With all the pain of the play-offs and the heartache of relegation, should you bring up your kids as Forest supporters? Neil Heath didn’t think twice.
“It’s all my fault,” said Dad, “I’m sorry for putting you through this.”
His apology came after that incredibly painful 0-3 defeat to Derby under Joe Kinnear, in 2005. The one where he told reporters, “It’s just another game.”
Dad wasn’t taking responsibility for the result, of course, but for getting me involved with this club of ours. At that moment, with the despair I felt, I agreed with him. Why did you get me into this mess? More importantly should I share the pain with my own sons?
I was born at the end of a momentous season for Nottingham Forest. We had won the League Championship for the first time in our history and our first trophy, the League Cup, since the FA Cup in 1959.
It was a no-brainer for Dad, of course I’d be a Forest fan.
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It could have been different. My Mum and my grandparents all supported Notts County but the lure of the garibaldi was too irresistible. My grandma, clearly disappointed with my choice, has frequently said to me over the years, “You support Forest but want Notts to do well”.
Dad had his own lucky escape, too. His father tried to take him to Field Mill to see Mansfield Town. Thankfully, Dad had the good sense to refuse. Instead he grew up watching Joe Baker, Terry Hennessey, Duncan McKenzie and Ian Storey-Moore at the City Ground.
He didn’t take me to my first game until April 1987. It’s easy to see why. Football grounds in the 1980s didn’t feel like safe places to take children. It was two years after Heysel, when 39 Juventus fans were crushed to death against a wall – which eventually collapsed. Closer to home, the fire which engulfed a stand at Bradford City’s Valley Parade ground was still fresh in the memory.
My debut was a midweek game against Leicester City. Dad and I sat in the Main Stand close to the pitch. When the players came on to the pitch I remember being blown away by their red glossy kits, so vivid against the green luminous turf. I recall the ebb and flow of the people in the Trent End and the way they glowed orange under the lights. I can’t forget the smell of the wet turf and the chants of “BRI-AN-CLUFFSA-FOOTBALL-GENIUSSS”. Above all, what impressed me the most was that Steve Sutton, Stuart Pearce, Des Walker, Franz Carr and Nigel Clough were real and not just black-and-white pictures in the Evening Post.
We won 2-1. Clough and Carr both scored.
What a time to start supporting the Reds. The following season we finished third behind Liverpool and Manchester United. We were also narrowly beaten by Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final. Surely we would not have been beaten by Wimbledon in the final?
The following season we finished third again and won two trophies. The first of which was the Littlewoods Cup (League Cup). It was my first trip to Wembley and the memories of the 3-1 victory over Luton, my Dad and I together for the whole day, are among my most treasured.
The foundations of our relationship were built on Nottingham Forest. We have plenty of things to talk about nowadays but I wonder without the Reds how close we would be. It’s how we communicated as father and son in those early years and we have so many great memories of being together, watching Forest through the good and bad times.
I am a dad now. I have two boys aged four and two. They both have Forest kits, I couldn’t resist. I also have footage of them singing ‘Come on you Reds’ and ‘Derby are rubbish’. But when George was born we were in League One. It looked as though we’d be staying there. What dross was ahead? I contemplated not bringing him up as a Forest fan at all, or indeed a football fan, altogether. The ludicrous amount of money, or lack of it in some cases, its morally corrupt leading lights and its abject organising bodies have turned it into an unpalatable sport at times. If there was any purity in football it’s all but gone.
Maybe the remaining purity lies with fans. And the good times shared, however rare, between a father and son.
Follow Neil on Twitter: @Heathy278