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The Ultimate Derby

In The Top One were invited along to advise and recommend' Brian Laws as a virtual Forest XI met a Derby XI. We had a throughly enjoyable time, even though we left utterly bemused by the game, the evening and life in general.

David Cannon/Getty Images

They said that we wouldn’t have to do any interviews.  They said that we were only there for the bantz.

One of two things has happened here.  Either Natalie Jackson saw what I wrote about her last week, or – to paraphrase Obi-Wan – we’re not the fans she’s looking for.  Either way, things aren’t going well.

With a thin smile, she tries again.  Gently, underarm, she loops up another question.  A simple one—an easy-hitter.

"It’s a massive rivalry though, isn’t it?  What would it mean to you, if you beat them?"

Not much: that’s all I can think of saying.  The 1-0, last November—I was over that before the weekend was out.  With the state that Forest are currently in, nothing seems to mean as much as it should.

But I can’t say that.  That’s kryptonite—that’s minus-bantz.  What I should say is that it means everything, and that it’d make my season.  Then, we can all just get on with our lives, and eat some pizza.

There’s a stack of them on reception.  As we wrap up the interview, Tom – the friendly BBC man – runs through the order.

"There’s two Hawaiians, two veggie, two pepperoni, and two plain.  Has anyone got any allergies?"

Brian Laws puts his hand up.

"Cheese," he says.

Pre-match

Who’d have thought the future would look like this?

Blade Runner was meant to be 2019.  And there’s no flying cars, or robots, or sky-stacked cities: only Brian Laws and Craig Ramage, playing a computer game, in a world that looks the same as it always did.

It’s a mundane truth, but it’s stranger than any fiction.  Ultimate Forest vs. Ultimate Derby, channelled through Football Manager: another shovelful of Then and Now, heaped atop this wretched year.

I arrive with In The Top One's David Marples, and Simon—a Derby-supporting friend.  From the off, there’s a thin kind of awkward in the air.  This event is a BBC first—they don’t seem to know if it’s a good idea, or just a weird one.

And I’m undecided myself.  I’ve never been to a swingers’ party, but this is how I imagine they’d start: a bunch of strangers, circling the Doritos and avoiding eye-contact.  All of us just waiting for things to get going—this strange business, which binds our lives together.

Brian Laws is nice, unpolished, and pleasingly old-school.  With his zipped fleece, and a
government-issue haircut, he’s a proper football man: he doesn’t so much shake your hand, as teach it a lesson.  Me and David get chatting to him about the Hull game, whilst Simon engages Ramage, insisting that he "must be in [his] fifties by now".  Craig’s half-smile folds down into a quarter, and – sounding slightly wounded – he says that he’s 45.

But this is our brief—it’s what we’re here for.  The background lolz.

"And to help Brian, too," says Tom.  "Make sure you give him plenty of advice."

Help the guy who’s managed a Premier League club.  Advise the man who once frisbeed a plate of chicken wings into Ivano Bonetti’s head.

I’m not saying a bloody word.

The game

Forest win 2-1.  That’s the long and short of it.

It starts with Craig pausing the game 10 minutes in, to go for a piss; it ends with Brian acclaiming his team’s performance as "transparent."  No one knew, and no one asked.

I couldn’t tell you the details of the match.  It was played out on a screen just small enough to keep the little things a mystery—names, numbers and suchlike.  The reds went one way, and the whites went the other, and every now and then the banner at the bottom of the screen would flash.  Clough and O’Neill scored for us; Steve Bloomer answered with his first Derby goal since 1914.

But I wasn’t really watching that.  As time passed by, I finally started to forget myself, and surrendered to the daftness of it all.  Once I stopped wondering if this was the kind of thing a 35 year-old should be doing with his time, it all became hugely fun.

The highlights, laughs, and lessons?

  • Brian Laws is still hard.  Much harder than you, or me.  When he talked about "a typical Notts Forest team", a line of grown men could only wince in silence.  People have died for less.

  • You might think you know more about football than Brian, but you don’t. He won’t say anything: there’s just a single nerve that pulses in his jaw, while you’re talking.

  • Beyond his diplomatic obligations to Radio Nottingham, I now know what he really thinks.  He lives in a place beyond language—at the mention of Chris O’ Grady’s name, he gave a look that dwarfed the collective rage of the Trent End.  Honest to God, it chilled me.

  • Managers really do "give it another ten minutes after half time." I’d always thought – hoped, I suppose - that kind of blind optimism stayed in the stands.  But apparently not.

  • Nobody – fans, ex-players, or BBC staff – seems to know what "the Derby Way" is.

  • Neither of them – not Brian, nor Craig – understood the difference between a 28" plasma, and an iPad.  They therefore spent most of the evening pawing at a television screen.

  • Anyone who picks Igor Stimac over Dave McKay is a lunatic.

Post-match

"It’s a tug of war—one that never seems to move more than a few feet east or west of centre."

I wrote that before the home game in November, and I stand by it.

It’s why I had nothing to say, on Sunday.  Not because Forest lost (in real life), but because we’ve done this, already.  Over and over again, for decades.  Derby’s win was just the latest movement in a war that’s doomed to rumble on – without an answer; without a firm conclusion – forever.

And that’s what it means to me, Nat.  Even if we beat them—a single victory can only ever mean so much, when the next one comes tumbling immediately over the horizon.  There’s Sky’s vision of these games, and there’s the reality of them—a pair of moments that most of us just want out of the way, as soon as possible, whether you’re Oldham and Rochdale, or United and City.  There’s no grace to them, and no finesse; just two inseparable football clubs, scrapping for the same yards of land, until the end of time.

Even as a computer game, it was crap.  Martin O’ Neill was miles offside for the winner.  With the cream of our two worlds on show, it still took a dodgy call from a digitised Mark Clattenburg to settle things.

And we all left the BBC, no closer to knowing.

1-0 us, and 1-0 them.  There’s your derby games, in a nutshell.  The answers to a question that no right-thinking person should ever think to ask.  Two enemies, forever bound together—whether it’s the best we’ve got, or this lot.

Still—same time next year?

**********

We at In The Top One would like to say that it was our know-how, nous and savvy that played a pivotal role in this welcome victory over the Rams.

But we can't.

We barely knew what was going on half the time.