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In conversation with...Danny Rhodes

Danny Rhodes is the author of 'FAN' - the story of John Finch who spent his youth following Forest home and away in the 1980s until relationships, life and Hillsborough got in the way and changed things forever. Danny kindly agreed to speak to us about his book, football and Forest.

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DM: Although clearly not autobiographical, it seems logical to suggest that you drew on some events from your own life in order to tell this story. That being the case, writing this must have been an emotional and deeply cathartic experience.

DR: Absolutely. Writing FAN gave me the opportunity to deal with one or two things from my past and to get them out of myself in a way that writing often allows. It was an emotional journey in all sorts of ways. It instigated me to get in touch with old friends which was very rewarding, to recall some of the happiest moments of my teenage years following NFFC around the country (the wonders of YouTube) and helped me to understand the context of those years a little better.

DM: John Finch – he’s actually quite difficult to warm to as a protagonist. Obviously he’s got some deep-seated issues but were you worried that the reader might occasionally stop rooting for him?

DR: In truth, I didn't really consider it. One element of the story is Finchy's open admission of wrongdoing which he tries to deal with the best he can. Most of the characters in the book are flawed. In fact, now that I think about it, FAN is a book about flaws: Flawed people; flawed relationships; flawed government; flawed safety procedures; flawed stadia. Even the beautiful game itself comes under scrutiny.

DM: One of the many things that stand out for me is the way you capture the emotions of what it was like to hear of Brian Clough’s death. For Forest fans, this was a real ‘I remember where I was when I heard the news’ moment. There is a moment towards the beginning of the book where John Finch almost wills Brian Clough to appear to him: "He thought about Cloughie…He half –willed Cloughie to turn up, Cloughie in his fucking green sweater, the scruffy bastard". This reminds me of Alan Bleasdale’s ‘Scully’ in which Kenny Dalglish appears to the equally troubled protagonist. Was that a conscious thing?

DR: Crikey. I'd forgotten all about 'Scully'. I remember liking it at the time. After all, it had football in it. I can genuinely say though, that I haven't watched it since it was aired in 1984. Bloody hell, time passes! The opening section of the book in the hotel, and the days that immediately follow, are based almost one hundred percent on my own direct experiences. I really was staying in a hotel on the coast when I heard of Clough's passing. I really did feel some sort of mourning in the days that followed. Mourning for the man and mourning for times past. That later feeling emerged again when I wrote the book. 

DM: Heysel. Bradford. St. Andrews. Hillsborough. You were there that day in the Kop watching from afar – as was I and many others. Finch’s memories of that event are similar to mine. How difficult was it to delve back into this issue and research it?

DR: Soon after starting the writing the book I seem to remember sitting down at my computer, taking a deep breath and thinking to myself 'well here goes'. Then I was over the precipice and away. Whilst I'd thought of Hillsborough now and again over the years I'd never truly engaged with it. Writing FAN changed all of that. The hardest part was delving into the Independent panel evidence and reading the witness statements. Once I'd started the process something happened and the other tragedies suddenly became connected in a manner I wasn't expecting. Each of those had their own stories. It was not easy but it became increasingly necessary.

DM: The pages in which you recap on key Forest games seem to be the very same ones that are indelibly marked into my consciousness too: all of the FA cup ties leading up the semi final and It was interesting to see that the away game at Middlesbrough was included too. This was Forest’s first game straight after Hillsborough and was a little belter of a game. Like many others, I simply felt the need to go to that game but there can be no denying that this and the semi final replay were ever so weird ones to attend. And then "John fucking Aldridge" did what he did. Were you ever worried about shifting the whole trauma of Hillsborough onto the perspective of a Nottingham Forest fan?

DR: I was in touch with a BBC Producer during the writing process and this person suggested to me that Hillsborough had already been covered dramatically by Jimmy McGovern. Put simply I wanted to tell our story. I've been touched to receive a number of e-mails post publication from Nottingham Forest fans thanking me for writing a book that looks at the tragedy from this alternative perspective. That justifies it for me. I fully understand that our suffering was/is nothing when compared to that of the Hillsborough families and wouldn’t try to suggest otherwise, but there are stories out there of Nottingham Forest fans enduring life changing conditions as a result of what they witnessed at Hillsborough so I think there was a story to tell. The game at Old Trafford was, as you say, a peculiar one. In hindsight I wonder why it was even played, save for the fact that Liverpool won a legitimate route to Wembley and an all Merseyside final that perhaps started the process of recovery for the club and its supporters. The Aldridge incident remains an issue for many Nottingham Forest fans. The book reflects the way lots of people felt when he did what he did. Brian Laws was the player representative for our supporters' branch so that added further grievance. I have read that Aldridge attended many of the funerals of the victims of Hillsborough and that the tragedy affected him greatly. My feelings have mellowed towards him over what is now 26 years.

Being at Ayresome Park was a matter of kinship. There was no other place in the world I wanted to be at 3pm on Saturday 22nd April 1989.

DM: Amongst other things, the book illustrates what it was like to be a football supporter in the 80s – threatened by Thatcher with identity cards, packed into fenced terraces and stigmatized at every opportunity.  The game has changed – for the better most would say too – but isn’t there a case to suggest the game has lost its soul along the way? I wonder whether the young John Finch would be able to afford to dedicate so much of his time following the team he loves.

DR: I doubt it. When we started out we were paying £1.50 to stand in the Trent End and I think our first Lower Tier season tickets were about £60 or something  ridiculous. Rail travel was cheap in those days too. We were also lucky that, when we first started travelling to away games, we were able to go on our local supporters' branch coach. We managed places like Portsmouth away for £7 or something ridiculous, and Chester on a Tuesday evening after winning the home leg 6-0. One of the main reasons I wanted to write FAN was to put down on paper what it was like to watch football in that era. There was something raw (almost feral) about it that made it so exciting that nothing (and I mean nothing) else mattered. Obviously Hillsborough played a part in changing all of that and I make a point in the book of repeating the idea of things changing 'for better and worse' as a result. I'm not a huge admirer of what the game has become. I could write pages and pages responding to the issue of the working man's game being taken over by people in suits. I'm not sure where young lads are meant to go and what they're meant to do to discover themselves these days. Even the stewarding seems ridiculous. Who wants to sit on their arse for 90 minutes with their mouths shut when they're watching a football match?  I can't even do that when I'm watching a game on the TV!

DM: Nottingham Forest clearly played a huge part in your life. How big a part? Are they still a huge part of your life?

DR: The short answer to this is a straightforward 'no'. A measure of how much NFFC meant to me as a youngster can be made by the fact that even now, well into my forties, I'm ashamed to admit such a thing. I still have friends who go to Nottingham Forest games religiously (including one who has renewed his season ticket every year since we first purchased ours in about 1987) and others who still live for attending football matches week in week out. I stopped watching and started playing and, with veterans football now flourishing in the south-east (where I now reside) I think I might still have a couple more years in the tank before I start watching the game live again. Or I might opt for a bit of refereeing instead!

Our deepest gratitude goes out to Danny for being so generous with his time. If you haven't read Danny's book, 'FAN', you absolutely should. It's desperately moving for anyone who supported Forest throughout the 80s - it tapped deep into this observer's psyche and created a swell of emotion. In other words, it spoke to me and moved me. Genuinely.

You don't need to be a die hard Forest fan to enjoy it. Here's an excellent review from Steve Wright and more here too.

As for Danny, find out more about him here. You can boy 'FAN' here from amazon or contact Danny here and maybe buy the book directly from him and cut out the middle man.