Charles Dickens starts his book “A Tale of Two Cities” with the sentence: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’
It’s not clear whether the cities in question were Nottingham and Derby, but good old Charlie seemed to summarise my experiences of covering the East Midlands derby.
There’s so much at stake this weekend, with both sides in with a realistic chance of promotion, so the excitement and tension will be even higher than it usually is.
If I was presenting on the radio on Saturday, I’m sure I might allow the odd “form book goes out of the window” to slip through the censors net, but I actually think you can often predict the way a derby is going to go.
I can remember going to some derby games fearful that Forest would get a battering, and often they got a battering.
And I can remember going to games confident that Forest would tear Derby apart, and on many occasions, they did.
So, I don’t recall too many occasions when the “form book went out of the window.”
The notable exception came when Billy Davies – so often a master in getting his players in the right frame of mind for derby games – took his high-flying side to Pride Park in 2010.
The Reds had recently won at a snowy West Brom 3-1, and were magnificent away from home up to that point.
But they went to Derby in January, lost 1-0 and didn’t win away from home again all season.
But I remember arriving at the City Ground with a spring in my step – when Paul Hart’s side swept aside John Gregory’s by three goals to nil, or when Robbie Earnshaw hit the fifth in the famous 5-2 victory – and being hugely confident of Reds success.
So sometimes, you DO know what will unfold in the following hours.
I also recall trudging fearfully into Pride Park to see Joe Kinnear’s Forest swept aside, or to see Billy Davies’ second spell end in a five-nil humiliation.
I had a fair idea of what was going to happen on those occasions, barring a huge upset.
On both of those occasions, the manager slunk away without giving his reaction to the press (and therefore the supporters), and that gave me a fair insight into what was likely to happen in the coming days.
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- I’ll never forget Colin Calderwood’s smile as he realised Forest were back up
I will always remember the importance of derby matches, and how it feels as though the whole football world is watching on.
I’ve always felt you get a better game at the City Ground than you do at Pride Park – I’ve no idea why that should be, but matches in Derby have often felt quite sterile and dull, despite all of the hype and build-up.
Give me a midweek evening match in Nottingham, and the atmosphere is extraordinary, it just feels like a great occasion, and an occasion that doesn’t have to be manufactured or whipped up.
People often asked me whether I got nervous about presenting on the radio, and having done it for so long, I can honestly say I didn’t.
At the beginning I would have done – the adrenaline would have flowed and I’d have been worrying about what I was saying – desperately trying not to say the wrong thing.
But that eased after time.
I also feel that if I’m relaxed, and not full of tension, presenting tends to flow more easily.
I can pick up on what other people say and maybe have a joke with them.
I think it comes with experience, but I always just wanted to be myself on the radio and not be an actor.
That way, if people didn’t like my style (and plenty didn’t!) at least I was being genuine.
I don’t think I’d have coped with trying to be someone else, and then being disliked by some of the audience.
But on derby days, I got a little tingle. It was probably the same thing.
On such an occasion, I just wanted the programme to go smoothly, for it to hit the right note with fans, and to create some memories.
Once I’d handed to Colin Fray for the commentary, I’d stand pitchside at the City Ground around 10 minutes before kick-off, look around and soak it all in.
It was a reminder of how privileged I was to do the job I did, and how important it was.
If Forest won the game, the final part of the programme would be a joy to present.
We’d generally be on for an hour after a derby game, and that would fly by if the result had gone the right way or if there was something controversial to get stuck into.
But if Forest had lost a drab game, that hour would feel like a week.
All I wanted to do was pack up and go home, but I had to stay on the radio and talk about a game I actually wanted to forget!
I would often hate interviewing the Forest manager after a derby defeat – assuming they turned up for the interview!
As the person asking the questions, I was an easy target for emotional fans and I found it was impossible to win because I wouldn’t ask exactly the question that the social media expert wanted asking.
In those circumstances, I had to back my own judgment and make sure I covered the main subjects with the manager.
I only had a certain amount of time with them, so it was impossible to go into every minute detail.
I’d then look on social media after the programme to see I was getting pilloried for not asking, for example, when Fred Bloggs would be back after his operation.
If there was defeat to Derby, I couldn’t win. Once I realised that, it became much easier – no point playing the game with people on social media, if you can’t win.
Compare that to the reaction after a derby win, with people ‘loving’ the interview with the player who scored the winning goal.
In reality, I’d basically given the player the mike, not asked a challenging question, and just revelled in their success for five minutes. Yet, that was a ‘great interview.’ Hmm.
I also knew how defining the results were in the season – how managers lost their jobs immediately after a derby game (Kinnear, Davies, Gregory etc), but also how it could set up a manager to be successful too.
This season, I’m sure Sabri Lamouchi was admired more quickly by Forest fans because of the League and Cup successes against the Rams at the beginning of this campaign.
Then, it becomes easier to be the manager – fans are on your side, which creates a more positive atmosphere, which helps the team – and you get a positive season, such as the one the Reds are having now.
With Derby having to play five of the top six between now and the end of the season, the Reds could actually do with the Rams finishing with at least a few draws and might actually want them to win a game or two – after this weekend.
Games against Leeds, West Brom, Brentford and Cardiff follow for Derby after the match against Forest, so if Lamouchi’s side can win at Pride Park, the door to the top two may not quite be closed.
I think it’ll be tight this weekend, and I can’t see many goals in the game at all.
It might be that one is enough for either side to win it, but if I’m honest, I think 0-0 would be a good bet. That won’t be the end of the world for Forest at all.
But a win there would, I think, put Lamouchi’s men in the hunt for the top two.
As Charlie D said back in the day, Great Expectations.
Photo: Dan Westwell