Over the years, I have gotten up-close looks at some of the fiercest rivalries in college sports, from Duke and North Carolina in men’s basketball to Florida-Florida State football to Clemson-South Carolina football.
None comes close to matching the passion for England’s version of football. Or, at least that is what I took away from a recent Football League Championship match between the Nottingham Forest Reds and Huddersfield Town Terriers.
Understand, this particular match was late in the regular season and its outcome had no bearing on the league standings. Both teams were out of playoff contention and re-tooling their rosters for next season.
The teams compete in what essentially is the second-level of English football, below the Premier League. This level is roughly equivalent to Triple-A minor-league baseball in the United States.
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Yet a raucous crowd of 21,500 showed at City Ground, replete in every imaginable bold red T-shirt, jersey, jacket and customary scarf. It quickly became apparent to me that this was no social event on the order of college football in this country.
Fans were there to watch the game. More importantly, they were there to watch their team win. Once the game kicked off, there was no walking in the stands, no social conversation. All attention was on the field.
There was no need for an oversized video board to tell fans when to cheer, mostly because they chanted throughout the game. There was no loud music during stops in action. The public address announcer was barely noticeable, mostly because the din of the crowd drowned out his every word.
Beer drinking is a big part of the fan experience, yet I did not see one incident in the stands as the result of excessive drinking. No alcohol is allowed in the stands. So fans gathered beneath the stands before the game, many with a beer in each hand. At halftime, lines snaked throughout the concourse with most customers purchasing two or three beers at a time.
They also openly and legally gamble on the games. Betting windows are located within the stadium, and a tout sheet allows a fan to place a wager on anything and everything associated with the game. First player to score. Last player to score. Time of first goal. Leading team at halftime.
On this particular windy and chilly afternoon, midfielder Jonathan Hogg sneaked a shot past Nottingham goalkeeper Karl Darlow late in the first half to give Huddersfield a 1-0 lead.
That apparently was the signal for police to line every section that included visiting fans. Most soccer stadiums overseas have designated visitor sections with separate entrances and exits. City Ground was no exception.
While police might have kept fans from crossing into opposing sections, they could not prevent them from exchanging some of the most vile, profane barbs imaginable. Some were quite humorous, although our family appeared to be the only ones laughing.
A few hours later at a pub in downtown Nottingham, we encountered an elderly gentleman and his 50-something son. As they drowned their sorrows from the 1-0 Nottingham loss, they repeatedly and profusely apologized for the Reds’ play that afternoon.
Then the elderly gent told of how he longed for the glory days of Nottingham football, when the Reds stunned the soccer world by winning the European Cup in 1978 and 1979. So joyous was the occasion, our friend recounted how he climbed to the roof of his house both times to sing and dance in celebration.
Oh, for the days of team manager Brian Clough. For 18 seasons he coached Nottingham, leading the Reds from second-division status to prominence in European soccer.
A statue of Clough, with arms clinched over his head, stands off the town square in Nottingham. His is the only non-fictional statue in the city. The most well-known other statue is of Robin Hood, which stands outside Nottingham Castle.
Monday Night Football is staged during the season at the massive town square, and thousands of youngsters gather weekly to play soccer or participate in interactive games. The older crowd watches or sneaks away to take pictures in front of Clough’s statue.
Fans talk about how productivity in the Nottingham workforce has been on a decline in recent years. They attribute it mostly to the poor play of the Reds football team and the somber attitude their sub-par record inflicts on the population.
No one laughs at such a belief.
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