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Back to the Beginning at City Ground
I don’t remember the first time I ever kicked a soccer ball, or watched a game, or walked into a stadium. But I do remember the first fact that made me fall in love with the game — the first shaft of light, if you will, that shone on me from another world, which I now spend much of my life exploring.
I was playing in the church league back in Memphis. It was the summer of 1979; I was 12 years old. There was an English kid on our team — I think his mom or dad worked for FedEx — and he told me story upon story about the game back home. The passion of Liverpool vs Everton. The religious fervor of Celtic vs Rangers. The size of Wembley. The FA Cup Final. But the the thing that truly pried open my mind to the possibility of mystery and wonder in the world was that a team called Nottingham Forest were the champions of Europe.
Just that sentence — Nottingham Forest are the champions of Europe — had so many questions in it that I was probably doomed to explore for decades, just to answer them all.
First of all, Nottingham Forest? Like is Robin Hood the coach, and do they play in a meadow somewhere? I lived in a world of Tigers and Bears and Falcons and Lions, and this is what you call your teams? By the way, it was also in 1979 that the Memphis Rogues of the North American Soccer League came into existence, and sometime back then I watched them they play an exhibition game against a thing called Crystal Palace! I remember being enchanted by their name, red and blue shirts, and passing ability.
Second, “champions of Europe?” I assumed Nottingham Forest was in England, and he assured me they were, but since they were the Champions of England — again, mind blown — they played in a tournament, called a Cup for some reason, against all the other champions of European countries. (This is now the Champions League, of course.) So they played teams from Germany, Holland, France, and so on — but by this time I was already lost in a fantasy of bands of supporters emerging from the English woods, crossing the sea in god knows what kind of craft, then invading Europe with songs and scarves and possible violence — because he had already told me about the singing and the scarves and the hooligans — and emerging as champions, the scrappy little English club named for a patch of woods. I had no idea how scrappy, as it would turn out.
And about that singing. There was, for some reason, in the 1970s on American public television, a thing called Soccer Made in Germany. It was a kind of Bundesliga Match of the Day, with a Welsh host — not that I knew what a Welsh person was in 1979, but I found this out since — and this program served as a launching-off point for me and many Americans about my age. I learned who Beckenbauer was, who Rummenigge was, who Cruyff was — because sometimes they showed clips from the World Cup, which was like some kind of multi-colored magic that rained down in the world, scattered images of which reached me in Memphis. And sometimes they showed Nottingham Forest playing some team from Sweden or wherever.
But for all that, it was the singing that did it. I heard the fans singing through the television, and I saw the scarves and the arms and the jumping and swaying, and I knew I had to go and see this thing. I asked my English friend what song Nottingham Forest sang, and he said it was some Beatles song I had never heard of. Mystery abounded.
I also wanted to play the game, to be a part of this worldwide mysterious thing, and I was a decent goalkeeper — until I reached the age at which offseason conditioning became a thing. And in Memphis, the offseason was also called summer, so instead of running and exercising and working on ball skills when it was nine million degrees, I stayed at home and watched on television, eventually deciding I would prefer writing about sports over playing them.
But I wanted to know more about this English football thing. So I would follow my dad down to The Tobacco Shop in East Memphis every week, when he would buy the New York Times and, if they had it, The Economist — and I would grab The Times of London so I could look for anything related to “their” football.
And damned if Forest didn’t win Europe again! And Liverpool, my friend’s team, won the Football League, with a Scottish player their best guy, and even that didn’t make sense to me. I was hooked.
After a few careers had come and gone, this one started because another friend took me to an Arsenal game and I set out to describe this world to people, and in 2016 I actually went to a game at Nottingham Forest. By then, though, it was a shell of its former self. I had learned by then who Brian Clough and Peter Taylor were, and just how magical those days were, but what I saw that night was depressing. They were down in the Championship, with terrible owners, a mediocre team and a half-filled stadium.
But then the magic came back, they made the Premier League in 2022 — first time since Clough retired — and they went and made the quarterfinals of the League Cup, which Clough won four times. And in my current life’s configuration — this part is definitely not a coincidence — I was in London with the ability to get myself to Nottingham for a midweek game. Which I promptly did. And thus I found myself on the Trent Bridge looking over at City Ground, then walking along the river to the turnstiles with throngs of other people, then sat in the Trent End, looking left at the Brian Clough Stand, built with all that European money, and right at the Peter Taylor Stand, which probably hasn’t changed a bit since before their first European game.
The current manager came out and waved at the crowd, and I thought, He’s standing where Clough stood. And I am standing where people clapped for Clough. Where they celebrated European Cups and League Cups. And yes, where they watched Yeovil Town and Leyton Orient in the dreadful League One days. And some of the folks around me looked like they might could remember it all — and here they stood.
Then the teams came out, and the scarves went up, and they sang that old Beatles song, the Mull of Kintyre, with the words changed to Oh City Ground. And I was in City Ground. And for a long, sweet moment, it all came full circle. I was awash in nostalgia, wonder, and even some mystery: That kid from Memphis is at a Cup quarterfinal at Nottingham Forest, between the Taylor and Clough stands, singing Mull of Kintyre with a Forest scarf around his neck.
I have, since my earliest groundhopping days, and after a brief flirtation with Fulham, resisted picking a team to support. I admire too many of them to settle on one. And the games are so much more fun when you don’t care who wins. But standing on the Trent End that night, and watching them win on penalty kicks to get a semifinal with Manchester United, and hearing them sing “Forest are magic, on and off the pitch,” all the years briefly melted away, and I found myself looking around, and down at my new red scarf, and thinking maybe I should go with my first love. Maybe it’s Forest for me, after all these years, where it all started.