Languishing at the bottom of the Championship. One point from seven league games. A 4-0 drubbing in the Carabao Cup. A season of doom ahead. This sounds like a long-lost nightmare to Nottingham Forest fans at present.
Since super Steve Cooper was appointed as head coach in September 2021, Forest have been the team to beat in the Championship, having only lost four matches in his opening 23 league games. If the league tables started on 21 September 2021, the Reds would be second, five points behind Fulham.
Under his predecessor Chris Hughton, the mentality was negative and complacent; it was his lethargic way or the highway. Cooper has installed a freedom and flexibility to the side that has revolutionised hopes for this season.
His team plays in an attacking way, with the mindset of all players to get forward. Even more conservative players such as Jack Colback and Ryan Yates have been moulded into box-to-box midfielders, full of energy. Djed Spence has been allowed to shine, bombing down the right wing, and Cooper has helped the Middlesbrough loanee develop defensive stability which evaded him at the start of the season.
That defensive stability has been at the heart of Forest’s success under Cooper. A back three (or four on occasion) with Joe Worrall, Scott McKenna, Tobias Figueiredo or Steve Cook: an intimidating brick wall guarding Brice Samba in goal. They know each other’s games and can slot into different styles within a flash, seemingly effortlessly.
If the game isn’t going the way it should in the head coach’s eyes — for example, the first half away at Barnsley — Cooper and his staff aren’t scared to switch formations and personnel. Instead of being stubborn and sticking to something that clearly isn’t working out, Cooper is pragmatic with his thinking and approaches games in an open-minded manner.
A feel-good factor around the club and the area has been established, beginning with the man himself. Cooper has mentioned on many occasions his love for the club already and just how delighted he is to be here, shown by his passionate fist pumps at the end of victories. That positivity has been transmitted to the players and crowd, creating an electric atmosphere for all involved. It allows the players to express themselves and play with freedom, bringing the best out of a young group of players.
This mindset means that the highs are high, yet the lows don’t seem so low. In the Championship you will lose games — that’s a given. However, whereas in past seasons the Reds would go on seemingly endless losing streaks, a defeat never seems to live long in the memory now. Forest have only lost back-to-back games once under the Welshman, and that was followed by four straight wins. It is brushed aside as ‘one of those days’ and the next match is approached in a new light.
The Forest of new is fearless. Not scared to take on the best teams. It doesn’t always work, shown by the 4-0 defeat to Fulham. Yet the courageousness of the team, alongside undoubted quality, has led to the thoroughly deserved FA Cup giant killings of Arsenal and Leicester City. And Brennan Johnson, after his impact at Lincoln City last season, has lit up the Championship.
Kudos also has to be landed at the door of new chief executive Dane Murphy, having establishing a model that has not been seen in recent years on Trentside. Under previous board management, the sight of bids for Brennan Johnson and Joe Worrall would have meant one thing, but this ambitious mindset has permeated throughout the club. A sustainable and well-thought out strategy was applied in the January transfer window, with astute signings such as Keinan Davis and Steve Cook undoubtedly improving the side.
Steve Cooper has defied all expectations to guide Forest from relegation candidates to Premier League contenders. He has deserved links with vacant jobs in the dreamland of the top tier, but he seems committed and determined to take this famous club back to the top — and there appears to be no one better to do that task than him. We can only hope life continues as it has done over the past five months.