REVIEW BY PAUL McPARLAN – @paulmcparlan
Many commentators acknowledge that Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby was the book that made writing about football socially fashionable again and inspired a host of others to pen their thoughts on the game from a fan’s perspective. Nick ‘s later work, 31 songs about the music that shaped his life, was also heavily influential as well, encouraging many other writers to relate the concept to football rather than music and thus reflect upon a team’s best thirty goals, players or matches. David Marples continues this mode with his latest offering – The History Boys – in which he selects and revisits what he considers to be the thirty most iconic goals in the history of Nottingham Forest.
David has contributed to a number of football journals such as The Football Pink and The Set Pieces but he is a die hard Forest fan who writes a column in the match day programme, has been the editor of the “In The Top One “ website as well as launching the influential “ Bandy and Shinty “ Forest fanzine which has been nominated for several awards. His credentials as a Forest fan are impeccable and whilst some might not agree with his selection of goals, his understanding of the club’s history is unquestionable.
The title of the book owes a debt to the outstanding play “The History Boys “written by Alan Bennett and a staple of English GCSE syllabi throughout the country. One can even see similarities between Hector, the teacher, and Brian Clough in the way that he moulded his young charges to achieve a level of unprecedented football success in a hitherto unheralded provincial city team.
The challenge facing any author producing a book focussing on one club is to somehow entice fans of other teams to engage in their history, to demonstrate that you do not have to support a particular team to enjoy the finished product. I am not a Nottingham Forest fan but like others of my generation I have always admired the club for their achievements under Clough. It is to Marples’ credit that his style of writing , his cultural references and his love of his subject matter drew me in from the beginning.
Any collection of historical footballing memories requires an opening section that seduces the reader and lures them into wanting more. The author travels back over fifty years to recall a dramatic last minute winning FA Cup goal by Ian Storey-Moore in 1967 that dispatched Everton from the competition. In a maelstrom of a match , the winger scored three times but his decisive strike came after his two initial attempts were saved by the keeper and then hit the bar before he headed the rebound into the net. It has seemingly been forgotten in the mists of time how close Forest came to winning the double that season, finishing second to Manchester United and losing in the semi-final to Tottenham Hotspur. Storey-Moore reflects on how the cruel loss of Joe Baker to an injury in that game may have cost them the chance of trophies.
There is a chronological progression from this goal to the final one scored by Chris Cohen against Ipswich Town in 2017. Each chapter devotes about five to six pages to the player concerned but where Marples succeeds is in developing the background to these stories. We discover how the subjects progressed through the ranks, what scoring that goal meant to them as individuals and what became of them in later years after the glory days had faded. Marples has an advantage in having edited both the website and the fanzine as he is able to access interviews with the majority of former players to give first-hand accounts and recollections of their time at the club and wisely he has chosen to portray thirty individual players rather than let a handful of strikers dominate the pages.
Several common themes run through the narrative, but one figure stands tall – Brian Clough. Colin Barratt recalls hearing Clough exclaim from the bench “Where’s that idiot going“ before he lashed in Forest’s second goal in the European Cup against Liverpool. It comes as no surprise that the author highlights a number of key strikes during both European Cup winning campaigns, rightly pointing out that perhaps John Robertson’s stunning goal in the 1980 final against Hamburg never quite received the recognition it deserved. It is also surprising to learn that Forest skipper John McGovern will forever hold the record of being the only skipper to have lifted the old European Cup in consecutive seasons. This level of fine detail and meticulous research makes these accounts a pleasure to read.
Frank Clark recalls Peter Withe arguing with Clough during an away game at Ipswich. Clough responded by shouting “You. Off. Get in the bath”. He replaced him with the veteran defender Clark, who had never scored in 500 previous league appearances. Clark notched the winner! Apparently, Clark also used to regularly play his guitar on the team coach. The admiration for Clough illuminates the accounts from John McGovern, John Robertson and Ian Bowyer amongst others. Paul McGregor, who retired from professional football at the age of twenty eight to continue an alternative career as a rock musician , recalls the first time that Clough bellowed at him. He was playing in a youth game against Derby County and was scrabbling to regain possession. Clough’s voice boomed from the side-line, “Blondie! Stand Still!” Within a matter of seconds, a Derby attack breaks down and McGregor finds himself in the perfect position to score from a cross. Sheer genius? Perhaps thirty iconic Clough masterstrokes could be a future offering.
The manner of the defeat in the 1991 FA Cup final still hurts with several players feeling that if the match referee Roger Milford had taken more decisive action in dealing with Paul Gascoigne’s initial challenge on Garry Parker, then Forest would surely have claimed the trophy. It is sometimes forgotten how good that side of the late Eighties and early Nineties really was, winning two League Cups and the Full Members Cup and a selection of crucial goals from that time are portrayed here, including the notorious Gary Crosby header out of the hands of the Manchester City keeper Andy Dibble in 1990 and the emphatic bullet header from Roy Keane that earned his side a famous Cup victory at White Hart Lane. As Marples depicts it so eloquently , “The satisfying thunk of wet leather on a rock hard surface reverberates around the ground.”
I always enjoy gathering new aspects of knowledge from any book I review and the author lives up to my expectations here. I never realised that Nigel Clough’s debut for the club came twenty two years to the day that his father’s own football career ended in a horrific collision with the Bury keeper Chris Harker. It was somehow fitting that the last League goal of Clough’s managerial reign was also scored by his son. And who would possibly know that Neil Webb was the thousandth player to be capped for England?
Marples uses several neat turns of phrase to emphasise his accounts and clearly the years of producing a regular quality fanzine has aided him with this. He writes about the winger Gary Crosby making right backs look like “they were re-enacting a Chubby Checker song” or referring to the time when Forest were “hoovering up silverware like a Dyson let loose on a student floor”. These were some of my favourite lines, I am sure most readers would also find a selection of others to their liking.
Many of the players selected here, such as Ian Bowyer, Steve Hodge and Neil Webb returned to the club after they were sold and made a sterling contribution second time around. As ever, other team mates had careers that were curtailed due to the crippling impact of injury and others were shown the exit door after failing to impress the litany of managers , such as Dave Bassett and David Platt, who came after Frank Clark as illustrated by Ron Atkinson cutting the career of Paul McGregor short by simply opining that he didn’t want “any rock stars in my team “.
It will always prove to be challenging to present a selection of goals that every Forest fan would concur with. Certain strikers such as Joe Baker and Peter Withe miss out here and perhaps one of the goal scorers from the initial 76/77 promotion season merited a reference? Personally, I found the first two thirds of the book more compelling than the final third but that is probably because my knowledge of players such as Julian Bennett, who scored against Yeovil in 2007, is severely lacking. The addition of an index or a contents page would have proved helpful, although I did approve of the detailed bibliography for each individual story.
This book totals just under 220 pages and therefore could easily be devoured in one sitting or simply taking each goal as it comes. It did encourage me to research some of these matches on You Tube and read the accounts again as I was watching them.
In my opinion, Marples has succeeded in compiling a very informative and entertaining selection of iconic Forest goals over the past fifty years and his engaging writing style, his assiduous levels of detailed research and the memories he evokes ensure that this is a book that will be enjoyed by any football fan, with maybe the exception of the followers of Derby County.