Unable to sleep? Unable to eat? Unable to focus on anything? These might sound like the symptoms of depression but any football fan knows it means only one thing. Derby day is looming.
The match you seek out in June when the following season’s fixtures are announced. The match that means you won’t talk to family members for a week. Lifelong friendships are put on hold. The office banter stalls until after the game and one team claims bragging rights.
You thought the feelings of animosity for British politicians stumbling through a shambolic Brexit process were bad. It’s nothing when you stack them up against the effect of a football rivalry.
Football rivalries do strange things to us. Anyone or anything that remotely ties you to that club, or location, is held in utter contempt. And win, lose or draw, nothing will ever shake that deep feeling of resentment.
Nowadays the ‘derby’ is banded about in the media to try to make meaningless games sound like they matter. Nottingham Forest playing Birmingham City or Leicester City is a ‘fierce East Midlands derby’ and Leeds United vs Middlesbrough is overplayed as a ‘gruelling Yorkshire derby’.
As a Forest fan, there is only one rival. The one team that is held in complete contempt. Derby County. Arch-rivals. The Leicester and Birmingham games matter, of course, they do. Even the Nottingham city derby with Notts County matters. But not like playing Derby.
Just 16 miles separate the clubs and we’ve both had our share of glory days. And it was through these days back in the 1970s that the rivalry really took off. Brian Clough.
The greatest manager of all time. Possibly the only thing fans of the two clubs can agree on. But after leading Derby from the Second Division and then to Championship glory in 1972, he switched allegiances.
Brief spells at Brighton and Hove Albion and Leeds United ensued, but it was his appointment, along with assistant Peter Taylor, at Forest, that really stung the Derby faithful. There had been anger among Derby fans when Clough and Taylor were allowed to leave, with supporters baying for the director’s blood and the resignation of the board.
A few years later, Clough replicated his Championship-winning ways and went a step further by bringing the European Cup to Nottingham – not once, but twice, in successive seasons. The resentment was real. And 40 years on it shows no sign of abating.
A haunting away day
We’ve seen it all through the years, the hat-trick heroes, the red cards, the crowd interruptions, and post-match scuffles.
Pride Park has not been a happy hunting ground for Forest fans through the years. And I’ve decided to look back to one of the worst Forest displays that I’ve witnessed live – December 11, 2004. Derby County 3 Nottingham Forest 0.
Forest were going through a second consecutive relegation battle under Joe Kinnear, while Derby were in a rich vein of form at the other end of the table.
Living in Ireland through my teenage years I hadn’t managed to go to an away day at Derby so when the opportunity came up for this match, I made the trip down from Sunderland for the weekend.
My sister was studying at the University of Derby – such rebellious acts still irk the family – but I had somewhere to stay! In hindsight, not the best of plans.
A poor run of form had seen Kinnear come under mounting pressure. My sister and I were among the fans who greeted the team bus and although we were in the mire, a 2-1 home win against QPR a week earlier gave us hope of an upset. If anything could get you back on form, it’s the passion of a derby against that lot down the road.
The writing was already on the wall for Kinnear. Although he had come into the City Ground and led us to survival just a few months earlier, his side was awful. He had already labelled the fans as ‘morons’ and had led our team to our worst start to a season in 12 years.
With Paul Gerrard in goal, Michael Dawson – a shining light in a poor side – lined up alongside 20-year-old Wes Morgan and Alan Rogers. A midfield of Andy Impey, Adam Nowland, Paul Evans, and Andy Reid, was meant to feed the front three of Jack Lester, Gareth Taylor, and David Johnson. That didn’t happen.
A home win was expected and with just four minutes on the clock, the Rams led. Lester was dispossessed in his own half. Derby carved through the Forest defence with a sterling 10-pass move and Tommy Smith slotted the ball beyond Gerrard from 10 yards.
A long afternoon beckoned. Despair. All hope extinguished just four minutes in.
Fifteen minutes later it looked like curtains for Forest when Impey handled the ball in the penalty area. Thankfully only a yellow card was brandished, and there was yet more relief for the Reds when Ian Taylor blazed his effort over the bar.
Smith, Grzegorz Rasiak and Paul Peschisolido were quite the front three and they terrorised the Forest defence in the first half. Gerrard tipped a Rasiak effort onto the crossbar and behind just before the interval but at 1-0 Forest were still in the game.
The nerves were jangling but the anger was building. The Derby chants that ‘Cloughie would be turning in his grave’ were infuriating, if not a fair reflection of the football on display.
Coupled with that, Kinnear made the first of his changes on 50 minutes. The game was lost. Lester left the field with an injury but was replaced with right-back John Thompson. A defender. Trailing 1-0 at your arch-rivals and you replace a striker with a defender. 40 minutes still to go. Madness.
The inevitable happened. Forest fans called for Kinnear’s head. The chants went up, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’ They were right. But the players on the pitch didn’t offer much else either.
In a second throw of the dice, David Johnson was replaced by Marlon King, and Forest started to come back into the game.
It pains me to say it but Derby were superior. The link-up play was outstanding. We made them look like Brazil. And when Smith ghosted inside his marker in the 75th minute, a cross evaded five statue-like defenders and Rasiak headed home for 2-0. Game over.
The Forest defending was woeful and as the game drew to a sobering conclusion, Rasiak tapped home a Morten Bisgaard cross from one yard to put the icing on the cake for the hosts.
It was Forest’s heaviest defeat at Derby since 1979 – although we have since suffered bigger losses. A 7-0 defeat at Blackburn Rovers in 1996 had been hard to stomach but this was much worse. Utter humiliation at the hands of our greatest rivals.
Leaving Pride Park, our pride was shattered. It was to be a long walk back to my sister’s student apartment in the city. Stubborn as I am though, my ‘I’m Forest til I die’ attitude meant that I would not cover up my Garibaldi red as we walked through Derby city centre.
There were chants and profanities thrown our way on a devastating walk but I wasn’t prepared to give in to the all-encompassing feeling of embarrassment and hide my colours. Could it have put us in danger? Yes. Was it a stupid thing to do? Most probably. But I think the football fans among you understand.
Joe Kinnear’s letter of resignation arrived five days later but it wasn’t enough to stop the rot. Mick Harford stepped in on a caretaker basis before Gary Megson took the reigns. Dawson and Reid were cashed in and Forest cashed out. Out of the Championship and tumbling into League One.
The first European champions to play in the third tier of their domestic league. Humiliation not only in the UK but across Europe.
Rebirth of a sleeping giant
It has been a long road back for Forest. But we survived it all. League One, the second coming of Billy Davies and even Fawaz – we’ll save that story for another day!
The controversial Evangelos Marinakis is now our owner and Aitor Karanka our manager. Money has been invested with no fewer than 11 new signings in the summer. A new dawn awaits this side as Forest look to get back to the top table from which they were ejected 20 years ago.
A mixture of foreign talents – mainly from Portugal – and homegrown stars grace the side and ahead of this evening’s match an air of optimism rings around Nottingham after so many years in the shade.
Don’t get me wrong, ‘Frank Lampard’s Derby County’ – as the media would have Derby known now, the club name no longer being appropriate enough in it’s own right – are playing good football, and there is a chance the two sides will meet again in May in the play-offs.
Just three points separate the two clubs ahead of tonight’s hotly-anticipated humdinger with Derby in fourth and Forest seventh. With five games apiece in the next 15 days, the winners will have the bit between their teeth for the festive period.
Forest lead the head to head with 39 wins to Derby’s 38 but a win in their camp is a rare thing. The last one came in 2015 when Ben Osborn struck a sweet 92nd-minute winner. It’s time for another.
There is so much on the line. From about 5pm onwards I’ll be unreachable. The jersey will be on, the phone off and preparation for the big one will begin. Mince pie, anyone? No, I didn’t think so.