Most of the media coverage of the winners of last season’s National League play-off final has focused on (a) Nailsworth in Gloucestershire becoming the smallest town ever to have a Football League club, and (b) the club’s official vegan status, arising from owner Dale Vince’s background as a New Age traveller turned renewable energy tycoon.
Receiving less attention, but personally quite troubling, is that the arrival of Forest Green Rovers means that the Tricky Trees are no longer the only Football League club with ‘Forest’ in their name.
Now I appreciate that in the big scheme of things, it’s a relatively trivial matter. But even so, if you’d told people a few years ago that in the not-too-distant future a reality TV star was going to be US President; that a workhorse left-wing backbench Labour MP would have one foot edging through the Downing Street gates; that the UK had one of its feet on the metaphorical threshold of the departure gate at Brussels airport; and that the Football League had not one but two teams with Forest in their name, then each would have been met with incredulity.
But for some of us, the arrival of Forest Green has further implications. While the publication of the new fixture list sent many Forest fans scrambling to check train times from Sunderland on a Tuesday night, or deciding whether to opt for Preston, Leeds or both over Christmas, for members of the so-called 92 Club it meant working out when and how to schedule in another trip to some remote corner of the country to see a game in which you have little or no vested interest, other than to fulfil an exercise in obsessional box-ticking.
With some synchronicity, the first time I clocked up my 92nd ground was at Lincoln City, Forest Green’s promotion partners from last season. That was in March 2000, and brought with it a satisfying sense of job done. Chalking up number 92 used to mean exactly that. The odd failed re-election aside – copping for the likes of Workington and Barrow – the 92 league clubs remained pretty much unchanged for decades.
Automatic promotion changed all of that, meaning that my 92 actually headed well over 100, including the likes of Aldershot, Halifax, Torquay, Tranmere, Chester, Leyton Orient, Macclesfield, Wrexham, Hartlepool, Stockport, Scarborough, Darlington, Hereford, Boston, Rushden and Kidderminster.
By the time I got to Lincoln, this churn hadn’t seemed too intrusive, as I was already submerged in the process of knocking off new grounds by the dozen each season. So slotting upstarts like Cheltenham and Macclesfield into the itinerary didn’t really make much difference. But once the set was complete, a new club’s elevation to League status for the very first time became an irritant, rather than an enticing day out.
And so it is that as each season comes to a close, I find my eyes drawn away from the Championship table and across to the National League ladder. Non 92-ers may well do the same, willing on the nominal underdogs (Dover Athletic or Bromley perhaps), but this ageing, hardened, cynical – and now, lazy – 92-er is desperate for Wrexham, Tranmere or Torquay to beat them over the line, thus taking a one-game fixture pile-up out of the equation for at least another year.
It all began with a map. A fold-out map, an insert from a magazine or newspaper, surrounded by the club crests of all 92 teams with war-room style lines and dots marking the locations of their grounds. Many of the badges were, like Forest’s in the day, merely their town or city crest. Others were club creations with conservative design aesthetics, but the odd one or two were possessed by a strident modernism – among them Hull and Millwall, I seem to remember – though it may have been an infant interest in big cats that actually captivated my six-year-old eyes.
The set of 92 had a collective exoticism, richly captured in names like Sheffield Wednesday and Plymouth Argyle. How gratifying it was to realise that possibly the most poetically named of them all was in our city – our very own Nottingham Forest.
I can’t pretend that an epiphany took hold – that at the moment of first being presented with the map, I determined to make it my life’s work to visit all 92. But certainly the seed of the expedition was planted as I pored over it for hours, fascinated by the way some teams clumped together around London and Manchester, or stood isolated and aloof in Norwich or Carlisle. What were these strange places called Darlington and Hartlepool, and why did they never appear in the Tyne Tees TV listings for Sunday afternoon, when their neighbours seemed to be there every other week? And the colours – so many reds and blues, while other clubs were distinguished as special in some way by their orange, claret or green.
When eventually I started to read about something called the 92 Club, populated by people who had actually been to all these places, it seemed beyond all reasonable comprehension. In an age when – outside of football – the notion of a club was something where people from a local community came together to drink cheap beer and play snooker, this revelation threw up yet more questions. Did these 92 Club people all live near each other? Where did they have club meetings? Was it like the Cub Scouts, with weekly subs to pay and rituals to observe? Were badges awarded as you ticked off grounds? Did they go to the grounds by themselves, or together? How long did it take to do all 92? Come to think of it, how long did it take to do just one? And, having done them all, did they just keep going back?
Forty-odd years later I can tell you that, personally, the answer to the last one is: not unless you have to. And, to cover most of the rest, the answer of course is that there is no such thing as the 92 Club. Or, at least, that the 92 Club only exists in the minds of its members. It’s a bit like AA members who find themselves on the receiving end of unsatisfactory AA response times when they break down on the M40, trekking back to Sussex having ticked off Accrington in a 1-0 victory over Forest in the League Cup on a Tuesday night.
The 92 Club has no membership list, no premises, no cheap beer, no crisps, no T-shirts, no AGM and no snooker tables. It also, handily, has no rule book – at least not as far as I’m aware. How could it, if it doesn’t actually exist? As such, qualification for membership is in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I don’t consider a ground counts towards the full quota unless I’ve seen what in cricketing parlance would be called first class football there (League, FA Cup, League Cup or ‘proper’ European competition), and witnessed the whole 90-plus minutes. So no friendlies, and no leaving early – and of course, no arriving late. Why on earth would you want to risk arriving late? Arriving early is the first non-existent rule of the 92 Club.
So, you make your own rules about how and when you’ve ‘done’ a ground…and, therefore, when you’ve ‘done’ the 92. Now if it sounds peculiar that the definition of having visited 92 grounds could be called into question, consider that until Scunthorpe built Glandford Park in 1988, it was the first new ground in English football since 1956. Since then, dozens of new stadia have been built, but does that mean that if you’ve been to the ‘old’ Huddersfield, Coventry, Brighton, Arsenal, Leicester, Southampton, Swansea, Stoke, Manchester City, Bolton, Cardiff, Millwall, Middlesbrough, Hull, Reading, Sunderland, Doncaster, Northampton, Rotherham, Walsall, Wigan, Oxford, Chesterfield, Colchester or Newport grounds, you’ve got to slog round them all again just because they’ve upped sticks?
Well, you can probably guess my answer to that…and, frankly, why should I? Would you say to Edmund Hillary: “Look, we’ve stuck a café on top of Everest and a couple of rock-falls have reconfigured the landscape, so if you wouldn’t mind popping up again old chap…”? No, you bloody wouldn’t. Crap analogy I know, but this is my 92 Club, my rules, and my Everest.
This is an extract from Issue 5 of Nottingham Forest quarterly magazine Bandy & Shinty. This issue features exclusive interviews with Jacqui Oatley and Brian Clough’s long time lieutenants, Alan Hill and Liam O’ Kane. Bandy & Shinty now offer subscriptions and Issue 5 will be available to buy on Friday 4th August.
Nigel Huddleston, the author of this piece, is a freelance journalist whose first Forest game was away at Meadow Lane in the County Cup in 1973. His second was away at Meadow Lane in the County Cup in 1974. Forest won neither. He has written a book about Billy Connolly which has five stars on Amazon, but suspects the stars are for Connolly, and not the book.