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In conversation with...Arsher Ali

Currently ripping it up on the screen in Line of Duty, Arsher Ali is a huge Forest fan. We got down to business and chinwagged about Julian Bennett, 'Dextuur Bleckstock' but first of all, football-related injuries.

Faceiro

Hi Arsher? How are you? The last time we saw you, you were hobbling around with a leg brace. Is that a football-related injury?

It was football-related, yes. As are most things in my life.

I play football at the new 3G pitches at the Forest Recreation Ground sometimes and decided to buy some new boots for absolutely no reason at all. Anyway, cut to the last minute of the game and my unusually-shaped studs get caught in the turf and I do everything but break my left ankle. Ouch. Six weeks and a lot of physiotherapy for me.

I shouldn’t really be playing anymore because of work – there’s a famous story about the actor Paul McGann getting a horrible knee-injury playing football on location whilst filming ‘Sharpe’ and having to quit the job. The rest is ‘Sean Bean’ flavoured history.

I can’t stop playing though – the buzz is akin to theatre, if not greater.

Are you any good at football? Who do you pretend to be in your head when you are playing?

I am pretty good, yes. Played youth football. And then when I became a skater/goth type at college, I stopped playing because learning to play the electric guitar (badly) was "cooler". I regret not keeping up with it. I do wish I’d been given more encouragement when I was younger, as I might have given it a shot. Who knows, eh?

I don’t pretend to be anyone in my head, because I’m way too egotistical like that.

But I do like mavericks. I like players that think a little differently. Risk-takers. I like players that have the balls to actually play, not just turn out and hope someone else will take the responsibility instead. I’ve seen far too many players sign for Forest that just don’t have the cojones to play for such a club like ours – the shirt weighs a ton on them.

I will say that Zlatan Ibrahimović is someone I like to study and watch YouTube clips of. I see some new innovation or trick from him every other week and just think ‘wow’. I don’t have the same level of technique as him, obviously, but I do like to play in the same ultra-competitive and brave way as him.

You’ve been a dedicated Forest fan for a while now.  How did you first get the bug?

To be honest – I got the bug in a very strange way, indeed.

You see, up until I was about nine years-old I was a Manchester United fan! Shock! Horror! I just didn’t know any better at that age and wanted to fit in and everybody at my school liked Manchester United. But I think I liked Eric Cantona, more than the actual team.

Anyway, one day I go into my local cornershop owned by a huge Forest fan nicknamed ‘Spam’. I had my United blue-and-white striped away shirt on with ‘Cantona’ on the back. I was there for my customary ‘20p mix’ and I think Forest must have lost that day because he was in a bad mood.

He spots the shirt and shouts ‘Get outta my store with that shit on! You should support your local team!’. I was quite a gobby kid so I asked him why and he gave me an amazing speech about ‘not being like everybody else’ and that you should ‘be proud of where you come from’.

It had a huge effect on me. Or maybe it was the sugar from the ‘vampire teeth gums’ he eventually let me buy. But I never looked back. I suddenly cared about my Nottingham Forest stickers that little bit more. That little red-and-white tree logo seared itself into my mind's eye.

I ended up finding a load of old Forest stuff in the attic and plastered my bedroom walls with it – my Grandad owned a taxi firm in Nottingham at that time and they used to drive players like Teddy Sheringham and Des Walker regularly in the early nineties. They ended up giving him signed pictures and shirts but he hated football. Chucked it all in attic.

My first proper game that I went to was the 8-1 loss to United. Which in hindsight was symbolic, I suppose. I went alone. I was about fifteen-years old. I didn’t care that they lost. It was just awesome seeing my Forest sticker collection come alive in front of me. Steve Stone. Scot Gemmill. Hell, even Jean-Claude bloody Darcheville. It was shit. But magic, also.

Which players hold a very special place in your heart? Also, which players have provoked a deep sense of ire and made you utter the words, "I could do that"?

All the obvious ones – but the enthusiasm is slightly curbed due to only ever really seeing them play on television or tape, back then.

Picking from the pool of players I have seen in the flesh, from the 1998-99 season onwards, I think I would have to say Julian Bennett.

Fierce. Spirited. 100% committed. Full of hometown pride. What he lacked in skill he made up for with his ancestor-rattling tackles.

He made that League One promotion season special, for me. The opening goal he scored in the final game against Yeovil Town epitomised him. A crunching tackle to win the ball, then he absolutely leathers the ball with everything he’s got. YES, JULES!

I felt terrible watching him come off during the Doncaster loss the following season. It was heartbreaking. He was never the same player after that. Real shame.

Players who’ve provoked ire? I’m a good striker so I’ll go with strikers. Neil Harris. Scott Dobie. Gareth Taylor. How were they strikers?! But I think the one I reserve the most ire and frustration for is David McGoldrick.

It was so obvious he had a special talent, technique-wise, but he lacked the requisite work-ethic, had no real engine and went missing all to easily for us when he actually started a game. To see him do quite well at Ipswich Town has only added to my ire.

It’s probably all Billy Davies’ fault. Yes. I’ll blame him instead. Because he’s one of Satan’s poos come alive.

Seems more than reasonable. For the last twenty years, being a Forest fan has mostly been a series of lows, might-have-beens and occasional ‘mehs’. What have been the highs and lows for you as a fan?

I think most of it has been lows flavoured with soupçons of highs. I’m talking obviously from my reference point of when I started attending games, so in that time I’ve witnessed some pretty challenging stuff.

Relegation from the Premier League. A failed Championship play-off run. Relegation from the Championship. Three seasons of the third circle of hell, otherwise known as League One. A skin-of-the-teeth promotion back to the Championship. Two much more comprehensively failed Championship play-off runs. The sad, untimely passing of an owner. The much sadder, untimelier choice of new owners who have since turned Forest into a degenerative quivering wreck.

And I still love the club. I still care. I’m still proud. The insanity of it all.

We imagine that your line of work means working weekends and Saturday afternoons. Are there occasions when being on set or on stage has clashed with a game? Are you likely to be spotted sneaking a peek at your phone in-between takes or curtain calls?

Actually, we very rarely work weekends, which is why I’ve still been able to hang on to my season ticket. If I’m working in the country, I’ll always try to get back for games. When I’m out of the country, I’ll do anything to keep in touch with the game.

The best experience I’ve had keeping up with a particular game was filming out in South Africa. Forest were away at dirty, filthy and generally unkempt Leeds United. I was on a night shoot wearing a tuxedo and driving around the highways of Cape Town in an amazing open-top vintage red Cadillac.

The Manchester United-supporting Assistant Director was keeping tabs on the score for me, over a walkie-talkie. In between almost every take, he was telling me we’d just scored. I didn’t believe him, laughing it off as a cruel joke. After the seventh time he said we’d scored, I asked him who scored, in a sarcastic way. But when he replied in a thick South African-accent with ‘Dextuur Bleckstock’, I believed him.

7-3. That was a lovely night. A perfectly requited long-distance love.

On the last day of filming that job I gave a load of football loving crew members some Forest shirts from my collection. The thought that someone in Cape Town right now might be walking around with a 2007 third shirt with ‘Bennett 29’ always makes me smile.

How do you think other football fans currently perceive the club and its fans? Do you tend to get that ‘head cocked to one side in sympathy’ look?

No, I think Forest are still a romantic team to a lot of people. There’s not one place I’ve been to where I didn’t find someone who knew of our proud history and was immediately my best friend for supporting such a ‘real club’. And it’ll be the same for Leicester City if they can win the Premier League. Obviously not ‘two European Cups’ same, but still…

I think football fans that know of the existence of football outside the Premier League know by now that we are suffering due to an incompetent ownership. It’s well documented. And rightly so.

Nobody wants to see any club, unless it’s Derby County, being run arse-backwards into the ground. Especially a club with a history like ours. Anybody that thinks our owner is ‘fit-and-proper’ is certifiable, in my eyes. And ‘…but his heart is in the right place’ or ‘…he’s spent millions on the club’ are not the grounds for a suitable defence.

Four years of repeating the same mistakes and not learning a single thing from his experiences? Sheer madness.

You attended the meeting at which a ‘Yes’ vote was passed in favour of establishing a Nottingham Forest Supporters Trust. Do you see this as a force for good? What are your hopes in terms of what it can achieve?

I do see it as a positive, exciting step. And I think Richard Antcliffe and Tom Newton should be applauded for getting it off the ground.

For too long Forest have been quite an aloof club, in some ways. I think they can do an infinite amount more to engage and inspire the ridiculously loyal fanbase and the local community.

They have a responsibility to reach to all corners of Nottingham, as the biggest club in the city. They should be working hard to inspire a new generation of fans, because I’ll tell you what – those ‘Kids for a Quid’ games aren’t going to. I’ve seen kids go home crying after those games…and adults.

I can’t see it being successful under this regime, colour me cynical, but it is important that we are ready and organized for any future ownership that I’m sure will want to engage in a dialogue with the very people that keep them in business.

It’s pretty grim being a fan at the moment. How do you feel? Apathy? Anger? A deep sense of resignation to it all?

I think you can probably tell from the tone of my answers that I’m pretty fed up at what’s going on at the moment.

I have been through it all with this club, and I’m still just about here. But the least you can expect as a fan is that your club is run in way that resembles ‘properly’. It’s the basic things, like actually having experienced people employed in key positions and then being allowed to actually do the job they were employed for. Bills paid on time. Players paid on time. A clear direction and philosophy that we can strive towards.

I’m not mad, am I? (No. Far from it.) These are things that almost every other club has and that almost every club needs to make any kind of meaningful progress.

How is it even Football League legal the way we are run?! Yeah, thanks "The Football League" or "EFL" or whatever you’ve wasted money on rebranding yourself as…

I need to move on to the next question otherwise I’ll end up screaming into a pillow.

Probably for the best that we do exactly that. Do you think it will get better or is this our lot? Is this what we are now – a mid table Championship side?

That’s a gut-wrenching question because I think the answer is no it won’t get any better, but with the caveat being ‘not under this ownership’.

Look at the table right now. Are we a mid-table side? We’re not even that.

The league table doesn’t lie, baby.

Finally, can you please tell us how it all pans out for PC Hari Bains in Line of Duty? Please?

No.

*****

Huge thanks to Arsher for being an excellent egg and all round hero.

Arsher can currently be seen in BBC's Line of Duty. It really is just as good as everyone says...probably better actually.

Arsher has been excellent in a whole host of TV, film and stage productions, including 'Four Lions'.

The pictures are courtesy of Faceiro.

*****

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