Photography: Zac Goodwin/PA
When Steve Cooper announced to thousands in Market Square after sealing the final playoff triumph in May: “To all Nottingham Forest fans, welcome back to the Premier League,” he was greeted with a ground-shattering roar. He’s made the town believe in his football team again and they’re putting their faith in him to keep the good times going.
Forest had one point after seven league games last season until Cooper arrived, so it’s notable that they are about to start their first Premier League campaign in 23 years against Newcastle on Saturday.
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The former Swansea City manager turned the club’s fortunes around after replacing Chris Hughton, winning 27 of 45 games that culminated in a Wembley playoff triumph over Huddersfield and included wins over Arsenal and Leicester City in the FA Cup.
Once again, Cooper will be the difference between success and failure in his first season as Premier League head coach. When Forest were relegated in 1998-99, they went through three managers, a sign of their instability and one of the main reasons they finished last, starting a trait that has become all too common at the City Ground. Things haven’t changed much in recent years – they’ve gone through six permanent appointments since 2016 – but they’re hoping Cooper has finally brought stability.
“As we’ve made the journey last season and now in the Premier League, there’s a lot more people watching us and a lot more scrutiny and pressure, emotion,” says Cooper. “It’s still the same feeling of, ‘We know the size of the club, we know what we want the team to be, what the fans want to see and we’re doing it on a larger scale.’ Which is great for the fans, they’ve always been proud of the team, but we’ve put Nottingham Forest back in a position that has reminded perhaps the whole world who they are. What we have to do now is be a good representation of the city, the football club and do the best we can and try to win games.”
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Fitting 12 hires into a cohesive unit from week one is difficult. Many lack Premier League experience but have been precisely targeted to create a team capable of holding on. Despite all the arrivals, Cooper appointed academy graduates Joe Worrall and Ryan Yates as captain and vice-captain to continue a much-altered squad.
“We did a lot of due diligence on not just the type of player we bought, but the type of person as well,” says Cooper. “Identifying a player can be the simplest and easiest part; the hardest part – and often the most important part – is the attitude, the character, the teammate they are, the leadership they have, the ambition they have; the things that are not easy to discover. We’re confident that the players we’ve brought in are the right kind of characters, the right kind of professionals.”
The level of investment provided by owner Evangelos Marinakis surprised many outsiders. Other clubs have watched Forest’s negotiations with intrigue, impressed by his clever work in a tough market, but what looks good on paper needs to work on the pitch. Cooper would still like to sign Morgan Gibbs-White and a central midfielder, at the very least, to ensure they have the strength and variety they need.
Jesse Lingard is an outlier within the draft, a player who hasn’t played regularly in recent years. He could be Forest’s defining signing of the season. Lingard will play in 10th place and he is expected to be hugely influential in the locker room. Much will be required of a man who made two Premier League appearances for Manchester United last season, but Lingard will have the extra motivation of Qatar 2022 to inspire him.
Many have avoided mentioning Forest’s history in recent years, trying to distance the club from the Brian Clough years, but Cooper embraces him, hoping to build his own legacy. He laid the foundations for an era of success, even if titles and European Cups are no longer the goal.
“It’s who we are,” says Cooper. “This club is built in times like these. You often hear people talk about Nottingham Forest and being a historic club and having a good status in England. You have to know why, and one of the big reasons for that is Mr. Clough and the teams he’s put together and the success they’ve had. These guys that are still around are part of that. You will always be welcome. I like it when they’re here because if other clubs can come and see a really united club from the past and the present – that’s a really good image.”
Optimism abounds after years of heartache. Fans hope the last era of glory didn’t end at Wembley in May. They’re back and they want to stay.