Cast your mind back, if you will, a million years or so… well, a decade. Billy Davies’ side had just given up the ghost in a play-off semi-final against Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea City. Just weeks later Steve Cooper, after three years at the club, was appointed manager of Liverpool’s academy — aged 31. Rodgers became manager at Anfield a year later.
Swansea enjoyed seven seasons in the Premier League after gaining promotion, playing the kind of swashbuckling football that saw them become a settled midtable side until they ultimately lost their way. Finishing tenth in the Championship under Graham Potter in 2019, they then finished in the play-offs in consecutive seasons under Cooper.
If Swansea fans want to grumble about the style of football after they’d sold the majority of their first team, let them. That’s their concern now, not ours. We haven’t finished in the play-offs since finishing 6th in 2011 and subsequently losing to the South Wales side.
After leaving Liverpool at the end of 2013, Cooper went on to coach the England Under-16 side in 2014 before taking over the Under-17 team a year later, winning the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup. During his five years with England he worked with the likes of Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka as well as, amongst others, Alex Mighten and James Garner.
Cooper evidently ticks a lot of boxes for Forest. And if the board, recruitment team, academy and head coach are aligned in thinking — which is presumably what Cooper has been sold — then the set-up at the City Ground might be something to look forward to.
Dane Murphy’s commitment to signing players under 26, Cooper’s experience of working with youth and on a limited budget, Gary Brazil’s huge success with the academy and a plan to play attractive football on a sustainable strategy is arguably what we should’ve been doing for years.
Maybe there were times when that has been the case, but it’s certainly been in fits and starts… successive managers known for their pragmatic-but-successful-past alongside scattergun recruitment has left Nottingham Forest a club with continual short-term plans, torn up and replaced at regular intervals.
The likes of Sean O’Driscoll and Mark Warburton weren’t given time to implement their philosophy at the club. That’s not to say they would necessarily have been successful, but shifting the way of thinking and playing requires patience that hasn’t been forthcoming from owners or fans.
Our worst start in over a century, short of being relegated, is — or should be — a wake-up call. And, to be fair to the club, the arrival of Murphy and a new recruitment team was recognised before the end of last season. But stopping the obvious rot and getting a few results is Cooper’s immediate task, the deeper rot will take longer. We have recruitment mistakes that can’t be fixed in a summer — overpaid, and in some cases unwanted, players still have contracts to run. And despite the failure of the past four years, senior management loyal to Marinakis still remain in positions of power.
It’s evident that this time around we can’t just reset and restart. The club needs to prove that it’s willing to rethink. Changing the manager doesn’t fix all of the problems. But the right things are being said, the right noises are being made.
In his first interview since taking the job, Cooper said: “It’s important to have a plan on how you want to play. I’m very clear on how I want the team to play. I’ve done it all of my career and a lot of that was spent in youth development. We demanded creative and attacking football. Fundamentally, that is what I believe in, but you need to do the other side of it as well.
“I want our team to be dominating with the ball. I’d rather us be in possession than out of possession and we’ll have a clear way of trying to make that happen. It’s easier said than done but I want us to playing good football, exciting football, with a team that the supporters can be proud of and can associate with.”
That said, the Championship demands caution. Steven Reid’s impressive 2-0 win over Huddersfield on Saturday is undoubtedly what we’d like to see more of — the shackles off after Chris Hughton’s reluctance to utilise the attacking players at his disposal. But all the great teams are built on a solid defence, and Cooper may well focus on keeping clean sheets to begin with — especially if we’re shifting to a back three.
Cooper will no doubt adapt to his new surroundings, and work with the squad to establish a new identity — one which will be tactically flexible and make the most of the assets at the City Ground. We’ve had too many false dawns on the banks of the Trent, and there won’t be a new one overnight. But maybe this could actually be the start of something and draw the circle on 10 years of failure.