Stephen Fry once said that he loves Abba because “they’re so much better than they need to be”. Apparently there are nine piano tracks on ‘Dancing Queen’, such was the attention to detail Bjorn and Benny put into the texture and production of their songs. What could’ve been throwaway 70s pop fodder became indestructible classics.
This was the sentiment I held at the back of my mind as I read David Marples’ The History Boys – Thirty Iconic Goals in the History of Nottingham Forest. Released in time for the Christmas market - a glossy hardback for the Forest fan in your life which could be lobbed into a shopping basket alongside Old Spice and soap-on-a-rope. This book didn’t really need to be any good. And yet it is.
Of course, no surprise to fans who read Marples’ crackling match reports in Forest fanzine Bandy and Shinty; a reassuring and convincing voice amidst the often hysterical knee-jerks of the modern football fan. And reading his work in long form like this you can appreciate why; here is a writer with a sense of perspective and a true understanding of a football club whose present is perpetually infuriated by its rich and romantic past.
The book’s premise of focusing on thirty individual goals belies the fact that this is a comprehensive modern history of Forest, yet gives Marples the breathing space to embark on delightful flights of fancy, such as a shameless comparison between Steve Chettle and Francseco Totti, or a speculation on how good Chris Bart-Williams would be at giving you a hug. Such mischievousness (the second ‘goal’ in this collection is, in fact, a Peter Shilton save) taps into a knowingness which flows through the veins of much football fan culture. Trevor Francis’ tie is described as being as wide as ‘the Artemision Bronze statue depicting Zeus’ and there’s something thrilling and subversive about the fact that half-cut uncles will be reading prose this punchy among the twiglets and cranberry sauce.
As well as the obvious inclusions – iconic goals such as Trevor Francis’ European Cup winner or Johnny Metgod’s thunderbolt against Manchester United – Forest fans will be delighted to read of oddities like Gary Crosby’s Artful Dodger act against City and net-bulgers from less glamorous times like hometown boy Julian Bennett’s decisive goal against Yeovil or Radoslaw Majewski’s volley against West Brom.
As I write this review Joe Lolley has scored an absolute screamer for Forest away at league leaders Middlesbrough and I wonder if Marples will include it as number 31 in time for the release of the paperback. It’s a reminder that Forest – a club who will of course always be fiercely proud of its history – might just have a future too. And even if this season fizzles out like so many before it, we can at least be proud of our brilliant writer – so much better than he needs to be.