Soccer Through a Telescope

An American sports fan tries to follow a second-tier English team

Since the advent of HDTV, and the equally game-changing advent of DVR, television networks have been trying to sell American audiences on following foreign soccer teams on weekend mornings.

Television space once filled with Bugs Bunny and the X-Men is now inhabited by English, German, and Spanish teams playing the beautiful game live.  It makes a sports fan feel, whether we have a domestic club near us or not, that we have to pick some European team to follow and root for, if only from afar.

For me, that club is Nottingham Forest.  For six years, my soccer interest has mostly involved following the ups and downs, mostly downs, of Nottingham Forest FC.  They’re currently in the English Championship, and only just barely after nearly being relegated.  They’re not particularly good, they don’t provide a lot of highlights, and they are never on television.

They’re also a counterpoint to all the money and megateams of the sport, the downside of all the riches of the big leagues these days.  Perhaps just as importantly, they’re reminiscent of an American side that is trying to get back to the top tier of their national hierarchy after a long time away.

You might call them England’s equivalent to the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

I suppose the story needs to be told.  Why Forest?  I’ve been to the UK, but never to the East Midlands, so there’s no tie there.  I’ve still yet to watch the side live on American television, so there was no experience where I enjoyed a game at a bar with some expat supporters.

This really started in FIFA 2012.  When I picked up the game, I decided I had to do my franchise mode with a team that would need to be promoted to the Premier League.  The concept of promotion and relegation fascinates me in general, and figured I might get attached to my game save if I had to work a team up to the top.

So I went to the Championship (the English second tier) and looked for a name to catch my attention.  I recognized Leeds United because there was a recent film about the club, but I hadn’t seen the movie.  Crystal Palace was an attention-grabbing name, but there’s something very much contrary to my image of sports to the picture that the words “Crystal Palace” put in one’s head.  Then I saw Nottingham Forest.  Yes, as in Robin Hood.  So I picked that team.

During one of the games, the virtual Martin Tyler informed me that Forest had at some point won the European Championship twice in a row.  They also briefly mentioned the name Brian Clough.  As announcer banter in games is often recycled, these facts began to recite in my head over and over again.  (Also, apparently Arsenal once had to borrow their shirts for a game, which is why the Gunners wear the shade of red they do.  When I was a kid they said video games would make you stupid.  Now they’re teaching me pub trivia.)

Eventually I had to go to Youtube and look up that team.  That became a deep dive on Clough, a legendary manager who in American terms was a cross between Vince Lombardi and John McKay.  This led to more and more videos of a seemingly intoxicated Brian Clough as a commentator, saying hilarious things.

(AP Photo/PA)

So that’s why Forest.

I followed online.  Match threads on reddit help.  Beat writers in the UK basically compose columns during games live for their readers, which helped a lot.  Occasionally I toyed with finding a black market stream, but the quality was so poor I could hardly follow the action.

Following a lower-tier European team is like following a team in fiction novels.  You’ll get to read about them from time to time, with sporadic highlights between matches, but their very existence seems nebulous.

It’s soccer through a telescope.  Observations of a team that really isn’t “your team” so much as a sort of sports pen pal.  Perfect for the sportswriter, because I cover enough sports and watch even more, so it makes for a convenient time investment.  A quick Saturday afternoon read here, a Wednesday morning recap there, highlights on Sunday before baseball or football kicks into gear.  Stories of characters that you know little about outside of what you’re told week to week.

These clubs are mostly old, so it’s hard not to get into their history.  For me this was easy, as Forest had Clough in their past, but when a club has been going for a century or more pretty much everybody has some moment or some player or some figure that would make for a fun read or two.

There’s a lot of taking the word of others involved.  If the consensus is that the side played a fantastic hour and a half, that’s the impression I’m forced to go with.  If people are underwhelmed, I too am underwhelmed.  Off we go, apparently.

I did not want to follow a Premier League team, though I like American sports franchises that have ties to two.  I tried once with Manchester United, getting a shirt shortly after they became business partners with the Buccaneers and making my way to a Boston-area soccer bar to try and join in on the fun.  I could not have been more unwelcome.  Turns out, soccer fans don’t like newcomers very much.  What’s more, Manchester United supporters hate the Glazer family, have since day one, and those who care about the NFL feel no fondness for the Bucs.  So I decided then and there that the only proper reaction, the one they might even want, is for me to make sure that whenever Manchester United is on television, I am pulling for the other guys.  I may or may not have once dreamed of Warren Sapp sacking Wayne Rooney.  Come On You Other Guys.  Go Bucs.

When Fenway Sports Group purchased Liverpool, the response was much less hostile.  In fact, there are many Liverpool supporters who pay casual interest to baseball just in hopes the Red Sox will succeed, thinking that a rising tide will lift all boats.  My problem with LFC was not their lack of friendliness, in fact they were quite welcoming fans, but I often walk alone.

That said, whenever they are the Other Guys playing Manchester United, make ‘em cry, Liverpool.

By that same token, I’m not sure I’d consider myself a fan of the side.  In the sense that I root for them to beat the other English teams, yeah, they’re the one I support in that regard.  At the same time, I was born in St. Pete, so I’m a Bucs fan.  Boston is my home and has been for a long time, so I like the Red Sox and Bruins and Celtics.  I went to Northeastern, so I’m always going to be a Husky.  I came to liking NFFC through video games and youtube.  Not quite the same thing.

Had they been relegated, I would have been disappointed.  The fans would have been destroyed.  When the Huskies lose the Beanpot, my friends who went to rival schools make jokes, and the alumni commiserate.  When the Red Sox win, the whole city seems to be in a better mood.  I can hardly be more attached to a European soccer team than I could have been to Eek The Cat growing up.

The best way I can put this status is that I had no idea what to make of Leicester City’s rise last season.  None.  I still don’t know how to process that.  They happen to be very close to where Forest play, but the two are not really rivals.  If I were attached in the way fans get attached to things, I would not be so uncertain there.

It’s more that Forest is a vessel through which I’m trying to gain an appreciation for soccer deeper than “it’s amazing when Messi scores a highlight-reel goal.”  What I’m learning is, soccer is cruel.

Soccer is a worldwide sport where every top-shelf professional league is located on one continent, and only two have ever produced a World Cup Champion.  There are beloved leagues where there have been a small handful of champions.  The Scottish Premier League has only ever been won by two  teams.  Both are located in the same city.  Any underdog team that wins a major soccer league lives on in history forever as legends, because that’s how rare it is for anyone but the blue bloods to win a major trophy.

For example:  Nottingham Forest FC is the only club in Europe that has won the European Championship/Champions’ League that is not still in the top tier of that league.  Every other European champion is that dominant.  They never go down.  Their “bad year” involves finishing fifth in their twenty team league.

There are fewer than twenty teams that can ever be favored to win anything in Europe, out of hundreds.  Everybody but that small group is fighting for scraps and a chance to have a once-in-a-century miracle.  I’m not sure there’s a better way to learn that than to see what happens after the miracle’s over.

In 1980 the Reds (Forest’s rally cry is “Come On You Reds”) won the European Championship.  It was the second time in a row.  To this day, it is considered one of the biggest upsets in sports history.  To match, Leicester would have had to win the Champions’ League, and then done it again next year.  Of course, 1980 was a long time ago, Clough is no longer available, the money has shifted in the sport, and those titles are a distant memory.  Today all it does for them is catch the attention of American rubes looking to pick a team to vaguely root for.

For the entire time I’ve followed the club, they have been a part of the Championship.  Once, they qualified for a playoff that could have moved them to the Premier League, but were quickly dispatched.  Since then, the news has gone from disappointing to bad to chaotic.

At one point they had hired a former player named Stuart Pearce, also known as “Psycho,” as their manager  I was in favor of this simply for the fact that “Coach Psycho” is extremely easy to get behind as a phrase.  He didn’t last a year.

The team was under Financial Fair Play restrictions for over a year due to mismanagement by their owner, Fawaz Al-Hasawi.  Those restrictions basically took Forest out of the hunt for a promotion to the Premier League, and by the end of the FFP sanctions the team was gutted.

The restrictions were not the only problem with Fawaz.  The owner occasionally made moves more aimed at the club being marketable abroad than helping them win anything.  For two seasons, he failed to secure uniform sponsorship for the club, so they wore the name of his company, which happens to be his first name.

Let me repeat that:  For two years, Nottingham Forest wore their owner’s first name on their shirts.  Domestically, not even Dan Snyder would do that.  Even the Cowboys would never come out in jerseys that say “JERRY” across the chest.

Al-Hasawi tried to sell the club a year ago, but it fell through when he insisted on staying on as the face of the club.  Yet none of this was rock bottom.

Rock bottom came when Forest fired manager Philippe Montanier in January.  It was not that Montanier definitely deserved to stay, but he certainly wasn’t the only reason the team was struggling to even stay in the Championship.  Still, the managerial search was a sign that things with Fawaz had gone too far.

Nigel Clough, son of the manager who made Nottingham Forest famous, was brought in to consider taking the open job.  He said no.  In doing so, he said it was his dream to manage the side, but still turned it down.

Reading all of this from afar, it was hard to get a true sense of how bad things had become until that moment.  I did not need to look to message boards to figure out how to feel about that.

“Fawaz Out” basically became the entire story of following Nottingham Forest over the past year.  If I saw their name in a headline, and the word “sold” was not in the same headline, I was disappointed.  I found myself identifying with Knicks fans.  I found myself recalling memories growing up of things said about Hugh Culverhouse.  That’s how bad Fawaz got:  I was comparing him in my head to Hugh Culverhouse.

Thursday morning’s news that Fawaz finally went through with selling the team wasn’t met with joy so much as relief.  Maybe now they’ll get good.  Maybe one day I’ll actually be able to watch them on television.

The 2016-2017 edition of Nottingham Forest struggled from the get-go with injuries and a lack of depth.  They, too, fired their manager midseason.  At the time, they were firmly in a relegation battle.

The name John Jay Moores became part of that ritual after a while.  Moores, former San Diego Padres owner, wanted to buy the club and talked throughout the end of 2016 about doing so.  Around Christmas, the most appropriate time possible, it looked as though it was all but official.  Fawaz Out would be the sport’s gift to the team’s supporters.

Then it fell through.  Then the team got worse.  Then it seemed like the concept of whatever League One was would have to become familiar to me.

When Mark Warburton came to manage from Scottish side Rangers, things looked a little better, but the team still lacked depth of talent, and it still put them close to the edge.

Forest won their last match of the season to stay up by a tiebreaker.  They were a few goals here or there from being sent down.  A week later they were sold, this morning, to a group chaired by Evangelos Marinakis.

This would be even more of an event worth celebrating, of course, if Marinakis weren’t currently being investigated for match fixing in Greece.  This is the guy we’re happy about.  Talk about soccer through a telescope, perhaps a supernova would be more calm and predictable.

Following a team from a distance has given me an appreciation for soccer in a way that I’m not sure I’d get following Liverpool and their role in Fenway Sports Group’s world domination plot.  Because of FFP and because of the realities of the sport, it’s not like the Reds can go out and bring in an international megastar the way the big Premier League clubs and La Liga clubs can.  I could not follow the team without understanding the difference in coverage, support, and general attitude between the sporting culture here and the one over there.  It is, after all, a different world.  There is no NFL-style salary cap, no guarantee of massive television contracts like in Major League Baseball.

These clubs have to survive because they find an up-and-comer, the way Leicester City found Jamie Vardy.  They also got phenomenal coaching and had some other amazing players like Mahrez, but it starts with that breakout scorer.  Or, in the classic case, a manager.  Of course, once they find someone like that, they have to win immediately or they’ll see that manager signed elsewhere or find themselves forced to sell off their young talent.  Had Leicester not won the Premier League and received that Champions League money, they would have had to dismantle their squad.

It’s like the worst parts of small market baseball combined with the impermanence of college sports.  Never get attached to anyone, because unless they get on that magic Brian Clough-style run they are destined to go elsewhere.

If Forest finds their striker of the future and he and Warburton bring the club to the Premier League, it will be wonderful, and that striker will wind up at Manchester United within a short period of time.  The manager might stay on for an extra year or two before a bigger club comes calling.  This is the first thing you learn about following a Championship team.

Of course, we have our own league here in the US.  I’m writing this to an area that has one of the great success stories of American soccer in its history.  The Rowdies, the original ones, survived the league they played in by nine years.  They used to fill old Tampa Stadium, as in entirely, and lived up to that unique team name in the process.

There’s lots of talk of the Rowdies coming back to the top.  The new Rowdies are so much fun they’ve actually managed to be a successful professional sports team based in St. Petersburg.  With just a little work on Al Lang and just a little push to the MLS, the Rowdies will be all the way back.  Perhaps Tampa Bay will be the eastern answer to Portland and Seattle’s wild soccer success stories.  Certainly neither the original Sounders or Timbers made the noise the original Rowdies did.

I used to hear stories of the old Rowdies told like folklore.  Even at the end of the McKay era, when the Bucs had actually made it, the Rowdies were the biggest team in Tampa.

Like Forest, the Rowdies are a second tier team that has late seventies/early 80s glory in its past.  Even without promotion and relegation, the Rowdies are much closer to that goal.  They need only win the approval of the league, and they’re back that easily.  Forest needs a turnaround, coupled with the miracle that just happened in Leicester, in a league with no salary cap where they will have less buying power than a hundred competitors.

Like Forest, following the Rowdies from afar involves a lot of reading, a lot of youtube videos, some fun history, and very little in the way of live soccer.  Knowing more involves research into the business of the sport, reading tea leaves, and hoping for the future.

The two teams met in a preseason match last year, appropriately enough.  Forest didn’t send their first team, as they were still playing their regular season in the Championship, but the sides managed a 2-2 draw.

They’ll have to take wildly different paths to get what they want, but both sides are headed for the same place.  Perhaps it’s back to the future in a way.

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Tim Williams has been Sports Talk Florida's National Baseball Columnist since December of 2015. As a member of the STF team, Tim has written about Major League Baseball, the 2016 NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament, the 2016 Olympic Games, the Ryder Cup, and Florida Gators Football. Tim has been covering sports since his days at Northeastern University's WRBB student radio, where he announced baseball and football as well as contributing to the coverage of Huskies Hockey, most notably the 2005 and 2006 Beanpot Tournaments. Since, he has written about a number of sports for a number of outlets, including Sports Talk Florida and the American Sports Network. Based in Boston but a Florida native, Tim Williams has a fan's perspective that goes beyond New England. In addition to his columns, you can hear this in The Pickup Game podcast that he has hosted since the Autumn of 2016. When he isn't writing about sports, he can often be seen on golf courses around Massachusetts.