Zigger Zagger Zigger Zagger Joe Baker
There are a few famous Bakers around. Cheryl, obviously, from Bucks Fizz. Then you’d probably go with Ted. Richard from the BBC News, back in the day, and then of course elastic Matt from Countryfile, the nicest man on television. Plus Chet. But in Nottingham, there’s only ever been one Joe Baker. I’m here to blow his trumpet, about 16 years after one of Forest’s greatest players died.
Since then, due to life, love and children, and successive moves in a south-western direction, I’ve only been able to get up to see The Garibaldi Reds a couple of times a season, plus the odd away game in London, or Bristol, when Forest were in That League. I’d missed out on the Golden Years, stuck up in Preston, a penniless student, reduced to glimpses on TV and the odd home game when I was back.
So my one window was 1966 to 1968. And what a window it was! A whacking great bay window, with widescreen technicolor views and surround sound, as the crowd roared Joe Baker onto a Jim Baxter or John Barnwell through ball. And those boys could pass. Forwards! The last truly great Forest team, prior to the Clough era ten years later. And in the Swinging Sixties too, when football was nearly cool, and George Best was on everyone’s lips as the fifth Beatle.
Although, thinking back, and I was only ten remember, I don’t think the Sixties swung quite as far as The Queen of the East Midlands. Boys started to grow their hair, and wear flares. Some drugs passed among students, but I expect there always had been among young adults. I’ve seen Quadrophenia. Just a different drug of choice. No-one smoked openly. The one thing that there definitely was, was a sense of possibility amongst the young. The older pre-baby boomer generation were still mentally in wartime mode and sceptical of the young. Young people were, with their music, clothes and attitudes marking themselves out as different, determined and new.
There was talk at school, that a boy up on Mapperley Top, had been seen out in broad daylight, in a screaming pink shirt. Many years later, when I was twenty six, I was brave enough to buy a pink shirt from a little boutique in Burton, where my maternal grandmother’s family hailed from. I still have it. It’s still my Favourite Shirt!
I’ll be sixty next year. Yeah, I know. Old, isn’t it? I saw Forest bring the Cup home in ‘59. Only another twenty years or so to go. If I’m lucky. The final hurrah of a life. When I was ten, I saw Forest play for a couple of magical seasons. Before I was swallowed up by the esoterically-named Young Elizabethan League, and later the altogether harsher world of the Notts Youth League. The former sounds like we should have been wearing ruffs, and aiming abuse at the ref in rhyming Shakespearean couplets.
Ten is such a magical age. Old enough to understand something of life’s coming complexities, but still wide-eyed and innocent enough to take many things at face value. I don’t think I had the faintest idea what flower power, free love and hippies even were. I was just happy. I played football all weekend, taking part in endless games with bigger boys on the hockey pitch, with goals, at the end of Thackeray’s Lane. In the early evenings, thirsty, for it was late for me, I used to dream of passing through the hallowed portals of The Vale Hotel, which even in the late nineties, when I visited after my Dad’s death, still felt like the 1970s. Or the top end of the Welsh Valleys. Like many things in life, it was a disappointment.
The stats say he wasn’t tall for a striker, at only five feet seven, but then the players all looked like giants to me. He was fast, though, and not afraid to get stuck in with the thug centre backs frequently fielded by the opposition. He had joined Forest for £65,000 from Arsenal, after scoring stacks of goals for both the Gunners and, previously, Hibernian. His brief interlude alongside Denis Law at Torino was less successful. Three seasons at Forest brought 41 goals in 118 appearances, after which he moved on to Sunderland for £30,000. Baker is the answer to a quiz question I’m sure most Forest fans have come across: ‘Who was the first player to represent England without having played for an English club?’ All of his international caps came before his spell at Forest, though.
We used to get to the City Ground quite early, me and my Dad, so we could grab a decent spot somewhere near the half-way line, for me to stand on my biscuit tin box by the white wall. Plenty of other kids did the same. It was such a shock to see the Garibaldi Red against the lush green of the pitch, after limited access to black and white pictures of the players in the Evening Post. It was dazzling to my ten year old eyes. The cinder running track was a few inches lower than the pitch in those days. It meant that even standing on a box my eyes were about at the level of the players’ knees. You were very, very close to the action. You could smell the liniment, and hear what the players were saying, or shouting. This was a game, red in tooth and claw.
On one occasion there was a loose ball running almost out of play in front of me. It was obvious that the two players after it, John Winfield and a nameless opponent, were going to arrive at the same moment. I instinctively closed my eyes and flinched; there was no way the players could possibly avoid serious injury in the impending mighty challenge. There was a huge colliding noise, the usual collective ‘oof’ from the nearby crowd, and the universal shout of ‘our-ball’ from everyone, including all the players. I opened my eyes to find that the cataclysmic ending of the world hadn’t happened after all, and Winfield was taking a throw-in.
One mild night in October, I stood with my wife and daughter, on a low headland, watching the high tide at the mouth of the River Ewenny. The lights of Porthcawl twinkled across the bay. I thought of the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, the greatest final line of any novel:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
And I thought about my life, and about Forest. We’ve both had our ups and downs over the last fifteen years, but it really feels like we might have turned a corner this time. Me and the Club. Although we did take it pretty wide! I thought about my son and daughter, who both came with me to see Forest when they were small. How my daughter, aged about ten, had seen Andy Reid get chopped by some 0-0 draw merchants in black, right in front of us on the halfway line. How she rose instinctively with the people around us to scream at the culprit and the ref. And was then thrilled like the rest of the crowd as Andy Reid got the ball short, straight from the free kick, and ran directly at the heart of their defence. As he used to do back then. You don’t forget moments like that, it’s in your heart, your blood, your DNA.
After a forgivable childhood dalliance with Thierry Henry’s Arsenal, my son almost instinctively turned towards Forest, as a sunflower towards the sun, and loves them almost as much as me now. My daughter knows what they mean to me, my wife too, and they care because we care.
Joe Baker, Ian Storey-Moore and the rest of that sixties side were the first Forest team to give me the electric thrill that only football, and for me, only the City Ground, can give. I can still recite that team by heart, as can my younger brother, in spite of him having lived in London for twenty-five years. We are Nottingham and proud. It’s part of who we are, and colours our view of the world, which, for me, is through red tinted spectacles. It bleeds into our politics, speech and sense of humour. All Garibaldi Red and a bit raw.
I must teach my son that chant from my childhood when I see him at Christmas.
Zigger Zagger Zigger Zagger Joe Baker.
Nottingham Forest 1966-68.
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”