “big six” in securing a redistribution of Premier League international TV rights.
At the league’s inception in 1992, international TV rights were negligible. The sponsorship rights outside the UK were not even activated at all until 2001.
At the first murmurings of a “breakaway” league in the late 80s there was the “big five”: Liverpool, Man United, Arsenal, Spurs and Everton.
Although it’s not clear who governs membership of the large prefix club, we were arguably sixth.
Manchester City and Chelsea? Non-runners.
We were firmly in the top echelons of English football: two third place finishes, two FA Cup Semi Finals and six day-returns to Wembley, thank you very much.
Even more pertinent - and something which might have got lost along the way – we enjoyed widespread respect amongst opposition football fans. Nobody doubted we were a decent team and we were a club that football folk liked.
Manchester City and Chelsea have always been big clubs but weren’t really close competitors of ours in that era.
Chelsea were getting league crowds as low as 7,148 in 1992 despite being 7th in the top flight – indeed, their next league match after that attendance versus Southampton was a 1-1 draw at the City Ground in front of 24,095 (with us in a lowly 15th).
Our dead rubber at Grimsby in Endsleigh League Division One in May 1994 attracted 11,390, many of whom had already tried unsuccessfully to attend the game once before (see Julie Pritchard’s synopsis of a night in Cleethorpes in the last edition of Bandy & Shinty).
The following night, Chelsea mustered 8,923 against Coventry ... in the Premier League.
This isn’t to knock* Chelsea, whose away support in particular is not in doubt.
However, our crowds never dipped below the magical five figures in the top flight in that era, even in the depths of 80s economic depression and with the likes of Wimbledon and Southampton sometimes only bringing enough to sit on the spare bench next to the away dug out
(*actually, it is, and there is nothing like a bit of attendance grandstanding to improve our collective self-esteem).
So, we were indisputably a leading club when the Premier League was established.
Albeit, our hubris should be tempered by the fact that even Notts County had a seat at the table in voting for the inception of the “breakaway” league - joined by Luton Town as clubs who voted for it but will probably never play in it [note: although Luton have made decent progress since this article was written!].
Back in 1986, a TV “blackout” was memorably ended by Colin Walsh’s brace and Young Nigel’s last-minute winner at Old Trafford, with our beautiful yet slightly off-colour all yellow Adidas ensemble broadcast that evening on Match of the Day.
That TV deal in 1986 was worth £3.1m.
By the first Premier League deal six years later, the decimal point had become superfluous as Sky paid £61m per year.
We were still contemplating still or sparkling water in the Premier League boardroom at that stage but, sadly, not for long as we comprehensively missed the boat, plane and all other forms of transport heading for the promised land of commercialisation.
A pause is now required when we consider that the last Premier League TV deal fetched £1.71bn per year – in the UK alone.
As you can see, our friend the decimal point has reappeared, yet only to help articulate the scale of the billions now at stake.
And those international TV rights that were a commercial after thought in 1992? Well, they are now worth an additional £1bn per year.
Of course, one of the consequences of this phenomenal demand from international broadcasters is that going on holiday means a Premier League bonanza – watch whatever game you want, at whichever poolside bar you choose.
Kick off times staggered for wherever you are in the world and an opportunity to watch three of four games back-to-back. It sounds fantastic and for many years I have frequently got blind drunk doing exactly that.
Even The Championship coverage is now widespread – a featured live game easily found on international TV, plus iFollow offering live coverage of every single other match. Basically, it’s easier to watch abroad than at home.
However, it’s not that long ago that following Forest from abroad was akin to securing a Saver Return to Pyongyang.
In fact, even as recently as the 80s it wasn’t always easy to follow Forest from a UK holiday.
Hotels would usually have my beloved Ceefax but communal TV rooms meant a moral dilemma asking if any of the fellow guests wouldn’t mind if we interrupted “The A Team” to check out the football scores - or, as BC quirkily commented in the 1986 Forest Christmas Video, the “footballing” scores.
As ever, the conciliatory “mix” function would provide some unsatisfactory middle ground (if you have no idea what I’m talking about then I must usher you to my article about Ceefax in Bandy & Shinty #7).
On 27th August 1983, we made a less than auspicious start to an eventually brilliant and controversial season – top scorers and third in the league and cheated in the UEFA Cup Semi-Final by Emilio Guruceta Muro (a name not essential to this story but a name that should never, ever be forgotten in the history of Nottingham Forest FC so no apologies for recording his name again).
Southampton were the visitors and Shilts kept us at bay to steal a 1-0 away win, a feat they then even more irritatingly repeated in the FA Cup 3rd Round in January (2-1 second time round).
For the league game I was on Porthmeor Beach in St Ives.
Headphones were still quite a luxury in 1983 but our trusty windbreak and the hypnotic sound of waves on sand meant I could listen to my even more trusty brown radio with yellow trim (which had seen me through European glory just a few years previous) with the volume turned up loud and not incur the wrath of fellow sunbathers.
I was actually locked onto Radio 3 and the Test Match vs New Zealand at Trent Bridge – a clash which reduced our opening day crowd to the lowest of the day, just 14,626 (btw, Chelsea were in the 2nd Division and Notts were obviously away…).
Alan Lamb scored a hundred, just a couple of days after I.T. Botham had smashed the same at an unheard-of run-a-ball.
Little did the commentators know, it would actually be Beefy’s last century on home turf.
However, instead of speculating on when he might repeat his heroics, they spent much of the afternoon deriding those spending their Saturday afternoon over Radcliffe Road at the football rather than the cricket.
It was an observation at odds with the otherwise soothing tone of the commentary and has remained with me since.
Not that I needed reminding, but it also encouraged me to frequently move the dial to Radio 2 to hear the infrequent reports from Larry Canning at the City Ground.
My frustration was relatively short-lived though, as we followed up that defeat with our usual victory at Old Trafford on the following Monday.
Like many families in the 70s and 80s, I didn’t actually go on holiday abroad.
My first expedition beyond Cornwall was to Florida in 1989.
By now I was going to every Forest match, so missing Villa at home and Norwich away made me feel as anxious as I do now when my teenage kids are out on their own.
There was virtually no coverage of English football in the US at this time so I spent the afternoon by the pool contemplating how we were doing against Villa.
It’s times like this that those of us with a pessimistic outlook on life really suffer.
We’d completely overwhelmed them 4-0 only seven months previously but by the time the game had finished in the UK I’d convinced myself the only realistic outcome was a comprehensive reverse of the 6-0 drubbing we’d given them three years previous.
An expensive call home put me out of my misery and I was frankly relieved that we hadn’t embarrassed ourselves and managed to at least draw 1-1.
Worse was to follow though because the flight home from the US coincided with the Norwich match.
This was the first time ever - in my life - I couldn’t access the final score when Forest had played.
Hence, it was a torturous flight home.
Whereas some passengers rushed to awaiting loved ones on exiting Arrivals, I rushed to the BT phone box. I couldn’t get my 10p in the slot quick enough to start dialling 0898 12 11 74.
That number – for Clubcall – is so embedded in my mind I didn’t need to look it up just now and check it’s correct.
After the usual long-winded introduction to ensure I parted with much more than my initial 10p, I was mightily relieved to hear “So Forest start the season with a pair of creditable draws…”.
Sometimes the frustration of being abroad was not just restricted to matchday.
Before the internet and rolling global news, two weeks abroad could feel like six months away.
Hence, the mid-afternoon distribution of UK newspapers in Spain would often see Brits eagerly awaiting facsimile copies of their favourite daily.
As they were UK editions, unlike the local Spanish editions that later appeared, you also got the TV listings which made you ever so slightly homesick.
This caused an unexpected issue for me in 1992 in Ibiza when perusing Sky’s listings to see a documentary on Forest winning the European Cup.
In those days there was very little footage of our old games and, as somebody who taped every moment of Forest on TV (or, more accurately, got my Dad to do it), this was deeply unsettling – especially as I didn’t actually know anybody who had Sky.
My curiosity was not abated by the single desultory line describing the programme content and, regrettably, it remains an unresolved mystery to this day.
Three years later and the summer of 1995 was a watershed moment for Forest fans.
Younger readers might roll their eyes at how us of the 90s vintage speak of Stanley Victor Collymore.
But, trust me, he was unbelievable. A unique talent.
And we all remember exactly where we were when we heard he’d finally signed for Liverpool for £8.5m.
Tenerife was our destination that summer and with speculation intense as to how Frank would spend the money, my anticipation of transfer news in the 4pm daily newspaper drop consumed afternoons by the pool.
In the end, I started drifting off to the newsagents about 3pm just in case the papers came early.
It’s difficult to illustrate just how different the world was in this pre-internet era and the preceding few days had been spent analysing and reinterpreting literally every word in the small paragraphs speculating on Forest’s transfer targets.
Eventually, one afternoon I returned from the newsagents ashen faced.
Kevin Campbell and Chris Bart-Williams.
Now, to be fair, in different ways and at different times, they both more than proved their worth and Frank’s logic was sound. In fact, they were both fine players.
But they weren’t Stan and we knew life would never be the same again.
At the end of that summer in 1995 I was summoned to see my boss who politely enquired if I’d be favourable to the idea of going on attachment and living in New York all expenses paid …
My obvious excitement was tempered by that thought, well, err, we’re in Europe this season.
I’ve never owned a dog but presumably dog owners also have this automatic reaction: “But what about the dog?”.
Well, my equivalent is – “But what about Forest?”
Being a resourceful sort, I negotiated some flights home and then mischievously didn’t apply for a Visa, which meant I had to go back every 90 days anyway. And with that, I set about organising my return trips around the fixture calendar.
Before I went they sent me on a “personal development” course, which was a two-week voyage on a Tall Ship.
To mix my metaphors it was a car crash of a trip that eventually got restricted to sailing up and down the English Channel due to the regrettable behaviour of some of my new shipmates.
Hence, this became the most surreal place I’d followed Forest.
My old radio had now been replaced by a fancy World Radio just for my trip to the US and, floating aimlessly around the English Channel, I stood on deck - formally on “lookout” - and listened to us comfortably beat Wimbledon 4-1 on Radio Five.
After two weeks we finally docked in Southampton, I excitedly got in a hire car to drive the 250 miles direct to Blackburn.
After a 25-match unbeaten run, I couldn’t wait to get to Ewood Park to see the recently-departed (but moved loved) Lars Bohinen get his comeuppance.
Of course what followed is best described as an imperfect storm.
Blackburn 7 (Seven) Forest 0.
Once eventually in America, I then faced the challenge of being a fan permanently living abroad.
This was mid-90s, so still no internet.
I was immediately horrified that my new so-called "world" radio was unable to locate the BBC World Service.
After much experimentation, I discovered that if I stood up and pressed the radio against the window, reception was fine.
If I sat down and put the radio on the ledge, reception was akin to trying to get Radio Nottingham past Burton-on-Trent.
Here started a literal balancing act as I tried to keep in touch with some increasingly erratic scores during the 1995/96 season.
With the five-hour time difference, matches kicked off at 10am US East Coast time. But when the clocks changed there was one week out of sync which resulted in a dizzying experience where I was convinced games were kicking off at 4pm at home, or, that World Service was on a one-hour time delay.
When we played at Bolton in early December 1995, I enjoyed the best experience of a long-distance fan: the infeasibly late equaliser.
Rather like seeing the full times stack up on the Vidiprinter and suddenly the “RESULT” sequence is broken by “GOAL (90+5) Jack Lester Nottm Forest 2 Leicester City 2”, the same excitement applies on the radio – until that final score is confirmed, there is still hope.
And so it was that Saturday morning (afternoon your time) when seemingly all of an unusual succession of draws in the Premier League had been announced on the World Service, I thought we were still one down at Burden Park.
Little did I know that as the BBC were reeling off those results, the ball was pinging around Bolton’s box and Colin Cooper was heading home.
Indeed, there is something even more pleasing about an equaliser that isn’t even reported – no score update, just a final score different to the last latest score.
There is something cold and ruthless about such a turn of events – final, heartless and inexplicable to the opposition supporters who have invested their emotional energy into imminently celebrating a hard-earned victory.
I soon discovered that if I ventured to a small number of Irish bars around 3rd Avenue, a live Premier League game would be on with all half and full time scores guaranteed, and the possibility of score updates too.
I was reticent at first, should I gamble the admittedly unreliable radio pressed against the window for the chance of technicolour and an actual live game on 3rd Avenue?
It was like Bullseye, deciding whether to gamble the prizes from “Bully’s Prize Board” for “Bully’s Star Prize Gamble” - 101 in six darts - and, specifically, the possibility of a free caravan or speedboat.
Eventually I ventured with trepidation to watch live and started a regular routine of five pints between 10am and midday every Saturday watching the match (just for the avoidance of doubt, it's a habit I no longer exercise).
When following football, the time between 3pm and 5pm is like a blackout, literally nothing else happens other than complete dedication to how your team is doing.
So, it was highly disorienting, every Saturday, to stumble out of a bar half cut thinking it’s 5pm but actually it’s noon and you have the whole day ahead of you.
Midweek games in New York were just as confusing, with their 2.45pm kick offs. I even took the afternoon off to watch Forest v Spurs in the FA Cup in February 1996.
I headed to 3rd Avenue where me and a single fellow Forest fan – little did we know, the forerunner for the NFFC NYC Supporters Club – watched in silence as we realised our hard-earned afternoon holiday had been wasted due to snow engulfing the City Ground.
Not long afterwards, I distinctly recall the first time ever I discovered the Forest score via the newfandangled “World Wide Web”.
8th April 1996 was a Bank Holiday at home but not for us in the office in New York.
Don’t be mistaken that people understood the opportunity that internet afforded. It wasn’t even something particularly discussed but the moment I double clicked on the intriguing new icon on my desktop, entered the phrase “Nottingham Forest” and had a little look around, I realised – like when Stan left - the world would never be the same again.
Pleasingly, like the early days of Ceefax when we never lost, we entered the brave new internet world with a 3-1 win at Elland Road, rather uninspiringly confirmed in Times New Roman.
I was working and occasionally returned to view the page with the latest score but, frankly, I couldn’t quite understand how it worked so viewed it with great suspicion and longed for a TV in the corner of the office with Ceefax (they didn’t seem to have an equivalent in the US, sadly).
My days in New York were now ebbing away. My 90-day rule had worked in my favour when I required a flight back in early March 96 – instead of to the UK, I just went straight to Munich instead – and then, most pleasingly, via the UK for Stuart Pearce’s Testimonial.
The morning after, I caught the first flight back and, waiting at JFK for his bags from the same flight, was the usually phlegmatic Des Walker.
Even he found it odd that merely hours after the game, two of us – fan and player - were stood together over 5,000 miles away, united in our dedication to Stuart Pearce.
New York revisited
The subsequent years found technology improving and the quest to find the score became easier. Fast forward to today and you can now watch more abroad than at home, as I found on a recent visit back to New York.
In the intervening period, I had faced a few challenges though.
A trip to Australia for The Ashes in 1999 meant missing a few matches but I was determined to be back for Micky Adams sole game in charge; a relegation battle at Coventry.
It was 41 hours door-to-door from my digs in Sydney direct to Highfield Road – a rarely worn path.
By 5pm I was on the train home, contemplating a 4-0 drubbing.
A trip to the UAE was marred by over-exuberance in Happy Hour – and if you’ve seen the price of alcohol there, you’ll understand why.
With our away game at Reading imminent I slumped on my hotel bed to connect to a particularly patchy Forest Player for radio commentary, completely ignorant that the match was actually on live on TV if I’d just switched it on.
The story comes full circle back in New York in February 2018, now with kids in tow.
It was a big night in the Champions League with Chelsea v Barcelona and our old foes Bayern Munich at home too.
Smithfield Hall bar is full of fans decked in blue and red and it seems a different lifetime that I was leaving JFK for the UEFA Cup Quarter Final in Munich in 1996.
Yet in the corner proudly sits a gracefully designed “Nottingham Forest FC NYC” flag and a TV reserved for our iFollow coverage that evening, ironically, of Forest v Reading.
Over 20 years since I watched on US TV as the snow fell at the City Ground against Spurs, here we are with NFFC NYC Supporters Club “President” Karl Hudson, retaining the spirit of the far-flung fan (all four of us).
As we reach 85 minutes and a few beers have flowed, it dawns that we’re nearing our sixth home match without a goal.
Even if you can now watch the match abroad, it doesn’t mean of course we’re going to win, or even score – the same frustrations persist if watching in Newark or New York.
But, thankfully, the same surprises too, as the Easter Egg shaped Lee Tomlin popped up with a late equaliser.