The 1998/99 season was a pretty horrific affair for Forest supporters. Strikers striking, 8-1 home drubbings, the distribution of paper hats with ‘COME ON BIG RON!’ printed on them to Trent End inhabitants. T’was a grim time and no mistake.
It did however, afford the likes of 16-year-old me and my pals Matt and Pete, a degree of new found freedom.
Too young and fresh faced to be able to hoodwink the bouncers of Nottingham nightspots into letting us in and still nine months away from that fateful first holiday sans parents in glorious Kavos, we were however, of appropriate age to attend away games on our own, on the parental proviso that we travel via the club’s official supporters coaches.
Having wet our whistle at Birmingham and Stockport on the way to winning the Championship, our plan for the following season was to visit as many Premier League grounds as possible.
Things started reasonably well at Arsenal in our opening game. As we were still smarting from the absence of Pierre Van Hooijdonk, the baffling decision to sell Colin Cooper and the inclusion of Glynn Hodges, A 2-1 defeat at the reigning champions was no disgrace and oh, how we cooed over the breath-taking pace of new boy Jean Claude Darcheville and the late runs from midfield of the spritely (seriously) Geoff Thomas. Plus I loved that blue third kit we wore that year.
Pretty soon though it became apparent that this was going to be a gruelling campaign. Never more so was this evident than in the trip to Newcastle in September 1998.
Just because we weren’t old enough to get into town, didn’t mean we didn’t have the street smarts to pay a ‘bigger boy’ to buy us a crate of Fosters Export on a Friday evening. This was where my problems began.
That night, with Matt’s parents away, we took up residence in his Barnstone home and heartily chugged down as many cans of the wretched amber nectar as our young bodies would allow, basking proudly in our obviously herculean capacity for booze as we recalled the time at Edgeley Park a couple of months prior when Matt had become the first of us to start a chant (a prophetic ‘Gary Megson, what a wanker’ aimed at the then Stockport boss.) As night turned to later that night, anything seemed possible. Perhaps we could start two chants at St James’ Park! Perhaps Forest would even win the match!
I awoke the next morning with a hangover roughly the size of Brazil. I attempted to peel my face off the settee I had apparently slept on but had no luck. Then came the nausea. Oh, the nausea. Wave after wave of sickness washed over me until I was forced to bolt to the bathroom and expel some of what had caused me to reach this sorry state.
It was then I looked at my watch. I had half an hour til my mum would arrive to drive us to meet the coach at the Main Stand Car Park.
A shower and an instantly regrettable bacon sandwich had no positive effect on my state and as we got in the car, mum immediately spotted something was up.
Somewhere around Cotgrave I could take no more. I desperately yelled for mother to ‘PULL OVER!!!!’ After puking on my shoes I got back in the car and weakly explained that "it must’ve been the dodgy bacon sandwich." Mum knew better.
On I stumbled to the supporters coach where I collapsed into a window seat and prayed for salvation. My fortunes worsened still when after putting my pound in the plastic coffee cup, I pulled the name of Mattieu Louis-Jean out of the bag of crumpled paper being gripped by the bloke who was de facto leader of our coach. It was to be another unsuccessful entry into the traditional ‘Forest first scorer sweepstake’ which took place on every coach trip in those days (and may still do now for all I know.) Matt however was beaming, not only had he somehow avoided the epic hangover I was enduring, he’d also pulled the plumb paper from the bag – ‘NO FOREST GOAL SCORER.’ £13 would be his by the end of the day.
My spirits were raised slightly after surviving the seemingly endless journey to the North East and as we entered St James' Park, the feeling of terror was temporarily replaced by the sort of blind, baseless optimism only a young Forest supporter can engender.
This soon dissipated as we made our way up approximately seven hundred stairs to our seats in row ZZ. The questionable and unspecified ‘meat’ pie I’d purchased evoked memories of the morning’s bacon cob and the nausea quickly returned.
Due to the hangover, or perhaps Forest’s ineptitude, I remember almost nothing about the game, other than a ten minute spell I spent watching debutant Neil Shipperley intently and thinking "why isn’t he running around, was he on the Export too? Is he lulling Newcastle’s defence into a false sense of security? Or doing a Robert Rosario impression?" (If so it was stunningly accurate.)
Years later I would be partnered with Shipperley for a commentary. I had decided beforehand that I’d make no mention of Forest but when he asked who I supported it seemed churlish just to blank him or lie so I coughed up. His response was almost heart-breaking in it’s simplistic solemnness: "Oh, that wasn’t a good time for me," he mumbled as he looked forlornly at his shoes. Me neither Shipps, me neither.
There was one saving grace on that rotten day on Tyneside. As so often, it was provided by our dear leader. I think I’m right in saying that was the first time Stuart Pearce had played against us after leaving following relegation in 1997. At full time, Psycho immediately made a beeline for the away supporters section, where upon he vaulted the advertising hoardings and leapt into the arms of his still adoring former brethren, dispensing shirt and boots to a couple of lucky, swooning reds.
Hangovers and away defeats often go hand in hand but they come and go. Stuart Pearce is ours for life. Worth remembering that at the moment.