When Steve Cooper announced to thousands in Market Square after sealing their playoff final triumph in May: “To all Nottingham Forest supporters, welcome back to the Premier League”, he was greeted with a ground-shaking roar. He has made the city believe in its football team again and they are putting their faith in him to keep the good times rolling.
Forest had one point after seven games in the Championship last season until Cooper arrived, so it is remarkable they are about to start their first Premier League campaign in 23 years against Newcastle on Saturday.
The former Swansea City head coach turned around the fortunes of the club after replacing Chris Hughton, winning 27 of 45 games that culminated in a Wembley playoff triumph over Huddersfield and included victories over Arsenal and Leicester City in the FA Cup.
Again Cooper will be the difference between success and failure in his first season as a Premier League head coach. When Forest were relegated in 1998-99 they went through three managers, a sign of their instability and a key reason they finished bottom, starting a trait that became all too common at the City Ground. Things have not changed much in recent years – they have gone through six permanent appointments since 2016 – but they hope Cooper has finally brought stability.
“As we have gone on the journey last season and now into the Premier League, there’s a lot more people watching us and a lot more scrutiny and pressure, excitement,” Cooper says. “It is still the same feeling of: ‘We know how big the club is, we know what we want the team to look like, what the fans want to see and we are just doing it on a bigger scale.’ What’s great for the supporters, they’ve always been proud of the team but we have put Nottingham Forest back in a position that has reminded maybe 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.”
Fitting 12 signings into a cohesive unit from week one is tough. Many do not have Premier League experience but they have been targeted with precision to create a side capable of staying up. Despite all the arrivals, Cooper has appointed the academy graduates Joe Worrall and Ryan Yates as captain and vice-captain to bring continuity to a much-changed squad.
“We’ve done a lot of due diligence on not just the type of player we have bought in but the type of person as well,” Cooper says. “Identifying a player can be the straightforward, easier bit; the more difficult part – and often more important part – is the attitude, the character, the teammate they are, the leadership they have, the ambition they have; the stuff it is not easy to find out. We are confident the players we have brought in are the right type of characters, the right type of professionals.”
The level of investment provided by owner Evangelos Marinakis has surprised many outsiders. Other clubs have watched Forest’s dealings with intrigue, impressed by their smart workings in a difficult market, but what looks good on paper needs to perform on the pitch. Cooper would still like to sign Morgan Gibbs-White and a central midfielder, at least, to ensure they have the strength and variety required.
Jesse Lingard is an outlier within the recruitment, a player who has not played regularly in recent years. He could be the signing who defines Forest’s season. Lingard will play in the No 10 role and is expected to be hugely influential in the dressing room. A lot will be demanded of a man who made two Premier League starts 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 it, hoping to build his own legacy. He has laid the foundations for a successful era, even if titles and European Cups are no longer the aim.
“It’s who we are,” Cooper says. “This club is built on eras like that. 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 put together and the success they had. Those guys who are still around are a part of that. They will always be welcome. I like it when they are here because if other clubs can come and see a real joined-up club of past and present – that is a really good image.”
Optimism abounds after years of hurt. The fans will be hoping the latest glory era did not end at Wembley in May. They are back and they want to stay.