The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Up the Forest!

Posted by steigs on May 20, 2008

One of the more intriguing elements of international soccer to an American is the concept of relegation/promotion.  A whole new element of drama for those at the lower end of the standings, much more life and death than our habit of letting losers go first in a draft for young talent.  Then there’s the excitement of getting promoted to a higher level — as if a whole team could be called up to “the Show.”  The novelty is entertaining, at least if it’s not happening to your adopted team.

So I need to mark the promotion of the lower division English team I’ve adopted, Nottingham Forest.  Here’s the good folks at Through the Seasons Before Us celebrating Forest’s return to the Championship:

There was the inevitable pitch invasion, which can be frustrating when you’re in the upper tier, but after attempting to prevent it, the police and stewards gave up and allowed the pitch to fill with dancing Forest fans, who caught hold of numerous players including Junior Agogo and Chris Cohen.  After it had died down and everyone was off the team re-emerged for a deserved lap of honour, taking applause from all the Forest fans as well as the numerous Yeovil fans who had remained to take in the celebrations.

After attempting a hand-holding length-of-the-pitch run and Klinsmann-type dive, the excitement got the better of the fans again who encroached and almost collided with the players; but what a day, the like of which it seems so long since we’ve witnessed!  I found myself almost numb and disbelieving after the dancing and the singing had died down, I don’t think it’s going to sink in properly until some time in the middle of next week.  So I’ll write it down.  We finished second, we’re definitely promoted to the Championship, we don’t have to play in the playoffs, and we’re playing Derby next year!

I became fond of Forest after making a visit to the City Ground in Nottingham.  For that story, with a cameo by Nottingham Castle and unavoidable Robin Hood references, along with some musings on the relegation concept, read on!

Nottingham — August 2004

 

It is bright and sunny, around 70 degrees.  California weather.  A strange notion occurs to me, one which has never crossed my mind on English soil before.  Maybe I should have worn shorts. 

 

I’m in downtown Nottingham, in what are considered the English “midlands” between London and the Manchester/Liverpool area.  I’m looking up at Nottingham Castle, scene of so many stirring and Robin Hood adventures over the years, the place where Robin and the Merry Men foiled all those devious plots of the evil Sheriff.

 

Except there is no castle.  Cromwell’s troops, not understanding its future value as a tourist attraction, tore the castle down in the English Civil War.  As a result, today a former noble’s house turned museum sits on the bluff, guarding central Nottingham.  Oh, there is a statute of an archer along the street leading up to the “castle” and tourists are busy taking pictures of it.  A little boy poses as if to shoot an arrow alongside Robin.  Me, I am more charmed by the Ye Old Jerusalem Inn, a ramshackle pub at the base of the bluff, which claims to have been serving thirsty customers since the days of King Richard.  A pint, barkeep!

 

There isn’t much of a forest left around Nottingham, either, and what does remain is a good twenty miles out of town.  There is a Maid Marian Way downtown and, if I were looking for lunch, a Robin Hood Tandoori restaurant.  Oh, and a “Sheriff’s Hall,” if I were in the mood for dinner with a medieval theme.  Fun for the whole family!

 

Instead, I go to check out the other Nottingham Forest, the soccer team.  Their stadium, the City Ground, is a twenty minute walk from downtown Nottingham, out London Road, a name suggesting that centuries ago King Richard might have trotted this very way on his horse, headed south.  Contemporary Nottingham is that common phenomena, the English city struggling with the decline of industry.  I pass boarded-up buildings as I leave the central shopping area.  Then it becomes a confusion — car dealers, graphics designers, 19th century brick buildings in various states of repair — a place for factories once and not sure yet what it will become.

 

As I walk along the Nottingham canal, two stadiums rise into view, immense metal sheds looking like just another pair of factories in this industrial area.  I pass Incinerator Road and the Cattle Market, the latter looking more like a flea market these days.

 

The first stadium is the County Ground, home of Notts County, Nottingham’s other team.  It is quiet — they’re playing away today — and I move on to the City Ground, which sits on the bank of the Trent River.  It is a potentially lovely area, especially on a summer day like this one, if you don’t mind a few smokestacks.  A few pubs line the river as well as a couple of rowing club headquarters.

 


In the US, a baseball team would extort a stadium and make this area into something bright and novel, busy with pre-packaged fun.  Not here.  The stadium is surrounded by a strange mix — office buildings, narrow old houses, take-away chip shops.  I get a slice of pizza and eat on the riverside.  Others eat fries with tiny plastic forks and a middle-aged couple offer bread crumbs to ducks.  A group of small boys, with typical aggression, prefer to hurl stones and sticks into the Trent.  The red Nottingham Forest jersey is everywhere.  The team crest is a tree above the word Forest.  It’s rather cute, I decide.

 

Clouds have rolled in, cooling things to a pleasant temperature.  I scan the local newspaper — the lead story on the game is about whether one of their best players will be sold.  Such is life in the lower divisions.

 

Once Forest was the best in Europe.  Back-to-back European Cups in 1979 and 1980.  They interrupted Liverpool’s run — as did Birmingham’s Aston Villa in 1982 — a sign of how dominant the English league was during that period.  The Nottingham Forest club shop is filled with reminders — a “25 Years On” DVD, biographies of Brian Clough, legendary coach of the championship team, replicas of the ‘79 jersey and so on.  But there’s also plenty of modern gear like Forest watches and backpacks as well as lots of clothing.

 

Nottingham Forest is now in the First Division, effectively the AAA of English soccer, a step below the EPL.  Burdened by debts and left behind by the big money free agency of the 1990s they were “relegated” — or demoted — in 1999 and haven’t yet won their way back to the Premiership.  This isn’t an entirely new situation for Forest fans.  The championship winners of ‘79 and ‘80 had only made it to the top level in 1977.  A whirlwind of success.  No wonder they read the biography of Brian Clough, the character of a coach who pulled it off in such large numbers.

 

I consider the concept of relegation as I enjoy the riverside.  It sounds odd to Americans but it’s taken for granted in world soccer.  Every year the three lowest finishers in the Premiership are demoted a level while three top teams earn “promotion” from the division below.  A similar thing happens for the levels below the first division and in nearly every country with a soccer league in the world.

 

Let’s translate this to the American sports context.  In 1979, around the time Nottingham Forest were champions of Europe, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series with their “We Are Family” team — Willie Stargell, Dave Parker and the rest.  After a talented team with a young Barry Bonds had some near misses in the early 1990s, the Pirates went into a deep funk, spending the rest of that decade losing and losing and losing some more.  Yet they were never dumped down to AAA ball.  They got to keep playing the Braves and Giants and Cardinals every year.  God only knows how far the lovable and lousy Cubs would have fallen if we used a relegation system — they’d probably be playing short-season rookie league games by now. 

 


This notion of relegation is, quite literally, foreign to American sports fan.  We don’t fear “the drop” when our baseball team goes on a long losing bender or the star point guard blows out a knee.  We don’t relegate last place teams to a lower division.  Taken on its face, this is because our professional sports are arranged differently than in most of the rest of the world.  In football and basketball, for example, college sports tend to function as the lower divisions.  (This brings with it a host of complications for what are ostensibly amateur athletics but this is not the place to get into that.)  Baseball and hockey have multi-level structures more akin to what is common with international soccer.  However, these leagues tend to operate in alliances with the major league teams as their designated “farm teams,” clearly subordinate to the whims of the majors.  That may be one reason minor league baseball was on its way out until it was reinvented as cheap family entertainment.  It’s not as much fun to root for a minor branch office of a bigger entity — it’s more interesting, and rewarding, to root for the independent little guy.

 

In most international soccer leagues at the end of the season, the last place team and often one or two additional teams at the bottom of the standings drop down a division.  This occurs throughout the system.  The worst second and third division teams fall a notch too.  At the same time, an equivalent number of the top teams from the lower divisions are “promoted” a level.  So the winner of the second highest league and usually the second and maybe third place teams join the top division for next season.  Hello, Manchester United and Liverpool!  Goodbye, Millwall and Preston North End!

 

This sets up a wholly separate drama from the race for the championship — the race to avoid “the drop.”  Near the end of each season there is a desperate scramble for a win or two to squeeze out of the “relegation zone.”  In American sports fans of teams having terrible years are mostly left to speculate on what to do with the top draft pick they’ll receive for being so lousy.  In other countries, they’re worried about staying in the major league at all.         

 

The promotion/relegation system has merits.  Virtue is rewarded.  Long-standing losers — the Los Angeles Clippers, the New Orleans Saints — would have been consigned to lower divisions years ago, instead of limping along in mediocrity.  Better-organized teams would have taken their spots and tried to compete with the winners. 

 

Dropping a division, particularly out of the top level, usually causes a crisis.  Revenues are less.  Television money is inevitably much lower and gate receipts can fall significantly.  A team usually has to go into rebuilding mode.  Often big-name stars are sold to teams better able to afford their salaries.  At the same time, newly promoted teams get more money.  The challenge they face is managing the windfall.  If they buy high-priced players to compete with the top teams they’d better succeed in “staying up” to be able to keep paying them.  On the other hand, if they simply continue what they’ve been doing, they risk being non-competitive and guaranteeing their team a quick return to the lower division.  A wholly different set of exercises than American fans are used to their teams going through when they hit a bad patch.

 

Obviously, our professional sports structure evolved quite differently from those in other countries.  It’s not like baseball might consider adopting a promotion/relegation system in the near future, where, say, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays might get relegated and the Richmond Braves promoted to the majors in their stead.  The systems are deeply embedded now.

 


Beyond this, I think there’s a deeper cultural reason that American leagues don’t do relegation.  It is, at heart, a static system.  Americans don’t like static systems.  We are for change and growth.  We are raised to believe in expansion, in optimism.  Ours is not a static creed.

 

The promotion/relegation model presumes a steady state league size.  Typically, there’s 18 teams, although some, like the English Premiership, are bigger and some are smaller.  Each year two or three trade places with teams from the second-highest level. 

 

American leagues expand.  Add teams!  We’re growing, developing, moving forward!  (Or so we think, even when we’re not.)  Who says that when one team joins another must be dropped?  There’s always room for one more, always one more new market to tap.  Keep building!  Bigger is better.

 

A country as large as ours conceives itself as perpetually developing.  We’re a frontier country at heart.  There’s always a fresh opportunity to exploit, a new plot of land to turn into a subdivision (if not a town).  Las Vegas has gone from a dusty crossroads to a metropolis in little more than 50 years.  Los Angeles, now one of the most important cities on the planet, was a village 150 years ago, when soccer was being born in England.

 

We Americans are boomers.  So we add to our leagues.  The NFL was only 10 teams in the 1930s and as late as the mid-1960s only had 14 teams.  It only blew up to its current size in the wake of the merger with the old AFL in 1970 and the steady rounds of expansion since.  In baseball, the major leagues were only east of the Mississippi as recently as the mid-1950s.  Now there are five teams in California alone.  

 

Furthermore, we don’t do relegation.  When something fails in the U.S. you don’t accept a lower status — you dust yourself off and move on.  Basketball team not making it in New Orleans?  Move it to Salt Lake City.  (Even if it results in the rather oxymoronic Utah Jazz.)  Baseball team losing money in Washington D.C.?  Move to Minneapolis or Dallas.  The As have gone from Philadelphia to Kansas City to Oakland and may yet move again one of these days.  The football Cardinals have gone from Chicago to St. Louis to Phoenix and may keep going.  (Though why anyone would want them is a mystery to me.)  We don’t just have vagabond players — we have vagabond teams.

 

The idea of the fresh start is central to American mythology.  You can always pull up stakes and move on down the line, to Florida, to New York City, to Hollywood, to Alaska.  Our sports teams aren’t any different. 

 

It’s a different frame of mind to accept that things grow and decline.  If the factory closes in a European city, the soccer team doesn’t move away.  It may just eventually fall down a level or two to reflect the reduced financial capacity in the area.

 

Further, there’s a historical context, particularly in Europe.  It makes more sense to the Italians, still living among the Roman and Renaissance relics of past greater days, to see things this way.  Or the Portuguese, once holders of colonies in China, India, and Africa, and today a poor relation in the European Union.  They were once more and now are less.


The US has always been rising.  We don’t really know yet how to fall.  (The Vietnam War, perhaps, was the first glimmering that it could happen someday.)  Our sports teams, product of our culture, can’t help but reveal this.

 

Enough philosophy.  Time for soccer.  I go into the City Ground.  It’s an asymmetrical stadium, with a capacity of around 30,000.  There is a two-tiered stand — named for coach Clough of the glory days — on one side while the other side is a single-tier.  Me, I have a seat behind one goal and in the very front row, just to the right of the side of the net.  The playing surface rises above the first few rows so I’m looking up at the players.  I feel as if I have become a six-year old again, looking up at the adults.

 

At least half the fans are wearing some version of the Forest jersey, mostly the home red but a few in the road white or even the third strip, an Inter Milan-style blue and black striped deal.  Not many banners up, just a whole lot of ad boards and some almost hidden digital clocks.

 

We are at the very beginning of the long season and Forest are off to a middling start, a pair of ties.  Their opponents are Crewe Alexandria, who don’t have a win yet either.  Crewe are from the railroad town of Crewe, which is a little south of Manchester.  They don’t have much fame in their past, something the game program highlights by comparing where the two teams were in the standings “this week” in a variety of years past, ranging from 1947 to 1996.  Forest are in a higher league at every point.

 

Crewe have been gradually rising over the last couple of decades, thanks largely to the patient strategy of coach Dario Gradi, who has run the team since 1983.  He has pursued a strategy of building through youth, developing an academy to train young players, and proving skilled at taking the cast-off kids of other youth programs and making something out of them.  Every year, it seems, his best achievement gets sold off to a richer, more famous team and Gradi goes back to work to come up with another star-in-the making.  Crewe has gradually made its way up the leagues, with its fans now more than pleased just to be in the first division, not really able to dream of the glamour of the Premiership life.  Crewe, a team a neutral could support.  As the Rough Guide puts it, “It says a lot about Crewe that when their First Division survival is assured, fans all over the country breath a sigh of relief.”  I’m going with Forest today, though.  I watched too many Robin Hood movies as a kid, I guess, to root against Nottingham Forest.

 

The stand behind the other goal is half two-tiered and is largely empty this day.  I belatedly realize the occupied portion represents the Crewe traveling support — their main color is red so they blend in with the Forest fans.  To avoid clashing with the Forest jerseys, Crewe is in gray today on the field.  Elsewhere, the City Ground is mostly full, with maybe 18,000 in attendance.

 

The PA is pumping U2’s “Beautiful Day” before slipping into Queen’s “We Will Rock You” to get the crowd going.  A trio of women in their 40s are next to me, one a Bonnie Raitt-lookalike in a Forest jersey, and they spend the whole afternoon in constant murmuring conversation.  There’s a family behind me, the boy in his Forest jersey, the girl asking Daddy a steady series of questions about the game.


On the other side of me from the women are a pair of seniors who soon remind me of the old guys sitting on the balcony of the Muppet show, competing to one up each other with withering complaints about the team.  Lloyd and Robert are their names and they seem to find it funny to have an American coming to a Forest game now.  “Oh, you should have been here back in ‘79.  You’d have seen something then!”  But they laugh when I tell them the game is more interesting than the Castle.

 

It starts in a common way — Forest on the attack, Crewe cautious and looking to counter.  Forest has the ball a lot in midfield but the last pass is lacking or is being well-defended.  The cross just misses the forward, the defender gets his foot in front of the through ball, that sort of thing.

 

The Crewe goalie, Ben Williams, plays for Trinidad’s national team.  I pay attention to him since Trinidad is a likely World Cup qualifying opponent for the US.  He seems solid.  What’s more interesting is that he’s…white.  I wonder if he had a Jimmy Buffett “Margaritaville” childhood in the Caribbean.

 

Twenty minutes into the game and Crewe are attacking.  The Forest defense can’t get its act together and the ball bounces loose.  Mark Rivers of Crewe takes advantage.  1-0, Crewe.

 

There’s a few calls for “Come on you, Reds!” after that and the game gets back to its previous shape, with Forest doing the bulk of the attacking.  I spend some time watching Andy Reid of Forest, the one rumored to be on the selling block in the paper.  He does seem like the best player on the field, driving the ball forward on stutter-stepping runs.  Forest otherwise seem prone to bombing the ball forward on long hopeful passes unless Reid moves it through the midfield.

 

My Muppet Show friends are frustrated, although there’s a twinkle to their complaining, like it’s an act they enjoy putting on. 

 

What are you shooting from 30 yards out for, lad?  There’s no one on you!”

 

They’re all just walking about — make a run will ya!  Help the man out!”

 

About minute 40, Forest finally gets an attack right.  Forward Gareth Taylor scores the goal after some nice back and forth passing with one of the Forest midfielders.  1-1.  But, as often happens, Crewe immediately strike back while Forest are too busy being relieved at having equalized to concentrate.  Mark Rivers again, on the third shot of a messy sequence where Forest can’t get the ball cleared from their box.  2-1, Crewe at the half.  The old guys tell me about Reid and how they think he just wants to be in the Premiership.  “And he knows we don’t look to be there soon.  We were closer to the drop last year than promotion.  Heh.  Heh.”

 

Forest come out hard in the second half, attacking repeatedly, probably still angry over that second goal.  There’s no sign their attacks are getting more dangerous, though, and it stays 2-1 awhile.  “Can’t believe we’re losing to Crewe,” mutters Lloyd at one point.


About minute 60, the Forest coach takes out a midfielder and adds another forward, trying to get more scoring punch.  He’s rewarded ten minutes later when Marlon King gets a goal — a header on a cross — to tie it, 2-2.

 

The crowd is more relieved than cheered up.  “Can’t believe we’re tied with Crewe,” mutters Lloyd, cracking Robert up.  The fans start getting annoyed by a series of calls going against Forest.  They look like wrong calls to me — a missed foul on a Forest player, a dive by a Crewe player to draw a foul — and I smile when I hear the loud “the referee is a wanker” chant start up.  I think the referee himself smiles at it as well.  But by the fourth time it breaks out he’s not smiling anymore. 

 

Forest come close to finding a winner — a shot goes over the goal, another spins just wide.  No more joy, though.  It ends 2-2.  Another draw for Nottingham Forest, settling into a middling upper minor league life.  Once upon a time, however, little Nottingham stole from the rich teams and that’s the kind of story people don’t forget…

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3 Responses to “Up the Forest!”

  1. nffc said

    Thank you for the link! Your post makes illuminating reading, it had never really occurred to me that US sports don’t ‘do’ relegation/promotion.

    It’s nice to read of your experiences in my home town back in 2004 too! You’re quite right about Nottingham Castle, somewhat of a disappointment. When Kevin Costner’s film about Robin Hood was premiered here there were hoots of derision when the rolling Nottingham Castle came into view on the screen… of course, it was a substantial structure back in Robin’s day, perhaps our local folk hadn’t thought that much! The current manor house on the site was the home of the Duke of Newcastle I think, bizarrely.

    I was trying to remember the Crewe match you attended, but I’m afraid you chose a particularly bad era to be watching, and all the games kind of blurred into one big fat pile of mediocrity! You last saw us playing in the league we’ve just been promoted to, so we’re kind of back to the point at which you left us (although Crewe are still in League One, having just avoided getting relegated to League Two in the season just finished!).

    Anyway, I’ve waffled for long enough – thanks for linking, and should you ever visit Nottingham again be sure to get in touch!

    Cheers!

  2. Paint Bull said

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