The Story with no Song: My Time in Football

Like many writers the majority of my songs are about me and my life. And these blog pieces are usually about my songs and, therefore, about my life. But there is a time I’ve not yet written about and perhaps I should.

What did I do in the years between 1981 when The Boys broke up and 2000 when we got back together to play Japan? In short I went back to the University I left after a day in 1976, then got a job, family and mortgage like everyone else.

I’ve talked about my time working for Andrew Lloyd Webber (https://www.andrewlloydwebber.com/about/) in this blog: https://duncanreidandthebigheads.com/2018/11/12/the-story-behind-the-song-parts-6-and-7-children/ and the family sacrifices which inspired the song “Little Fingers and Toes”.

However, in 1997 Andrew Lloyd Webber was rethinking his desire for global domination and talked of a simpler life, taking his Really Useful Group back to being a small theatre production company dedicated to his work in London and on Broadway. In that smaller company what would a guy who spent his days planning new ventures in film and television, opening up new theatre markets in Europe, Las Vegas and the like, and who was looking at managing non Lloyd Webber shows such as Riverdance do with himself? Get laid off was the obvious answer.

So I started looking around to see how I could keep a roof over the heads of my young family and stop the bank coming in to repossess our nice house which still had a pretty hefty mortgage hanging over it.

But I couldn’t just do anything. I have a very low boredom threshold and when I saw an advert which said “Premier League Football Club requires full time director” I thought: “Why not?”

200 people applied for the job at double European Champions Nottingham Forest (https://www.nottinghamforest.co.uk/) but I must have made a good impression. Experience as a performer is useful in many situations including interviews, which is why a drama degree is often undervalued (not that I have one). I remember being asked: “How does working for a theatre company make you qualified to run a footbll club?” to which my reply was: “I’ve been running venues, selling tickets and merchandise, negotiating media rights, and organising bars and food. It seems to me the only difference with football is the divas are a different sex”. It got a chuckle and maybe got me the job but I was wrong. I was about to go from a company that made millions of pounds while we slept in our beds from shows all over the world, to an industry based on financial madness, where clubs get relegated with a wage bill they can’t afford while their income is reduced to a fraction of what it was, and which requires Arab royal families, Rusian oligarchs or American billionaires for a team to be competitive. But more of that later.

Off I trotted home to tell my wife: “I’ve landed a new job”. “Oh, where is it?”, she asked.”Nottingham”, I replied.

We took the very sensible (with hindsight) decision not to take our daughter, Lauren, out of school, sell the house and move to Nottingham until we saw how the job worked out. So started 2 years of me living in Nottingham and Liz and Lauren coming up Friday nights after school till crack of dawn Monday.

I moved into a house rented by the club and previously used by a string of Scandanavian footballers like Alf Inge Haaland ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alf-Inge_H%C3%A5land ) who you may remember had his career ended at Manchester City by a particularly thugish tackle of Roy Keane’s.

I moved in during the close season when no matches took place and most of the news was about new players. It was known that this was a “Forest House” rented out to players and as I put the keys in the door for the first time I turned round to see a gaggle of little boys looking at me, eyes and mouths wide open, horror written across their faces. “Bloody Hell they are buying them small and old”, they were thinking.

So began two of the most fun and interesting years of my life. Nottingham was a delight to live in. People spoke funny but boy they were friendly. I fell out of bed a half hour before I was due in work, as opposed to struggling in to town for hours on overcrowded and often cancelled trains. Footballers themselves were surprisingly down to earth and often very intelligent (and teetotal!). Some were greedy, charging charities and schools money to turn up at open days when they earned so much anyway and had so much free time. But then there were others like Chris Bart Williams (https://www.nottinghampost.com/sport/football/now-former-nottingham-forest-midfielder-1228760) who I discovered ran and funded a free football academy for underpriveleged children in his spare time.

Chris Bart Williams

One thing I had never previously appreciated was how large a part pain plays in their lives. We always read in the paper “So and so has an injury”. It’s so common we take it for granted. But injury equals pain, and often surgery and crutches. These guys who run a half marathon twice a week and train in between live with it. Some of them constantly.

But they do get paid well.

The people who really impressed me were the managers. I never quite met Brian Clough (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Clough) the genius legend who took Nottingham Forest from the Second division, to English Champions and double European Champions in 5 years. But I heard some great stories most of which I can’t repeat. We organised a public dinner in his honour and invited most of the great champion team of 1979/80 to attend. Many of them were by then very succesful managers in their own right like Martin O’Neill (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_O%27Neill). To a man they sat white knuckle rigid with fear until word came through that Brian Clough was too “poorly” to attend (he was known to struggle with the drink). Hearing the news, all those years later and after Brian Clough no longer had any day to day hold over them, this group of successful adult men visibly relaxed and could enjoy the evening.

That was the old way of managing with techniques such as the Alex Ferguson “hairdryer” at half time, making the players scared of upsetting you with an undercurrent of potential violence. It’s been a long time since that worked.

Imagine you have a workforce of millionaires who have been on good money since they were teenagers. A workforce for whom the threat of the sack would represent an opportunity to get out of a contract and sign for another club with a massive signing on fee. And it’s a cold, wet, Wednesday in February with an away match at a lower team. That is why you see the Jurgen Klopp approach of I’m your friend and surrogate Dad, with so much emphasis on team building and playing for your mates. Not only do managers have to be great coaches and football tacticians, they have to be charming, master psychoanalysts and all the ones I met were an impressive presence in the room.

The best and worst thing about the job was the football itself, both on the pitch and around the match.

For my then nine year old daughter, Lauren, the first match was an ordeal. Clearly bored she spent the whole time looking at anything but the pitch and asking to go home. But the power of football won. At our third game I heard this little voice beside me say: “He was offside”. I was stunned. The offside law is one of the hardest for newcomers to get and the player had been offside. From then on she enjoyed an initiation into football spent visiting matchday boardrooms and liking it if the catering was up to scratch. At home games she had the run of the ground because all the security people knew her, and after every game she would make sure she got an autograph from Dutch international Pierre Van Hooijdonk (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_van_Hooijdonk) as we had a jolly time in the “Robin Hood” lounge where the players would relax post match. Pierre would chuckle as he signed what he knew must have been her 20th autograph from him.

I’m glad to say she knows now it was a bit of a weird way to get into football and is happy to sit in the stands like everyone else.

You might be an avid football fan. You might often find it tense, depressing or exhilarating. Imagine if you are running the place. If you’ve raised money to get promoted and know that there is no more. That while you are trying to get promoted that money is being burned through at a rate of knots as it goes out the door each month via the players payroll. And you know that if you don’t get promoted back to the Premier League that season then its over. There will have to be a fire sale and who knows what that will lead to. Believe me, life and, in particular, every match was an emotional roller coaster.

I remember a game at Manchester City. We had bought Pierre Van Hooijdonk the previous season from Celtic while we were in the Premier League and there was a clause that said if he scored 25 goals in a season we’d pay an extra £500,000. In the Premier League that would have been challenging for him. In the Championship (as it’s now called) he was like a thoroughbred racing against goats, scoring amazing goals left, right and centre. At Manchester City we were 3-0 up when awarded a penalty. Pierre was on 24 goals for the season. “Please don’t let him take it”, I prayed. As he stepped up to take the place kick I had to be restrained from running on to steal the ball.

Just a small example of Pierre van Hooijdonk’s magic

At the top of this blog there is a picture of the squad with me front right sat next to Pierre van Hooijdonk. Like the alpha male he was he has his long, long legs wide apart taking up some of my room. “Can you close your legs a bit?, I said. “No”, he replied, “My bollocks are too big”.

Ultimately it was the business which defeated me. You can save as much money as you like on the paper clips but the money going to players is extraordinary. Back in the Premier League it was clear the team weren’t good enough and there was no money in the bank. Yes, there was a huge amount of TV income but the wages were even higher. Fans are unforgiving. We are so used to hearing about players costing £50 million, £60 million, £70 million that we no longer stop to think just what a huge amount of money that is! Sums that would fund hospitals spent on one footballer before paying hundreds of thousands per week on wages. But fans want “investment” (In most walks of life that means spending money on something which lasts a long time and increases your value. In football it means spending more money than you have and later going into administration).

In the autumn of 1999, and back in the Premier League, we invited some friends to a home game against West Ham. It was the early part to the season and there was still some optimism. But the fans, used to a recent history of success, wanted new players and started a chant of “Sack the Board”. “Who are they singing about?”, asked one of my friends.”Me”, I replied.

Plus, there is only so long you can spend living away from your family before the week nights start to feel very lonely, fun as the weekends and school holidays were.

It was time to return to London, with a heavy heart at leaving Nottingham and Nottingham Forest, but invigorated and refreshed by the experience. And, although I didn’t know it at the time, a new chapter was about to start as The Boys would be asked to reform to play a couple of shows in Japan, an experience we would enjoy so much that, having not even listened to anything but Football for years, my love of music would be rekindled after nearly two decades away.