Well, here we go again. Yet another carnival, of sorts. Another East Midlands Derby for the Brian Clough Trophy, with all the tension, the butterflies, the fear, the shouts, the screams, the rage, the jubilation, the fucking ref, the agonies, the uncontrollable roar when we score…
I decided quite a while ago that I wasn’t going to go to the City Ground this time. Part of it was to do with the cost, but mostly, it was to do with the fact that these games turn me into an absolute gibbering wreck. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure that my nerves could stand it. So instead, I’ll be sitting on the sofa at home tomorrow, alone, watching it unfold on TV, with all breakable furniture and valuable objects safely out of harm’s way.
Drama is guaranteed, which is why Sky have opted to show the game. In recent years, we’ve had the lot. Goals galore, red cards, mass rucks, first-minute goals, penalties scored and missed, injury-time goals disallowed, ten men beating eleven, pantomime villains galore, scarves being waved, corner flags being promenaded, fines from the Football Association, players moving from one club to the other and returning to haunt them, stirring comebacks, sound thrashings, coffee cups, all the fun of the fair, in short…
There is no logical reason that this match should matter so much to me, but by God, it does. It has nothing to do with the fact that I went to school in Nottingham, was the only Derby fan in my year and got murdered on a daily basis for it – that was a long time ago and for the most part, it wasn’t really that malevolent. It has nothing to do with bragging rights at work, because I live and work in Manchester now and only know one Forest fan in this city (wouldn’t you know it, we were at the same gig last night. We exchanged nods and no smiles…)
So why is it so viscerally, unfathomably important to me that we beat the bastards?
Last year, while Derby were completing the most incredible win of all at Forest, I was on a train from Holyhead, at the tip of Anglesey, heading back towards Manchester. This is what happens when you let the missus book a holiday before checking the fixture list. Schoolboy error.
Tommo faithfully texted me right through the build-up, then within seconds of the kick-off, sent me the disastrous news that Frank Fielding was off and we were losing. The game was surely up and horrible fear – we’re going to get hammered – spread through me. Fortunately, the missus was asleep by now and didn’t have to suffer my agitation. I closed my eyes and waited.
But the minutes passed and there were no more texts. I kept checking my phone – have I got signal? – expecting the inevitable sequel of ‘2-0’. It never came. Gradually, I dared to start hoping against hope.
Then came ‘1-1 Jamie Ward wonder goal!’ – and a tumbling rush of feelings. Jesus Christ, we’ve equalised, fuck, we’ve got to hold on, how long til half-time, don’t fucking lose it now. Then a garbled text about Forest complaining because Cohen was down injured, or something. Oh dear. They must have been down to ten men for a minute.
Then silence again. No more texts. And the longer it went on, weirdly, the calmer I felt. At first.
Then, with the train cruising through countryside and the Better Half slumbering on my shoulder, a text bleep. Oh no… I steeled myself and fished my phone out of my pocket. It’s from Tommo. I breathe deeply and open it.
‘Hendrick has missed from a yard’ and my heart sank like a stone. Shit shit shit shit shit.
Then, minutes later, ‘2-1 Jeffrey Hendrick!!!’
By the time we were about to board our connecting train at Crewe, I was pretty much glued to the phone, just watching the time tick by – it must be over, it must be over, what the fuck’s happening, why isn’t he texting – then finally, another text. Please, please not a fucking equaliser... No! The Rams had done it – a quite monumental victory.
As I practically danced across the platform at Crewe Station, my phone started jumping with celebratory texts from friends. Matt Ling claimed that the result automatically qualified us for the Champions League, but the one that really stood out was, again, from Tommo. It simply said:
‘They were lions’
There is no reason why they cannot be lions again tomorrow in Nottingham. Certainly, these players have it within them.
That said, after flattering to deceive in games against Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield and Burnley, failing to take their chances at Wolves and surviving a terrifying mini-collapse against Charlton, the players have something to prove to the fans. We know they can play pretty football and look dangerous going forward, but can they go out there, show true concentration and determination, grit their teeth, keep Forest out and win?
Forest are a different animal from last season’s weak and ponderous team. From the side we beat at the City Ground, out have gone Chambers, Morgan, Gunter, Derbyshire, Miller and Lynch – also the decrepit George Boateng, whose presence there was the epitome of everything that was wrong with them under Steve McClaren. In to replace these players have come what Ramspace cheekily christened a ‘dirty dozen‘ in a blogpost yesterday.
Glancing through the list of Forest’s new signings, they are a seasoned bunch of pros who don’t exactly strike fear into the heart, until you get to the centre forwards – Simon Cox and Billy bloody Sharp.
Sharp always scores against us. I sometimes think that all you have to do to beat Derby is have a striker called Charlie or Billy – but no matter what his name, if you’ve got a proper striker, the reality is that we will allow him a chance at some point and, being a good striker, he will probably take it.
There is almost no chance that this game will end 0-0. You can get odds as long as 21/2 on that result, but I wouldn’t touch it at 22/1.
For us, Jamie Ward is the key man (and will revel in the stick he’ll get from the Red Dog hordes), but Conor Sammon has a real chance to make himself a hero.
Fielding will doubtless be called upon and Richard Keogh will have his work cut out marshalling the back four, presumably alongside the doughty Jake Buxton. I firmly believe that both of our full backs can be trusted to defend properly, even if some fans have never taken the veteran Gareth Roberts.
We know what we will get from Craig Bryson – perpetual motion, a willingness to run his guts out for the team – while hopefully, Hendrick will be able to put his foot on the ball and exercise some control in the eye of the storm. Paul Coutts doesn’t seem the type to be fazed by a big occasion and we can hope for some quality crosses and set pieces from him, which could be crucial.
And what odds on young Will Hughes taking the chance to show the watching Sky viewers exactly how good he is?
Our team have played well enough in spells this season to show that going forward, they can carve out chances against anybody else in the division. If they can match the genuine attacking threat with some real defensive resolve, it could be another magical day for those, as Colin Bloomfield puts it, ‘of a black-and-white persuasion’.
For those of you who are going tomorrow, writing this has made me realise what a complete idiot I am for not coming with you – and I’m sorely regretting it now. Look after yourselves, don’t let the bastards out-sing you (as if they could)… And come home smiling!