The tennis did serve to get me a scholarship to a sports school and freed from family ties allowing me to decide my own path and engage in a crash course in learning to play the game too. Remedial skills in a rather rarified, elite environment. My education had been gleaned from a year or two playing at 'play time' and watching the relatively scarce clips of Forest on TV. Lacking basic ball skills made me an ideal candidate for centre half and therefore I made a special effort to focus on the skill sets of Lloyd and Burns and vividly recalled and re-ran the image of Burnsie's head butt in my head when I was trying to get to sleep the night before the big game at school. Whilst Forest were sweeping aside their elders and betters in the league I was engaged in my own little miracle on a football pitch in Somerset too. I was learning how to manage money, post pocket money, boarding school gives you the opportunity to buy anything you deem 'strictly essential' for sport or study. I reached an arrangement with the sports shop where they were able to not only special order a youth's red Forest shirt in that futuristic shiny red material they'd only just invented but also a yellow away one too. Both essential for the football trial that was going to be the first time I got to play on the grass that Cloughie said was where proper football had to be played. I'll never know what it was, I later discovered our coach was a Southampton fan, but he picked me to play centre half for one of the teams in the big trial - the school needed to select a team to get through the first round of the Somerset Cup in the winter term as it started before the season proper arrived in Spring. Maybe it was the 'essential' shiny, new Nottingham Forest shirt that earned me selection as, despite my difficulty kicking or heading the ball, I must have been a true connoisseur of the game by virtue of the team I followed. I must have been more anxious than Chris Woods in the League Cup final, wracked with nervous energy and self doubt I somehow managed to get through the game without giving away my total inability with my feet. Primarily by bicycle kicking a half save from the 'keeper off the line and then taking a goal bound shot straight in the face and adding my own blood to the bib provided to once again help it match the Garibaldi below. I got the nod, we won the game and went on, much like Forest, to win the Cup the following term. My first game on grass had gone well and most of those that followed the next 5 years went equally well more often than not. I not only had the pleasure of playing in front of Jimmy Hill and alongside his son and get within a few seconds of being robbed of a place in the U18 Schools Cup Final by an FA ref. Hill Junior's opinion on that earned him a red card and a mention on the back page of The Sun the next morning to boot. I played alongside England players and one a nephew of Ron 'Chopper' Harris too. Given my 'education' in the dark arts by Larry and Kenny though, it was I who was known as 'Chopper' although in my head I was more Des Walker and any vestiges of anything untoward purely incidental. Those years playing, ordering essential Forest strips, tracksuits, even scarves and seeing my heroes winning cup after cup were priceless and instilled a deep, lifelong love of the game and the club that was as deep and magical as it was unlikely and incredible. My coach tended to advise me to try and emulate Malcolm Waldron at the time, when we met to discuss it years later, when my son was playing on the same fields in his Forest shirt that I once had, he admitted his admiration for OBE. He, like most of the country, was impressed by the genius of the man and what Forest had achieved, how could he not be. Maybe my own late interest and discerning choice had been the reason everything else fell into place. I loved football and what better team was there than Forest. They hadn't won a thing but they played football like Gods for this genius and his sidekick Mr. Taylor. There was no choice, this is what football was about, this is what you dream of, the dreams all came true.
I used to sit through prep, patiently waiting to be able to rush to the TV in the common room and check teletext or switch the BBC on the radio to hear the results of the games in midweek. Or rush back from the fields covered in mud to grab a bun and watch the results on Grandstand. Every match was a ritual of hours of pre-internet speculation and anxiety until I was able to somehow learn the result and, nearly always, celebrate yet another great result. Forest under Clough and Taylor never disappointed. Of course the greatest party football has every seen had to come to an end and we've had the longest ever hangover to follow. It's been well worth it and my belief and support has never wavered. There were the years of driving up and down the M1 from Surrey, ups with Harry and Frank, downs with various others after the tragic final acts of the Clough years. Desperately trying to buy shares from Barbados, later having them declared aptly worthless, sponsoring shirts Woany, Scimeca, Quashie and even one interesting Dutchman called Pierre and taking a 13 year 'retreat' in Florida and only seeing a few games a year when specially timed trips home could be arranged - throughout all those years, though the few ups and many downs, I would wear the latest versions of those beloved Forest shirts on my Sunday kick about with my son wearing one about the size of my first one. A middle aged, old centre half, with two knackered ACLs lecturing the various South Americans of all ages present about the greatest football team ever whose shirt this old bastard and his 7 year old son are still so proud to wear. It was still an honour to wear the shirt, the memories still burn just as bright and any similarity to the Kenny Burns of todays vintage in not incidental.
My wife and son have yet to enjoy the success which made Forest so easy to love for me. That is the curse I have cast upon them. However it wasn't about what they did for me. It was all about the way they did it. They played with integrity, style and in the right way. That is what made an even more enduring impact on me and is what I have to draw on today in the absence of all the trophies. It warms the heart when the umpteenth new chairman harks back to these values even if they or their steeds don't stick to them as well as they did back in the day. When the sabbatical had to come to an end and Englands green and pleasant land was more appealing than the sun soaked beaches of Florida there was only one place we wanted to be. Back home, not in Surrey, but Nottingham where our hearts have always been and our dreams await us. After the long journey we have arrived back home. We are all involved in various ways with the club and after over 40 years of blood, sweat and tears can finally live the dream of becoming season ticket holders and being back home. Whatever it is I can do to help the club, I'm going to do it. Whether it's as stupid as saluting the players when they leave the car park or as small as being as loud as possible when watching them play I will do it - it's great to be part of it.
What does Forest mean to me? Everything. Your football team is often a card you never get to pick, my son had no choice. All the ups and downs over the decades pale into insignificance. My relationship with the club and what it means to me is far, far greater than any result or any relegation even, it endures everything. I had the choice and I chose Forest. I ask myself why almost every week, is it really worth all the pain and frustration that comes with it? The answer is always the same, of course it is. I am more likely to change my politics, religion or even sex these day possibly - but never my football team. Forest 'til I die.