Why the play-offs are different this time for Nottingham Forest

It doesn’t need saying that Nottingham Forest’s previous play-off campaigns are ones to forget. But while there can be no expectation this season, there is a sense that — one way or another — it will be different this time

Make no assumptions. Take nothing for granted. Shy away from divine right. Eschew entitlement. Never expect.

As a Nottingham Forest fan, all you can do is hope. And believe.

There are no guarantees things will be different this time. But there are already reasons why it is different.

It’s been 11 years since our last involvement in the play-offs and it’s been quite the decade since… if there was ever a sense of entitlement, then surely it’s gone now. From Billy Davies and Fawaz Al-Hasawi to flirting with relegation and FFP sanctions… it’s been an almighty mess.

But what has happened in the past 12 months has gone a long way to putting things back on track. After years wasted with no particular plan or strategy, there’s been real progress this season — progress that can be described as a success, no matter what happens in the coming days.

Appointing a proper CEO, establishing a progressive recruitment team and — crucially — employing a young, up-and-coming manager with the right attitude and understanding of the club, has been transformative.

This is still a journey. Success is not always measured over the course of 90 minutes. You can’t fix Nottingham Forest in a season. And yet, this is a journey that started two years ago.

This feeling of belief — a new generation of belief — started under Sabri Lamouchi. Except that belief was soon shattered under the weight of Covid, expectation and the demands of a threadbare squad; all without the fans present.

But the seeds of this journey were sown in July 2020. Tobias Figueiredo, Lewis Grabban, Joe Lolley, Alex Mighten, Jordan Smith, Joe Worrall and Ryan Yates all played that night. Brennan Johnson was on the bench. Brice Samba was injured.

You don’t lose 4-1 at home to Stoke City, dropping out of the play-off positions on the final day of the season, and forget about it. That’s the kind of experience that spurs players on, that fuels some of the determination and drive we’ve seen this season.

That same night, Steve Cooper was overturning the seemingly insurmountable goal difference to see Swansea City into the play-offs at our expense. The South Wales club went on to lose to Brentford in the semi-finals, before losing again to the West London side in the final the following year. Cooper will undoubtedly be eager to go one better.

Johnson also missed out on promotion at Wembley last year with Lincoln City, playing the full 90 minutes as Blackpool returned to the Championship winning 2-1. His form this season, having hugely developed on loan under Michael Appleton, being one of the main reasons he could be under the iconic arch again.

Having proved surplus to requirements at Bournemouth, both Steve Cook and Sam Surridge will have their own motivation to succeed. And the loan players — Joe Garner, Djed Spence, Philip Zinckernagel and the injured Keinan Davis and Max Lowe — all have a point to prove: to parent clubs, to potential new clubs, to themselves.

Jack Colback — with several seasons in the Premier League under his belt at Sunderland and Newcastle United, as well as promotion from the Championship with the latter in 2017 — knows what it takes.

Scott McKenna — Mr Reliable — needs little motivation to be his best. Ethan Horvath and Richie Laryea both have their eyes on the World Cup in Qatar later this year.

The mental steel, desire and commitment we’ve seen since Cooper arrived, means that Forest are a very different proposition to the fragile collapses of 2003, 2010 and 2011 — the weight of expectation long since crushed. But the journey continues, and the transformation of this club is not pinned on two or three games. It’s about building on the success of this season, wherever we will be in August.

For now, we hope and we believe. Because that’s what Forest fans do. And we all know, one way or another, it’s different this time.