Duncan’s Day at Carrow Road last Saturday was an occasion to remember.
And an occasion for remembering, with many of Duncan’s old teammates making an appearance, the great stories about him in the match programme and even a chorus of ‘Six foot two, eyes of blue…’ wafting across the pitch during the game.
But of course, there is a horrible irony to this. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the day was that the condition from which Duncan Forbes now suffers is one that cruelly robs people of their memories.
Alzheimer’s is a disease that strikes at the core of who we are. It is what we remember that gives us a sense of ourselves and our place in the world; stripped of this, we are stripped of our identity.
If memory helps to give us our identity as people, it also plays a large part in giving us our identity as football fans.
What is it that holds a body of supporters together? Geography, yes. A common desire to see our team do well, certainly. But it’s also our shared history. The memories of what we’ve experienced together bind us as much as our hopes for the future.
(We don’t all have exactly the same history, obviously. Rather, we have a shared corpus of experience on which we may each draw to construct our own individual narrative. And if you think that sounds pretentious, be warned – there’s a Proust quote coming shortly.)
It’s the moments we remember which are the most valuable things to a football supporter. Yes, trophies and open-top bus rides are great – and precious memories in themselves – but those moments, good or bad, which stay with us over the years are what really count.
They could be anything: Albert Bennett wearing white boots; Dale Gordon’s stepovers on his first-team debut; shivering so violently with cold after a League Cup match at Bolton in 1995 that I couldn’t keep my foot on the clutch pedal of the car; a terrible Adam Drury shot at Crewe in 2004 provoking a chorus of ‘That’s why you’re left-back’; the long line of City fans weeing over a garden fence in Grantham en route to an FA Cup match at Derby in 1984. (Not exactly one of those ‘misty watercolour memories’ that Gladys Knight sang about, that last one…)
Two memories of Duncan stand out: the roar of the crowd on those odd occasions when he would start to dribble forwards tentatively from the halfway line, encouraging him to keep going and have a shot; and seeing him close up at the Royal Norfolk Show when I was about ten years old.
(At least, I think it was at the showground, though I may well be wrong about that. To quote Proust, as promised: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were”.)
I wasn’t just star-struck; it was his sheer stature and presence that left a lasting impression. When Bill Shankly signed Ron Yeats for Liverpool, he told reporters: ‘He’s a colossus. Come outside and I’ll give you a walk round him’; the same could easily have been said about Big Dunc.
Memories provide context and create patterns and echoes across the years. A minor example from Saturday’s game: a Stoke player managed, with a stereotypical lack of sophistication, to kick the ball over the roof of the Jarrold* stand. To the best of my knowledge, this has only happened once before in the stand’s 10-year history; to test your memory, who was the first player to hoof the ball that high? (Answer at the end of this column.)
Often, what sticks in the mind is unlikely and unpredictable. Dean Coney scoring with his backside, for example. And I once bumped into an old schoolmate whose abiding memory of me turned out to be that I had once been on Romper Room and had stubbornly refused to join in any of Miss Rosalyn’s games.
But players and managers do have a little control over how they are remembered, particularly in the way they leave a club. Peter Grant is viewed with more respect than his spell in charge would otherwise warrant because he accepted things weren’t working and resigned; nothing in his tenure became him like the leaving it, as the Scottish play doesn’t quite put it.
This is something Wes Hoolahan might want to think about if he is still eyeing an exit from the club. I defer to no one in my platonic man-love for Wes, but he needs to be careful with his outbursts about the club and his non-celebration of goals. His popularity has survived so far, but I fear he’s walking a thin line.
It’s likely he hasn’t even considered how he may be remembered when he’s gone. History may be important to the fans, but I suspect that players are less retrospective. It’s always about the next game, not looking back – and perhaps that’s as it should be. What happened in the past may well be a negative influence and needs to be put out of one’s head; very rarely will a manager or player invoke history for inspiration as Arsene Wenger did (unsuccessfully) this week.
For supporters, football devoid of memories would be like… well, the late 90s, I suppose. I didn’t miss a game home or away during that period, and nothing at all stands out in that barren wasteland.
I can’t help wondering how much, if anything, I’ll remember about the current season in years to come. But this isn’t the time or place to lament how lacklustre this campaign has been. (Next time, maybe.) Let’s end the way we started, by paying tribute to our former captain.
Ultimately, all that any of us leave behind are memories. And Duncan Forbes has given us wonderful, stirring memories that will endure and remain as much a part of the fabric of our club as his Hall of Fame brick in the Jarrold stand.
(* A stand once cleared, before I forget, by a clearance from Jens Berthel Askou.)