I only got to cover one promotion campaign at the City Ground in my 20 years watching Forest.
If you’d said that on my arrival in Nottingham in 1999, I’d have accepted that.
Promoted back to the Premier League, where the Reds stayed.
Of course, the reality was somewhat different. Three times, Forest made the Championship play-offs in my time covering the club, and three times they failed to reach the Wembley final.
As a sports journalist, you want to work at the highest level you can, so promotion to the Premier League would have been amazing.
The chance to present the programme every week from the likes of Old Trafford, the Emirates or St James’ Park was far more appealing than (with all due respect, which usually means ‘with little respect!’) the Madejski Stadium, the Riverside or the DW Stadium.
Covering games in those grounds, which were rarely even half-full, with little media spotlight, felt a world away from the top flight.
But it wasn’t to be.
Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoyed working in the Championship.
We never knew what would happen, it felt far less gimmicky and cynical than the Premier League, and you had some proper old English clubs in the division.
For a sports journalist, access was often better – and clubs were friendlier. Though, to be clear, they became less and less friendly as the years passed.
And it became more and more difficult to do the job to the best of my ability.
But there were three seasons which had you pining for the Championship. The three seasons in League One.
The play-off defeat to Yeovil Town at the end of another tortuous League One campaign was probably as low as I felt on the radio after a match.
It wasn’t so much because of what I’d seen, but what it meant. The game had drama, fantastic goals and underdog success – for the neutral, brilliant.
But what it meant was another season in League One. Trips to Carlisle, Gillingham, Brighton and Bournemouth were on the agenda for the following season – the latter two had just avoided relegation to League Two. Whatever happened to them?!
It also meant my work colleagues and I had to cancel the hotel bookings we’d made for Wembley, after Forest’s 2-0 win at Yeovil in the first leg. That was not a pleasant experience.
I also felt for Colin Calderwood, a very dignified and calm figure – with whom I got on well, and keep in touch with to this day.
I’ve always felt he didn’t get the credit he deserved for turning around the oil tanker – though it probably took a season longer than he felt it would.
But without that low point of the Yeovil defeat, nobody would have experienced the sheer drama of the final day the following season.
Calderwood was always insistent throughout the season that Forest would get promoted out of League One.
But the 2007/08 campaign started slowly – and it took until mid-September for the Reds to register a win.
A play-off campaign looked the likeliest route to promotion as Easter came. Forest faced successive away games at Doncaster and Carlisle (fellow promotion contenders) over the long weekend.
All of the talk beforehand was about how four points was the minimum needed, if automatic promotion hopes were to remain alive.
But in a pretty dismal game, Forest lost 1-0 at Doncaster on Good Friday and all of the talk amongst the local press afterwards was that the chance to finish in the top two was gone.
Forest were 12 points off an automatic promotion place, with only seven matches to go.
But Calderwood was defiant – I remember him still insisting that his team would get promoted. To be frank, none of us believed him.
A few days later, at Carlisle, Forest won 2-0. For most, it seemed academic (in terms of winning automatic promotion). But the Reds hit their straps for the next few weeks to set up a final day decider.
They’d taken 16 points from six games going into the last match.
The equation was simple – if Forest beat Yeovil, and Doncaster (managed by Sean O’Driscoll) failed to win at relegation-threatened Cheltenham, the Reds would be back in the Championship.
It was obviously a tense, final day – and at BBC Radio Nottingham, we had someone listening to a feed of the BBC Radio Sheffield commentary on the Doncaster game – so that we could give out the latest scores, accurately and quickly.
Believe me, this is NOT a thing to get wrong! And this was the fastest way to get an accurate story of what was happening at Cheltenham.
I told Calderwood of our plans in the week building up to the final day, and he immediately asked if I could be his point of contact for the latest score from the other game, while Forest were playing.
It was hugely important – it could affect the way his side played in the closing stages – Would they have to go gung-ho? Or would they shut up shop?
I remember a few early false alarms, as sections of The City Ground crowd cheered supposed Cheltenham goals.
Calderwood would look to my seat (within a couple of metres of the home dug-out), and I’d shake my head. It was a mad day – I seem to remember three false alarms, and three shakes of the head. I had to be right.
Forest swept into a 2-0 lead by the 20-minute mark – so much of the focus was on what was happening at Whaddon Road.
Our producer, Chris Ellis – a master of these moments – spoke into Colin Fray’s and my headphones from the studio… “Cheltenham 1 Doncaster nil.”
I shouted at Calderwood, but he didn’t hear me as Colin Fray had announced the score on the radio, and the crowd had reacted so loudly. Calderwood turned, having heard the noise, and this time I nodded my head.
I don’t think he even smiled!
Fifteen minutes from time, Doncaster equalised and I passed on the message. It would still be enough for Forest, assuming they hung on to their lead and the South Yorkshire side didn’t score a winner.
I got another message from Chris in the studio – “five minutes to go at Cheltenham.”
I thought that was useful information for the Forest manager. So I got up off the seat to wander into the dug-out to tell him that when the old City Ground clock showed “4.47,” there would only be stoppage time left in the Doncaster game.
I’d just about reached Calderwood, when Chris, back in the studio, buzzed again – “2-1 to Cheltenham.”
At which point, Colin Fray interrupted John McGovern on commentary to tell everyone. Cue a huge roar in the stadium, like there’d been a Forest goal, and it meant I told Calderwood of news I didn’t know when I left my seat.
This time, he smiled.
As long as they held on to what was then a 3-2 lead, Forest would be promoted. They did, and they were.
Nineteen points taken from the last seven games to win automatic promotion. A phenomenal end to any season.
Forest had been in the automatic promotion places, as I recall, for less than 90 minutes of the season – but those were the final minutes of the season.
And Calderwood had been proven right – they would win promotion in 2007/08. A fitting reward for one of the good guys.
Photos: Dan Westwell
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