As you make the journey over Trent Bridge you see it, rising into view. The City Ground.
Perched by the river, it stands there noble and proud. The Trent End imposing on the skyline, the floodlights reaching up into the air.
Nottingham Forest’s home.
History, glory, good times, bad times. All encapsulated in that single patch of land.
It remains one of the most picturesque walks to a football stadium in the country. Even now.
In normal times, on any given Saturday, traffic backs up on the bridge and the paths are crammed full of supporters heading to a game – chatting, laughing, grumbling, dissecting performances, analysing tactics and debating team selection. A stream of Garibaldi red meandering towards a common cause.
Fans gather for a drink, groups spill out onto the streets; they stop by a programme seller on the corner, pay a visit to the burger van for some chips, gather outside the club shop, greet old friends and familiar faces.
There is a buzz. An energy. An atmosphere.
For the few permitted into the stadium on matchdays, it is a soulless experience.
When rules allowed, there might be the odd group of skateboarders breezing up and down the footpath under the Trent End, or rowing crews heading out on the water, the odd jogger passing by. Their voices and the sound of wheels on tarmac echoing around.
Otherwise, nothing. Just an empty void. Even more so once inside.
It is a year ago today fans last packed into the City Ground stands. A turnout of more than 27,000 for a Friday night clash with Millwall under the lights on March 6, 2020.
There was some talk beforehand about whether the teams would shake hands, but that was the only real mention of the newly-discovered threat of Covid-19.
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On the pitch, it was a dismal affair. A wretched 3-0 defeat and a poor performance. Forgettable. Some supporters filed out into the cold, dank night early, opting not to stay until the final whistle.
If only we’d known then what we know now.
Just a few days later, Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis, who had attended the game, announced he had contracted coronavirus. Confusion followed. The Reds’ next match, away to Sheffield Wednesday, was thrown into doubt. And then, eventually, football was shut down completely on Friday, March 13 – of all dates.
Initially it was planned to be for a few weeks, then that date was pushed back, until the sport was suspended indefinitely amid the nationwide lockdown.
More than three months later the Championship resumed, but with one vital ingredient missing.
“It’s been terrible,” Sheffield United loanee Luke Freeman tells NottinghamshireLive of playing behind closed doors.
“You have to be professional enough to do what you have to do, but it’s just so flat.
“In the build-up to games it’s just very difficult to get that matchday buzz when you don’t have the fans there, especially at such an unbelievable ground like Forest’s, with the fans they have here.
“It’s something I’ve really missed.
“It’s one of the main reasons why I signed here, for how big a club Forest is and the fanbase here. It was something I was really looking forward to, playing in front of them.”
Striker Glenn Murray says: “For me, it’s highlighted how very, very important the fans are. The fans are the game and this situation has highlighted that massively.
“It sometimes feels pretty soulless out there on a Saturday afternoon without hundreds of people screaming at you, whether it be positive or negative! The negative can be good sometimes, it can give you a kick up the backside!
“Unfortunately there’s nothing out there that’s legal that can give us that high that fans do!
“The fans are everything. The sooner they are back, the better.”
Barely a month before that Millwall game, came one of the best atmospheres at the City Ground for a long, long time.
Home to Leeds United on February 8 was spine-tinglingly, goosebump-inducingly electric. The place was absolutely rocking.
Mull of Kintryre before kick-off is a corker at the best of times, but that day, it was on another level. Likewise, the roar and the collective jumping from seats, the explosion of noise when Tyler Walker netted to seal a 2-0 win.
Even now, the memory makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand up.
How moments like that have been missed.
That sense of unity and camaraderie, a shared experience; you just don’t get that watching on a screen from the sofa.
It’s the social aspect which comes with football, too.
“You feel like you’re part of it when you’re at the games.
“I miss the routine with my dad,” says Lee James, a Reds fan whose first game was the 7-0 victory over Chelsea in 1991.
“You get up early, have a bit of breakfast, get the bus, see people – some of them you know their names or they’re just regular faces at the away matches. It’s the build-up to it, a few drinks before the game.
“We always looked out for the seaside fixtures, me and my dad.
“We used to go to Brighton for the weekend a lot, your Bournemouths, places like that.
“Sometimes my life does revolve around Forest!
“When the fixtures come out, me and my dad plan the next nine or 10 months. You miss that.
“It’s normally middle of June, isn’t it, when they come out – that’ll be it, I’ll be planning my life again!”
James, who lives in Sutton-in-Ashfield and attended that Millwall game, says it has been both strange and frustrating having to follow the club from afar.
“When you go to the games, you’ve had a bad game and you lose, you’ll chat about it for half an hour afterwards with your friends and what have you,” he adds. “You feel like you’ve done your bit, you’ve vented your anger at the game, and that’s it – you come home and try to forget about it.
“But when you’re watching it on telly or checking your phone at work, you feel helpless. It ruins my week! You haven’t got the release of being there.
“You feel like you’re part of it when you’re at the games.
“Everything just seems more magnified. Because you can’t watch the games physically, I find myself on the forums more and getting into the details of what fans think on social media.
“When I’m at the games, I see the game, I’ve got my own opinions and I know what’s what.
“Because I can’t do that, I’m trying to find out what everybody else thinks, so I’m online more, listening to podcasts, trying to get myself more involved.
“You just feel helpless.
“You can vent and chant at the games. I don’t know what difference it makes, but at least sometimes you feel like you’re making a difference.”
The players would certainly say it helps.
Freeman is convinced the Reds would have picked up more points if they’d had the help of a crowd to push them over the line in matches.
“They can be your 12th man at times,” he says. They can get you through some games when you’ve got a club as big as this and a fanbase as big as this.
“I do think we would have picked up a lot more points and probably got into gear a lot quicker if we’d had the fans here from the start of the season.”
You could argue the same about last term. Would Forest have kept their position in the top six if the final nine games had not been played behind closed doors? Would that capitulation against Stoke City have happened had it been in front of a full house?
It’s all hypothetical and a moot point. Still, you can’t help but wonder.
‘That inner drive which the fans give you.’
Manager Chris Hughton certainly believes the lack of fans impacts on results – backed up by the fact many teams have been doing as well on the road as on their own turf. Home advantage has largely been lost.
The Reds this season have picked up the same number of Championship wins home and away, and only two more draws Trentside than on their travels.
“Psychologically it is there, otherwise why would the statistics always say that generally a team is going to win more games at home than away from home? That would only be because of the home support there,” Hughton says.
“It’s not something we mention, but the players go into that environment and they are playing in that environment. And it is a fact that playing at home is not what it was before.
“I know what it’s like to manage in front of full stadiums, but not at the City Ground. That is something I’m really looking forward to experiencing.
“I have been in the opposition dugout at the City Ground, so I know the noise level and how fanatical the supporters can be.
“We have all dramatically missed it.
“It has affected the game and it has certainly affected results. I’m quite sure, in all four divisions, we have seen more away points and away wins than at any other time.”
Some players feed off the buzz of performing in front of supporters.
Goalkeeper Brice Samba revels in winding up opposition fans, while the likes of Joe Lolley are entertainers.
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“As attacking players, you thrive off the adrenaline, the people behind you pushing you on and the fans in the stadium,” reflects Lolley.
“Since I’ve been playing, they’ve always been so supportive towards me and you always get that extra kick when you hear them shouting you on.
“Mentally, you’ve got to get round it somehow. You’ve got to push yourself. Maybe that’s something I personally need to do better at times – find that inner drive which the fans give you.
“There’s no excuses in terms of, I haven’t played well because there’s no fans. But for everyone, it is difficult.
“In times gone by, sometimes when you’re a little bit tired and you get the ball, then suddenly you hear people cheering or see them standing up, it gives you that little spurt of energy that perhaps you didn’t think you had.
“All those little things help give you an edge in games, especially as an attacking player.”
For long-term supporter Dan Allgood, this will be the first season in which he has not been to watch the Reds.
“I know it’s the same for every team, but I think Forest rely on the fans a bit more,” says the 28-year-old from Boston, who was also at that Millwall game 12 months ago.
“Forest fans let the team know when they’re happy and when they’re not happy.
“At Forest, when they’re 1-0 down or it’s 0-0 in the last 10 minutes and they’re really pushing, the fans really come together and get behind the team.
“The amount of late goals I’ve seen go in at Forest!
“Like against Leeds, for example – I genuinely think if we hadn’t had fans in that game, we wouldn’t have beaten them 2-0 and played how we did that day.
“Forest are one of those teams where they rely on the fans, in a way.
“I do think we would pick up more points if we had fans in the stadium.”
A physical separation has also changed the dynamic between supporters and players.
“I don’t think there’s a connection that I feel now with them, because you can’t let them know if they’re performing well,” says Allgood. “It’s very frustrating watching it on a TV or a laptop.
“I go with my dad and we meet a few friends in Nottingham. We meet up for a beer.
“I miss that. I miss walking outside the ground, picking a programme up on the way. As you’re walking down the River Trent, you can see the crowd and hear the noise. Then once you get sat down inside the ground, they play the music and everybody’s hyped up and ready.
“I miss just literally every single part about it.
“The only thing I don’t miss is a Tuesday night when they’ve lost, it’s freezing cold and we have to drive home!
“It’s not great watching it from home, but it’s the only thing we’ve got.
“When we’ve been able to meet people in groups of six, I have been to Nottingham to see a friend and it’s so frustrating because you’re like, I’m in Nottingham right now, five or 10 minutes from the ground and Forest are playing, can’t I just peek through?!”
There is also a human aspect to operating under restrictions in the covid era for the playing staff and coaches.
“I think what the pandemic has done is heightened people’s thoughts and awareness of mental issues,” says Hughton. That falls into line with bringing supporters back and people going to big events, which will make a difference.
“It does have an impact on the squad.
“Particularly in tough periods when we’ve not been getting the results, things we would like to have done as a group – meetings we would like to have had – it’s been difficult.
“We’ve found it difficult to have big meetings, certainly at the training ground with the restrictions.
“We have a lot of players here on their own, and not being able to go round teammates’ flats or spend time together, that will no doubt have had an impact on the squad.”
Forest have tried to make the experience of home games as close to normal as it possibly can be for the squad in the circumstances, still playing music as the players warm up, showing the brilliant pre-match video on the big screen and making announcements over the tannoy.
They have even recently experimented with piped-in crowd noise, to try to give the team something to work off.
If it helps take the edge off otherwise sterile surroundings, then why not?
Forza Garibaldi did a fantastic job – as always – of their display for the final games of last term, and the cardboard cutouts filled some empty seats.
But no-one is under any illusions all of this isn’t a patch on the real thing; of seeing the flags, scarves and banners of actual supporters; hearing the hum and getting a whiff of the takeaway food and drinks. Matchdays usually are a feast for the senses.
Then there is the financial aspect.
As a rough guide, Forest’s accounts for 2018/19 – the most recent available from when fans were able to attend for the whole season – show they earned £7.6m in matchday revenue.
Clubs up and down the country are grappling with the lack of cash usually generated by ticket sales.
That is bound to result in belt-tightening when it comes to transfer windows.
“A big part of it is financial,” says Hughton. “You look at some of the clubs in the lower divisions, in the National Leagues, and you wonder how they are still surviving.
“I think it affected January and I think it will affect the summer window also.
“It goes without saying that you have owners who are having to bankroll clubs.
“Some of the revenues will still be coming in, particularly for the Premier League clubs as regards television money, but when you think clubs will have gone through a whole season without that vital money coming through the turnstiles, then it’s only been about owners and clubs bankrolling the clubs.
“I think that will have an effect on what we will see in the summer.”
‘It’s been very strange and very different.’
Following the Prime Minister’s recent announcement of a proposed roadmap out of lockdown, it will be the start of the next campaign when fans are back at the City Ground.
Clubs will be able to admit a limited number from May 17 at the earliest, but that will come too late for the Reds’ final league game of this term.
So, 2021/22 it is. And what a glorious, uplifting, joyous day that will be. A real lump in the throat.
It will be Hughton’s first experience of walking out of the City Ground tunnel as Forest manager, being greeted by that roar.
“It will mean a lot,” he reflects.
“It’s been very strange and very different.
“You get used to things. We’ve got used to that feeling now of having no supporters there and where you’re going to change – whether that’s in the changing room or not in the changing room.
“It will make it even more special when I do get the opportunity to manage in front of fans at the City Ground.”
With any luck, that will be on a sun-drenched day in August; supporters milling about in the build-up, beers in hand, hugging much-missed friends, before belting out Mull of Kintyre at the top of their lungs just before the match gets underway.
“My desire is always to be here.”
Soon. You will be back soon.
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