It’s coming up for 8pm on a crisp October evening. Darkness has fallen and a man in a hoodie is making his way up the side of a building on a scissor ladder. He is holding a spray can and — though it seems unlikely given his line of work — is complaining that he is scared of heights.
Everything is being done under the cover of darkness because there are only a few people who have been let into the secret.
A mural is going up. It is the first of many, the organisers hope, in a part of Nottingham rich with sporting history.
No football grounds in England are closer than those of Nottingham Forest and Notts County, separated by 300 yards across the River Trent.
The man on the ladder goes by the street name of Mr Meana, a former nightclub doorman who has built a reputation as one of the leading urban artists in the country. He keeps a steady hand despite the threat of vertigo and, by the time he is finished, two iconic figures are smiling back from a hitherto unremarkable building in the city’s sporting quarter.
One is Brian Clough, the miracle worker who led Forest from the lower reaches of English football’s second division and made them, almost implausibly, back-to-back European champions. The other is Jimmy Sirrel, renowned as the greatest manager in the history of Notts, the oldest club in the Football League.
The idea started in December 2020. A mural of Marcelo Bielsa, then Leeds United’s manager, had gone up in the Yorkshire city. A walk around Anfield had confirmed how the supporters of Liverpool had embraced street art, with huge murals celebrating their heroes.
Other murals were popping up around the country, many the handiwork of Marc Silver and his team of artists, including Mr Meana, at Murwalls.
This is Silver’s speciality. The Murwalls portfolio includes Wilfried Zaha’s mural outside Crystal Palace, Harry Kane and Ledley King at Tottenham Hotspur, Sergio Aguero and Pep Guardiola in Manchester and all sorts of colourful additions — Ian Rush, Alan Kennedy, Jan Molby, Jurgen Klopp, Steven Gerrard and more — for the kaleidoscope of street art near Anfield.
Various murals have appeared in Nottingham, too, but none have been football-related and Forza Garibaldi, the fans’ group that has arranged some spectacular tifo displays at Forest matches, wanted to do something about it.
“We just started wandering the streets,” says Greg Mitchell, one of Forza’s founders. “We set off from the ground and must have looked at every building, every spare bit of wall until we found what we wanted.”
To begin with, a building was earmarked on the side of Trent Bridge closest to the Forest ground.
When that idea stalled, another place was flagged near the railway station. The building’s owner gave the idea his blessing. Then it transpired a block of apartments was meant to be going up and that it would obscure the view from the street.
All of which brought the search to London House, a red-bricked industrial building owned by the Trent Navigation Inn in Meadow Lane.
The pub is well known to Nottingham’s football clientele and you just have to walk through the front door to realise the mindset here: there is a framed picture of Clough and Sirrel just inside the entrance, another of Steve Cooper on the far wall and a fan zone at the rear.
“Our busiest days of the week are when Forest or Notts are playing at home,” says Tom Holydynsky, the operations manager of Great Northern Group, which gave permission for London House to be used. “We wanted to help create something special for both sets of fans.”
So then we get to the really difficult question: which picture do you use when the choices are almost endless?
One early idea discussed by Forza was to celebrate John Robertson, arguably the greatest player in Forest’s history, for setting up the winner against Swedish team Malmo in the 1979 European Cup final and scoring the decisive goal in 1980 against Hamburg, the Bundesliga champions.
Stuart Pearce was a strong consideration as the brilliant, inspirational, fists-clenched punk rocker of a captain who helped Forest reach six Wembley finals from 1989 to 1992.
Another image showed three of the club’s academy graduates – Joe Worrall, Ryan Yates and Brennan Johnson – celebrating promotion after the Championship play-off at Wembley last year.
As for Steve Cooper, the current manager would have been a popular choice given the respect and gratitude he holds among Forest supporters.
But it always came back to Clough and, though it started as a Forest project, it felt appropriate to involve Sirrel given the mural would be just along from where Notts play in League Two and the statue commemorating the Glaswegian’s life. Sirrel, who died in 2008, had three spells as Notts manager, including one glorious run when he led them from the old fourth division to the top flight.
One photograph found by Forza co-founder Matt Oldroyd showed Clough and Sirrel standing together on Trent Bridge. Both men were laughing, enjoying each other’s company. They had always got on well and when Sirrel was awarded a testimonial in November 1981, he was allowed to choose a Forest All-Stars XI as the opposition.
Clough, who died in 2004, was happy for him to pick the team. “There’s a rumour around that he swears less than I do,” he said. “I can’t believe it’s true. But I’ll swear to this — few managers can boast a record like his over the years.”
Throwback Thursday: Jimmy Sirrel & Brian Clough Meet On Trent Bridge: http://t.co/NjqEfIbiL9 pic.twitter.com/QNgUtbl3Bg
— Notts County FC (@Official_NCFC) May 15, 2014
Sirrel talked about being treated like “royalty” whenever he visited the City Ground, Forest’s home stadium. Clough, he said, did not even hold it against him that, to begin with, Forest had struggled to beat their neighbours. “If ever I went to war, I’d like him on my side,” Sirrel added.
For Forza, it was their lightbulb moment. “At the start, it was going to be purely a Forest mural,” says Mitchell. “But we also have to be respectful of the area given the Navigation is a ‘home’ pub for two different clubs.
“This way, we are celebrating two legendary figures. Neither is going to be sacked, neither is going to end up being anything but loved by their supporters. Their place in history is secured forever and we wanted a mural that will be there to celebrate their lives for a very long time.”
The hardest part was keeping everything quiet. Anyone who stopped to take a photo was politely asked to keep it off social media. The pub’s regulars had been briefed. With temperatures dropping, everyone wanted to get through the night without the pictures appearing all over the internet.
But a select few had been let into the secret and an invitation had been sent to the Sirrel family.
Stephen Clough, grandson of Brian, had sent a message saying how much he was looking forward to seeing the finished work.
The Cloughs had given it their approval. “What a lovely idea,” said Simon, Brian’s oldest son. “Well done to all involved. You can be sure I’ll be bringing all my children and grandchildren to see it.”
Mr Meana, a West Ham fan, was back at 9am to touch up his work from the previous night. He arrived in a car with Blondie and Biggie Smalls sprayed on the side and it was amazing to see the speed at which he worked, his expertise with a spray can in his hand and his colourful stories about the life of a graffiti artist. “We used to get arrested for this,” he said. “Now we get flown around the world.”
The scissor ladder came down for the final time at 11.15am. His work was complete and what was once an ordinary building, with dog-training classes on the middle floor, had been transformed into a brilliant piece of lasting nostalgia.
For Forza, it has been a triumph. “This should be just the start,” says Simon Bristow, one of the Forest fans who helped to plan the operation. “Murals are the new statues. It’s a new way to represent somebody’s legacy and we hope there will be many more. The idea is to create a trail for people to walk around on matchdays and for away fans to enjoy as well.”