From their worst start in 108 years to winning the Championship play-off final, Nottingham Forest have had a fairy tale season. George Edwards charts the journey from bottom of the table to promotion to the Premier League
Tuesday 21 September 2021. One of the most pivotal dates in recent Forest history. Despite the availability of Chris Wilder and Eddie Howe, new CEO Dane Murphy elected to employ Steve Cooper as the 22nd permanent manager since Brian Clough left the club. And what an inspired decision that would turn out to be.
Cooper arrived, alongside new assistant coach Alan Tate, to a dressing room with one point from seven games, just five goals scored and 12 against. He could not make any signings for four months and his side were rock bottom of the table.
The turnaround was instant. After Steven Reid got the ball rolling with an away win at Huddersfield Town, Cooper’s Reds won five of their first 10 games, losing only to eventual league champions Fulham. The previously unimaginative attack produced 17 goals in this period, including scoring three on three occasions.
His team would be labelled as relentless, coming from behind to batter Barnsley 3-1, bagging two stoppage time goals to win away at Bristol City and scoring late to secure a point at Queen’s Park Rangers.
Forest were quickly propelled up and away from the relegation places but hit a sticky spot towards the end of November. Three frustrating draws with Reading, Luton Town and West Bromwich Albion ended a month of stability for the Reds.
Mid-table was seemingly what Forest would be settling for but as December came around, they really got into their groove. Brennan Johnson and Djed Spence were building a colossal relationship down the right wing while Ryan Yates, Jack Colback and James Garner battled it out for two places in the Reds’ transformed midfield.
Forest were able to comfortably beat Peterborough (2-0) and Swansea (4-1) before a comeback victory at home to Hull (2-1) saw Forest head into Christmas with momentum and firepower. Unfortunately, a festive hangover followed as Forest ended the year losing two consecutive league games for the only time under Cooper. Despite a very under-par performance away at Middlesbrough, the second of those defeats offered optimism as Forest dominated proceedings at home to Huddersfield but couldn’t convert any of their 23 shots on goal.
That optimism flowed freely into 2022 as Forest would go on to have an unbeaten home league record and only lose four games before the season drew to an end. Cooper’s first signing Steve Cook slotted straight into the defence as Arsenal were the first visitors to the City Ground in the new year. They would be the first of two Premier League teams to crash out of the FA Cup in Nottingham, an 83rd-minute Grabban goal securing the hosts a fourth-round place.
Grabban scored late again to ensure Forest won away at Millwall, and — along with Johnson — bagged a goal in the East Midlands Derby to extend Derby’s barren run in the fixture to more than 1,500 days. January concluded with back-to-back goals for new-boy Keinan Davis in a home win against Barnsley (3-0) and an away defeat to Cardiff (2-1).
Injuries to Cook and Grabban saw some late business from Forest as Sam Surridge joined from Stoke and Jonathan Panzo arrived from Dijon in France, alongside Canadian full-back Richie Laryea.
Leicester City were the next of the big boys to be rattled by Forest’s courageous cup run, whimpering to a 4-1 demolition on Trentside. An unbeaten February followed including a statement 2-0 win away at second-placed Blackburn Rovers which took Forest into the play-offs, if only briefly, for the first time since the heart-breaking final day of the 2019/20 season. This was followed by a memorable home draw to Stoke City where Brice Samba saw red, before a very forgettable 0-0 draw to Preston North End, and Johnson and Garner scoring in another victory over Bristol City.
Ryan Yates, eventual third top-scorer behind Johnson and Grabban, began a run of goals in four successive games with a 95th-minute equaliser at Bramall Lane — Forest’s eighth stoppage-time goal of the campaign. Yates went on to score in home wins against Huddersfield (2-1 in the FA Cup), Reading (4-0) and QPR (3-1).
The incredible cup run ended with a narrow 1-0 home defeat to Liverpool — a game which Forest showed the world that they can compete toe-to-toe with the best.
Business time. The final international break had been and gone. Ten league games for Cooper to secure a play-off position for his third consecutive season.
It kicked off at Blackpool as the Reds sealed a 4-1 victory over the Tangerines. April would test the squad to the limit with eight league games spread over the 30 days. Forest passed that test with flying colours: winning seven out of eight; scoring 21 goals; relegating Peterborough; beating already-promoted Fulham; and ending the month with a play-off place secured, and a Surridge hat-trick against Swansea.
As they went into May, Forest were third in the table — three points behind Bournemouth — knowing that a win at the Vitality Stadium would almost certainly guarantee Premier League football.
The Cherries were controversially, thanks to a disallowed penalty, the eventual winners — securing second spot in the process — but Forest marched into the play-offs with momentum and faced Sheffield United. The Blades themselves were also thankful for a mid-season managerial change as Paul Heckingbottom saw them finish fifth.
A week after a final day draw in Hull, Forest left Sheffield with a 2-1 advantage in the first leg of the play-off semi-final. Their lead should have been more but a late Sander Berge header meant United had hope for the second leg.
As the City Ground put on a show for the final time in this memorable season, it was United who prevailed over 90 minutes, beating the Reds by the same scoreline they lost to days earlier — meaning extra time and eventually penalties. Nobody needs reminding that Brice Samba was the hero that night, saving three and sending Forest to the final.
So, Wembley beckoned for Forest and Huddersfield. It was somehow fitting that the team Forest grabbed their first league victory against would be the team they’d play at the finale of a magical season from both clubs.
And it was Levi Colwill who bundled the ball into his own net in the first-half to give Forest their fairy tale ending, despite two contentious penalty decisions from a retiring Jon Moss going against Huddersfield.
But this year felt like Forest’s year. The persistence. The constant sell-outs. The fist bumps. Spence. Garner. Yates. McKenna. Johnson. A season of magic that felt different to the rest and a season that will never be forgotten on the banks of the Trent.
And to the Premier League we go. Cooper has won 60% of his 45 games in charge, the best win ratio of any Forest manager since the club joined the Football League in 1892. The club goes into the new season £170m richer. And both club and manager ride high with the love and admiration of the whole city of Nottingham and beyond. After 23 years, our time has finally come. You Reds.