Friday, August 24, 2007

Forest's Mega-Bog

(I wrote the following for the latest edition of When Saturday Comes. I'm sure they won't mind if I reproduce it here...)

The village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire is famed not only for inspiring an early name for New York (and Batman’s stomping ground), but for being mad. Legend has it that when the locals heard that King John was making a detour through the village (thereby forcing the creation of a Royal Highway that the villagers would have to pay for), they went on an orgy of mentalism – drowning eels in a tub, riding around on horses with sacks of corn on their shoulders to take the burden off their horses, painting green apples red, etc – in order to scare the King away.

900 years later, and the ancestors of the Wise Men of Gotham are in danger of being comprehensively out-madded by Nottingham Forest, who plunged new depths of delusion - and managed to give Notts County fans even more to laugh about this summer – when out of nowhere, they announced that they were to move out of the 30,602-capacity City Ground (their home for 109 years) to a 50,000-seater mega-stadium four and half miles away in Clifton, smack on the doorstep of Gotham.

Bearing in mind that a) Forest are still in League One, b) they’ve only just managed to scrabble their way out of debt, c) although they have the highest average attendance in the division, it’s still 10,000 or so short of capacity, and d) they never managed to pack the ground out even when they were European champions, you may be wondering what the name of God they’re gibbering on about. So am I.

“It would be fantastic for Nottingham. It would say that Nottingham is a forward-looking, dynamic city that has confidence and self-belief,” announced Forest chief executive Mark Arthur, as he waved about artist impressions of something that looked like a massive toilet bowl with a red seat at a press conference in June, pausing every now and then to submerge another eel’s head under the water. “There are many (Arsenal supporters) who didn’t want to leave Highbury, but anyone who has visited the Emirates Stadium will say ‘wow’. What a place to watch football. I would say to any fan that they should visit somewhere like that, see what it looks like, see what it feels like. And perhaps we will go for a slightly scaled-down version of that.” Well, Mark, it’d be nice to visit stadiums like that a couple of times a year, but we can’t. Because we’re in Division Three. Which is a massively scaled-down version of the Premiership.

So what’s wrong with the City Ground? You’d understand reasons for a move if the stadium was a dump, but it’s not. There were plans to expand the stadium to 46,000 in lieu of a return to the Premiership (which have now been swept under the carpet). It’s a short walk from the train station, and a stone’s throw away from the home of the oldest professional club in the world and a world-famous cricket ground, making it one of the most concentrated areas for sport in the country (and it’s conveniently located near to the only Hooters that still exists in the UK, but let’s not talk about that). According to Arthur, that’s not good enough for go-ahead, vibrant, eclectic Nottingham; “If the World Cup were to come to England in 2018 or 2022, then this would be a stadium worthy of staging the tournament’s matches.”

Ah, yes. I totally forgot that the FA – who, as you’ll recall, would be incapable of organising a piss-up in any of the 350 or so pubs in our fair city – were on the verge of claiming the World Cup. And when that absolute 100% cast-iron certainty happens, Nottingham will have a 3-1 chance (with Leicester and, Derby - who announced stadium-expansion plans on the same day) of hosting the East Midlands games. Never mind the fact that Nottingham’s participation in Euro 96 was conducted under a swathe of empty seats. The opportunity of hosting Potatovia v The Peoples Republic of Macaroon and two other less prestigious games is far too glittering a prize for Nottingham to cock its nose up at.

And if the World Cup actually does come to England, and Forest’s new MegaToilet beats out Pride Park and the Crisp Bowl, what then? How are Forest going to double their gate in a decade, when it’s obvious that the football boom is not going to get any bigger and the ladder has been pulled up on all but four clubs in England? More importantly, how can anyone predict with any certainly that Forest are going to be a Premiership club by 2018, when recent form shows that they’re just as capable of local derbies against Hucknall Town in the Conference North next decade?

It’s only when you look past the bluster and the glossy brochures that you realise what’s going on. As mentioned in a previous WSC article, Forest and Nottingham City Council have butted heads over a previous loan (for Euro 96), which the former tried to weasel out of. They appear to be on amazingly good terms now, and the Council are welcoming the move with open arms (the local councillors in Clifton, on the other hand, didn’t even know about the proposed move until it was announced to the press).

The council own the strip of land that backs onto the Trent, and they would love to make use of the City Ground for more of the same. Listen to the words of Ray Valenti of Natrass Giles chartered surveyors without wanting to put this magazine down in order to wipe the drool off your fingers; “750,000 sq ft of floor space with a value exceeding £250m….could attract a medium-sized food store operated by a premium brand such as Waitrose…this could be the location for the five-star hotel Nottingham has so far failed to attract…The demise of soccer (yes, that’s what he said) at the City Ground will be celebrated with a new Trentside landmark that even Ol’ Big ‘Ead would be proud of!” No, mate, he would have smacked you in the teeth.

Nottingham, like every other moderately-sized factory cities in England that doesn’t have factories anymore, is going through an identity crisis and reacting to it by chucking money up the wall on building projects and hoping one or two of them stick. The Forest move displays the depressingly familiar deluded logic that states that, if you build another Top Shop five minutes walk from the old one, you’ve suddenly created a Retail Mecca. And if you’ve spent the last few years building ‘executive apartments’ in the hope that there’ll eventually be industries here that actually have executives, or erecting loads of hotels in the hope that people will come here for more than stag dos, why not build a 50,000-capacity stadium out of the way in the expectation that Forest will eventually become a Big Club and sell it out every other week?

The people of Gotham had a method to their madness. The people who run Nottingham Forest seem to be just mad.

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