• Alex Antrobus

The Rams, The Reds and Friendship

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

For as long as I can remember I have loved the game of football and have been an avid follower of Derby County. A season ticket holder from the age of 5 in 1997, I saw probably some of best football and players of the modern era, although I don’t remember much of it it. One game will always stick with me though, 10th of April 1999 a 1-0 win against Forest with Carbonari scoring the winner. It was my first game against Forest and I absolutely loved every minute. We were sat right next to the away fans and for some reason I vividly remember singing ‘He’s fat, he’s round, he’s taking Forest down...Atkinson...Atkinson’ which as a 6 year old I found proper amusing. My Uncle Paul used to take me to all our games, he was always very calm (with the occasional out burst at the ref) but this was the first time I remember seeing real passion and I guess you could say hatred at a football match. From then on I ‘got it’. It was engrained to dislike anything and everything related to Forest, despite not playing them on a regular basis until 2008 onwards.

I didn’t go to the same school as Ben but we struck up a proper friendship through mutual friends in the local area, not through football but through what I remember to be a mutual love of clothes, music and f**king about making daft videos on social media. Ben was a youth team player at Forest but I had little interest in that for obvious reasons, I couldn’t have been more immersed in Derby culture at the time. Dressing in a certain way, travelling to away games, turning 18 and drinking in proper ’Derby pubs’ etc. It didn’t even cross my mind that he could potentially play against my club in future and if you had asked me then if I’d ever set foot in the City Ground I’d have laughed in your face and probably told you to f**k off.

We were all absolutely buzzing when Ben started to get involved with the first team at Forest, not to mention playing for England at youth level, he was living the dream that many of us had and credit to him he didn’t change and is still the same lad to this day. As time went on I remember our pride at seeing him make his first appearances for The Reds, especially the debut away at Ipswich in 2014. At this stage everything was sweet, there was a small conflict of interest on my part I guess but no major issues. The following season Ben was a regular in the side; I remember a pinch me moment was him taking two players on and spanking a shot against the bar at White Hart Lane, ‘bloody hell he’s taking the p**s out of Spurs’ I thought, as we screamed at the clip on Sky Sports News. Later on in that season though I’d say my outlook on football changed dramatically....

‘You know what’s gonna f**king happen don’t you’ said my friend Matt whilst we were sat in the south west corner of Pride Park, I nodded but I probably didn’t believe it. The next thing you know, Ben picks up the ball in Derby’s half and drives towards our goal, I find myself subconsciously willing him on, before he unleashed an unstoppable shot past Lee Grant. Now, I’m not exaggerating when I say this but that was one of the strangest feelings in my life to date. I’m immediately out of my seat, stood up like I’m celebrating but at the same have my hands gripped behind my head in shock and disappointment. I’m smiling but also conscious of the fact we’re going to get beat by Forest, it was probably the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had, absolutely over the moon for someone who deserves it but also massively pissed off at losing to what was at the time a poor Forest side. I was so conflicted. The noise from the away fans was deafening, absolute chaos in the away end despite Ben’s underwhelming celebrations. Matt shook his head in disgust and walked off down the stairs, leaving me sat alone trying to figure out what was going on.

Conflicted is probably the best word to use. I tried to balance both aspects but like many of Ben’s Derby supporting friends will agree, it’s very very difficult. A good example is I remember one year Ben had gone down erratically early doors under a challenge from Bradley Johnson; I stood up and called him every name under the sun whilst stood in the middle of the West Stand at Pride Park, sometimes in the heat of the moment it can’t be helped but I felt a bit bad afterwards. At the time I remember thinking; would a 4-3 win for Derby with Osborn grabbing a hattrick for Forest really be too much to ask?

After his winning goal I took a lot of stick from other groups of friends some of whom I am very close to and I bare no grudges over that, if the shoe was on the other foot I’d be relentless. But when you see the human side of the game it does change things, it tones down those tribal alliances and it doesn’t take very long to do so, many football fans probably don’t understand that. Before ‘that goal’ I’d watch Ben whenever I could, but as he became a regular starter I soon found myself watching Derby at home and going to watch Forest whenever the Rams were away. If you told anyone from Derby or Nottingham about that they would look at you in absolute disgust but it was about us as a group of mates wanting to go down and watch our mate do well, and that’s as simply as I can describe it. I do the same for my mates who play in local non-league football. The whole experience really toned down the rivalry.

I did have a few boundaries though, I could never ever sing that Mull of Kintyre song before games, I respected it as an Anthem and I begrudgingly admitted it was miles better than Steve Bloomer but it was a massive no go. I’d also never actively ‘celebrate’ a Forest goal unless Ben had scored it, again, my body just wouldn’t let me, it’s been engrained in me for too long.

A lot of football fans don’t see and hear the impact negative results and comments from fans have on players, they don’t hear what goes on behind the scenes nor do they understand that ultimately being a footballer is a job. I think when you have that insight from a close friend or family member you look at the game in a very different way - I certainly do. As a football fan your judgement is clouded by your blind faith towards your club, you see fouls that aren’t there and turn a blind eye to any committed by your own, every referee decision is the wrong one and when you’re losing there’s always an individual to make a scapegoat. For those reasons I now much prefer watching football as a neutral and enjoying the game for what it is. I remember going to watch the last game of the season, Forest needed a result against Ipswich to stay up. My friends were praying Forest went down, the Derby fan in me probably should have been too but I couldn’t look at it in that way. A relegation is massive for a players livelihood, and can start a chain of events that leads to good players leaving the game all together. To put it in non-footballing terms would you want your mate’s workplace to lose business or go bust, just because you don’t like their products?

When Ben left Forest I was chuffed for two reasons: 1. It was a move he worked hard for and fully deserved his chance to play in the Premier League. 2. That feeling of confliction had been lifted and I could fully immerse myself in following the Blades. That said, I don’t think I’ll ever be a ‘die hard’ Rams fan again, it would probably make me a fraud to be honest and I’ve not had a season ticket since 2015. I look at football in a completely different light now and certainly don’t let results ruin my weekend like they used to. I’ll always follow Derby, it’s just football Is different to me now.

Up The Rams, Up The Blades.

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