In Steve Cooper’s office, next to the portraits of Nottingham Forest’s legendary manager Brian Clough, there is a canvas of actor Denzel Washington with a quote underneath.
“Ease is a greater threat to progress than hardship.”
It is a message that perfectly encapsulates Cooper’s season in the Premier League, which is now ending in the triumph of survival despite many uncomfortable moments along the way. There were 30 new signings, an abysmal away record, an alarming injury list, a World Cup break and scrutiny on his future but Cooper has completed the job, cementing his status as the best Forest manager since Frank Clark, or arguably even Clough himself.
Cooper won’t win the Manager of The Year award, but finishing 16th or 17th is an achievement which cannot be overestimated. To have that many new players, from different countries and different leagues, and still manage to build an identity, spirit and culture is why Cooper can reflect on an excellent season. He is first and foremost a coach, and almost all of the new arrivals have improved over the course of the season.
Take Taiwo Awoniyi: in the first few months he was raw and clearly needed work, but finishes the season transformed with five goals in three games. The heroes from last season – Brennan Johnson, Ryan Yates and Joe Worrall – have also proved they belong at this level. Cooper’s No. 1 target last summer, Morgan Gibbs-White, has been arguably the player of the season and should be in contention for the senior England squad.
While many of the clubs around them in the table, such as Leeds, Everton and Leicester, seem to have been in various levels of crisis, it has always seemed calm at Forest. There has never been any question over the players’ commitment. They have demonstrated a reputation for responding from setbacks and performing under pressure.
Tough love for the players
The secrets of Forest’s story have been sewn at the training ground, where everybody from players to staff are aligned. Cooper is big on communication and encourages players to voice their opinions, always referring to “daily behaviours”. There is a sense of family and an environment where all are together, whatever their reputation.
Even those out of the squad, including injured goalkeeper Dean Henderson and defender Steve Cook (who was left out of the 25-man squad) have travelled to away games to support the players. Cooper will not tolerate anyone damaging team spirit, and he can be ruthless. There have been rare instances, but Jonjo Shelvey’s exile from matchday squads after reacting poorly to being left out of the team which faced Liverpool last month, is evidence of the consequences. While Jesse Lingard’s attitude has been good off the field, his Forest career effectively ended after an abject first-half display in the defeat at Tottenham on March 11.
Cooper’s personal touch extends outside his squad too. European Cup winners including John McGovern and Garry Birtles are regular visitors to the training ground. When boxer and Forest fan Leigh Wood lost his WBA featherweight title in February, he was invited into Cooper’s office a few days later as a sign of support.
The Cooper effect has also lifted the city of Nottingham. Earlier this year he held talks with senior constables from Nottinghamshire Police, where he was thanked for his leadership and positivity towards the city where he now lives. The 43-year-old is so popular with supporters that shopping trips into the city have to be planned with precision. He likes to unwind by running but even his jogs are sometimes halted by passers-by asking for selfies.
Forest’s City Ground stadium has also proved hugely important in their season, and Cooper has never lost sight of that. The team have secured 30 of their 37 points in front of their own supporters and every home match feels like an event, evoking memories of those European Cup days. It feels like a magical place from a golden era, especially when the floodlights bounce back off the River Trent at night matches.
It has not always been like this. For years during Forest’s time in the doldrums there was often a fractious atmosphere. A video went viral of two supporters on the concourse arguing over who was entitled to the last pie, and it captured the mood of frustration. New signings were often written off by fans on social media before they had even kicked a ball.
Yet since Cooper’s arrival, the City Ground is a happy place: the new version of famed city-centre nightclub Venus from the early ‘90s, where all are smiling and as one.
For owner Evangelos Marinakis, survival represents the next stage in his plans to progress the club. He is determined to establish Forest as a stable Premier League club, and relegation would have been a seriously retrograde step.
There remain a few issues with Financial Fair Play after their mammoth spend, but staying up is crucial for so many reasons: for example, it can be revealed that a few players, including Shelvey, Chris Wood and Felipe, did not have salary reductions in the event of relegation.
Marinakis deserves credit for this season, too. While the Greek businessman is a demanding owner who can be quick to voice his frustrations, the simple fact is that he did not sack Cooper. The threat of disrupting the camp was too great, and his public statements in October and April provided clarity. He held his nerve when others would have faltered. Forest and West Ham are the only clubs in the bottom half of the table to stick with their managers, and both have been rewarded.
Academy and training ground upgrades
So what next? The feeling is that lots more hard work is ahead. After signing so many players over the season, the focus this summer is on a clear recruitment strategy to improve. There will not be the churn of last year.
Lingard will depart as a free agent, and will sift through a number of lucrative offers from around the world. Keylor Navas’ loan from Paris Saint-Germain will end, while Forest will pursue a permanent deal for Manchester United goalkeeper Henderson. While Henderson is also keen to sign, the situation will be determined by the future of David De Gea at United. Renan Lodi, the Atletico Madrid loanee, is under consideration for a permanent move but Forest will first try to lower the option price of about £25million.
Newly appointed chief football officer Ross Wilson will be a crucial figure. He has already appointed Tom Southwell from Southampton as head of player insights, and restructuring is expected within the scouting and recruitment departments. The academy is also regarded as a priority, and plans are in place to further upgrade the training ground.
Cooper, meanwhile, has underlined his reputation as one of the Premier League’s best British coaches. Achieving survival will rank alongside the World Cup win with England’s under-17s and promotion in last season’s Championship play-off final.
He drives Forest on, and holds it all altogether. After this weekend’s final game at Crystal Palace, he will take a deserved break to recharge. It is only another 12 weeks until the madness starts all over again.
To pinch another quote, this time from Clough: "I hope anybody's not stupid enough to write us off."