Wes Morgan: Carring the weight of Forest fans' hopes
The popular centre-back has experienced play-off pain as a fan and a player but remains optimistic this time, he tells Jon Culley
Thursday 12 May 2011
The trouble with history is that it can weigh heavily. More than three decades have passed since Nottingham Forest won their two European Cups and yet on days like today it can feel as if the handicapper is still slipping a few extra pounds of lead into the saddle, just so no one forgets.
Forest face Swansea in the first leg of the Championship play-off semi-final at the City Ground. It is their fourth play-off in nine years. So far, it has always ended badly and the echoes of the past never fade away. Expectations are perpetually high; every failure, however heroic, another betrayal of the legacy.
The old names are still familiar, which is perhaps why at least one member of the current side can feel he has served the cause with honour. "You'll never beat Des Walker," the City Ground crowd would sing in reverence to the centre-half in the last Forest side to win a major trophy, 21 years ago. The refrain is still heard today, but the name to whom it nods respect now is Wes Morgan.
Morgan, 6ft 1in and 14st 10lb, fills every inch of his red shirt yet still manages to puff out his chest a little more when the chant rings out. The three-syllable name has a rhythmic convenience but the association with a Forest icon fills the 27-year-old, Nottingham-born player with pride, nonetheless.
As it should. Born barely half a mile from the City Ground on a tough, inner-city housing estate misleadingly called The Meadows – which also, as it happens, was home to another player with a big few days ahead in Stoke's Jermaine Pennant – he grew up with Forest on his doorstep.
"Des Walker is a legend so it is a great honour that the fans sing the chant with my name in it," Morgan says. Walker, who had left Forest for Italy in 1992, rejoined the club 10 years later and became something of a mentor to Morgan, then a teenager trying to break into the senior team.
Morgan's ever-present record this season has taken him past Walker's total to 318 League starts. He knows the torture of the play-offs only too well. In May 2003, three months ahead of his debut, Forest lost a Championship play-off to Sheffield United after leading 3-1 on aggregate with 30 minutes left.
He was on the bench for the still-more calamitous League One eliminator against Yeovil in 2007, when Forest led 3-1 with just eight minutes to go, and started both legs of last year's Championship semi-final, when Blackpool scored three times in the last 18 minutes in the second leg at the City Ground.
"I watched the Sheffield United game on TV. I was already at the club as a player but I felt the pain as a fan," he recalls.
"As a player it is different. You do feel the expectations of the fans and you'd like to score the winning goal or do something special. But the nerves go away when you get on the pitch.
"You can't dwell too much on what is at stake, you have to try to think about it as just another game – an important game, but just another game.
"Last year was the first time in the play-offs for quite a few of us and we know the pressure now. I think the experience of the Blackpool game will put us in good stead.
"Swansea have some good players but I think we are quite evenly matched – they will have their game plan and we will have ours, but we both play a similar type of football and it will be a matter of who is better on the day."
On a personal level, a place in the Premier League would fulfil the ambition Morgan set when Forest gave him a second chance after neighbours Notts County let him go at 15.
"It has been a bit frustrating that I have not done it yet," he says. "Time has gone on and I'm still not there so there is nothing I'd love more than to take my hometown club back to the Premier League. It would make a lot of people I know very happy."
Morgan might never be the equal of Des Walker but he has few contemporaries who can match his doggedness and physical strength. He has the respect of his peers, who awarded him a place in the PFA Championship team of the year. Luke Chambers, his central defensive partner, is his biggest cheerleader.
"He fully deserves that accolade, that recognition for the things he is capable of that people don't always see in him," Chambers says.
"He doesn't get beat in the air, he doesn't get run down the line, he doesn't lose tackles, he doesn't lose upper body battles. That's why he gets the chants of 'You'll never beat Wes Morgan' because not many do."
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