Thursday , July 7 2022

‘The manager gave us belief’: how Steve Cooper transformed Forest | Nottingham Forest

With one half of Wembley empty and the other delirious at restoring old rivalries in the Premier League next season, the Nottingham Forest captain, Joe Worrall, kissed a cardboard cutout of Steve Cooper flanked by Steve Cook, a shrewd free transfer in January, and the likable midfielder Joe Lolley.

By this point the actual Forest manager, club scarf around his shoulders, was in between catching his son in his arms and punching the air three times in front of supporters, as has become tradition after victories, a celebration he repeated on Monday before the thousands who congregated in the city’s Old Market Square. But moments after victory Cooper retreated to the dugout, covered his face with his hands and afforded himself a few quiet seconds to digest everything that had happened.

Forest are back in the top flight for the first time since 1999. Cooper’s black polo shirt was drenched in champagne from his players ambushing a pitchside interview and tears pooled in his eyes when he touched on the pride of seeing more than 36,000 Forest fans bask in promotion in the west end of the stadium, becoming the fifth and final league team to be allocated that side of the ground and secure victory this season, from Leicester City in the Community Shield in August to Port Vale in the League Two playoff final last Saturday. “Persistent standing is not permitted,” were the words displayed on the big screens before kick-off but that message soon fell on deaf ears as supporters savoured a remarkable season that began with Forest making their worst start since 1913.

For Cooper, the October international break which Forest went into fresh from his third game, a 3-0 win at Birmingham, was an opportunity to drum his methods into his squad and soon after they went on a nine-match unbeaten streak. “We went on some brilliant runs but there were times I would look at the league table and think: ‘We haven’t made much progress here’ and we’d still be in 15th or 13th and you’re thinking: ‘Maybe we won’t get in the top 10,’” Cooper said. “I’m pleased to be part of the journey that has got us back to the Premier League.” Then he chuckled. “Sounds great,” he smiled.

Cooper’s laser-like focus kept Forest grounded amid their surge up the table and the highs of knocking out Arsenal and Leicester in the FA Cup en route to hosting Liverpool, and after victory on Sunday he grinned as he apologised for peddling the same answers, poking fun at a level-headed outlook that has brought the biggest of prizes.

Steve Cook celebrates with a cardboard cutout of Steve Cooper.
Steve Cook celebrates with a cardboard cutout of Steve Cooper. Photograph: James Gill/Danehouse/Getty Images

“‘About the next game, control the controllables’ and all that crap,” he said, smiling. “I’m tough with them [the players], I’m challenging, demanding, but I’m with them, I’m with them 100% and that’s how you get the best out of people and get the best out of themselves. But I’ve felt it back as well. I’ve asked them to trust me and never once have they wavered.”

Forest will not veer from their principles because of the step up in class. “You need a clear identity and that’s what we’ve got here,” says Lolley, who signed from Huddersfield, Sunday’s opponents, four years ago. “In games you have to adapt and change but for the most part we’re here to attack teams and we’ll go up and do exactly the same. We showed that in the FA Cup, in games where we certainly weren’t second-best in any of them. We’ve got success from being the team we are and the way we play. We always try to play on the front foot and press teams. To be the set of players and staff that have put Forest back where they belong is an incredible feeling.”

Nottingham Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis
Nottingham Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis has promised to back the manager in the transfer market. Photograph: Richard Sellers/PA

Cafú, an unused substitute, was soon sliding on the dressing-room floor and Djed Spence was among those with cigar in hand before jumping on the team bus. Evangelos Marinakis, Forest’s Greek owner who has vowed to provide “all the ammunition to the team with good players”, patted Spence, a loan star from Middlesbrough, on the back and shook hands with Cooper.

There was a warm embrace from Cooper with the Football League’s chief executive, Trevor Birch, who appointed him at Swansea. At what point was the miracle on? “Ummm, good question,” Spence says. “We just believed; you can smell it, you can feel it in the group, you can feel it in the changing room. You just get that vibe. The manager came in and gave us belief. Hard work is the main thing. It has been a memorable season.”

A few minutes after the final whistle the straight-talking Worrall, in between bluntly admitting Forest have not been good enough in previous seasons, compared Forest to a “whipped dog” and highlighted how Cooper had killed him and his teammates with kindness since September.

The same applies beyond the City Ground. Cooper sent individual letters to members of the Football Writers’ Association to apologise for not being able to attend the Midlands lunch in April, citing a desire to “get every detail right in these important weeks”. That he certainly did.

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