Prism

left Brian: Discovering Fire

22 December 18 words: Gareth Watts
illustrations: Adam Poole

In his excellent book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari explains that with the discovery of fire, humans leapt from mid-table in the natural food chain to top of the league, seemingly overnight. And although the physical benefits of this were obvious in terms of our diet and ability to tame the natural world, psychologically humans had evolved to fear predators and therefore subsequently struggled (and indeed, may still be struggling) to adapt to a life which no longer involved checking over our shoulders every five minutes for a peckish lion. Deep in our nature is a fear of the unknown and a natural predilection to suspect you could get eaten at any moment.

 

Such is the evolution of life as a Nottingham Forest fan over the past year. Through a generous investment in the squad and the appointment of a sensible, pragmatic manager, the ‘fire’ the team has discovered includes the Championship’s top goal scorer (Lewis Grabban), two top class creative talents (Joe Lolley and Joao Carvalho), a small army of defensive midfield bruisers and the tightest defence in the league - goalkeeper Costel Pantillimon has already kept ten clean sheets this season (18 since joining the club earlier in the calendar year – the joint highest in all four divisions). So the supporters are all happy with this footballing evolution, right?

Well, no. Quite happy. Some of us. Maybe. We think.

Take some fans’ attitude to Pantillimon: whatever his impeccable statistics may show, whenever the ball is passed back to him the City Ground takes a collective sharp intake of breath. The stadium hums with moans about his poor distribution or his lack of decisiveness from crosses. The #NFFC social media timelines buzz with complaints. Is it that we’re not yet psychologically equipped to believe that he’s objectively a pretty good goalkeeper and we’re actually having a decent season? Or, in Brexit Britain, are we now unwilling to believe any empirical data, preferring instead to base judgements on what we feel to be true? Is this giant Romanian (a word suspiciously close to ‘Remainian’) a 6ft 8in lightning rod for our ingrained fears and prejudices?

Thanks to sensible ticket pricing, Forest’s home ground is either full or almost full every match, and yet there’s an unease, a peculiar sense of dread – we’re half expecting things to go wrong, but even if they go right we’re not yet able to fully let ourselves go. Unlike this edginess at home, Forest’s away support this year has been loud, witty and unreserved in its backing of the team and is fast gaining a reputation for being among the best travelling fans in the division. It’s the away support that loudly sings Pantillimon’s name because they recognise him as someone helping to dig out a result on a cold night in Bolton or Hull – expectations are lower when you’re away from home, so the joy in battling for a point (or snatching all three) is that much more satisfying. The hope is that the joy and exuberance of this hardcore of away supporters can become infectious and improve the atmosphere Trentside too.

Since my last piece, Forest have had a whale of a time on the road, emphatically beating Hull 2-0, playing their part in one of the greatest games of the decade in the 5-5 thriller at the Villa (OK, so perhaps the Pantillimon naysayers had a point that night) and, most recently, putting in a commanding performance at Pride Park to earn a valuable point, and another clean sheet, against bitter rivals Derby. You probably don’t need me to tell you where the Forest fans noisily suggested the home crowd could stick their Xeroxed corporate white flags. Compare the thrills and spills of these away matches to the tepid performance in a defeat at home to Preston or the goalless battle against Stoke and you can’t help but suspect that the players prefer the freedom of life on the road too. Could it really be us, the ‘home’ Forest fans, that could be the decisive factor this season? Can we, loudly and unashamedly roar them on to promotion?

We can. Of course we can. My reasons for optimism are based on the groundswell of good work that’s been going on behind the scenes from supporters in Nottingham already this year: the Forza Garibaldi group organising fan murals and pre-match booze-ups on land and water; the forward momentum of the LGBT Trickies group giving a voice and a space (and some fetching rainbow laces) to those who previously might have felt less than welcome at the ground; the hugely successful food bank collections held at the Trent Navigator pub before matches.

We can be proud of all of these things as a modern, forward-thinking football club and be proud of our team too. Let’s not fear the worst – we’ve got to play Norwich, Leeds and Chelsea over the Christmas period – we’ve definitely discovered fire this year, isn’t now the best time to use it?   

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