Nottingham Forest, Steve Cooper and the season of the century

For all the talk of numbers and statistics, Nottingham Forest’s promotion season has primarily been one of belief, pride, unity and togetherness. It’s a season that will live long in the memory, a success that can largely be attributed to Steve Cooper and Dane Murphy — and, possibly, a sprinkling of magic dust at the City Ground

May 1998. Dave Bassett has recently restored Nottingham Forest to the Premier League. It feels like an aberration corrected. The status quo resolved. We’ve spent just two seasons out of the top division in the past 31 years. I mean, we were playing Bayern Munich in the quarter-final of the UEFA Cup just two years ago. This is where Forest belong. This is what we do.

I’m sat in a pub on the Kings Road in Chelsea, for reasons I don’t remember, watching Charlton Athletic v Sunderland. The South London club are promoted in one the best play-off finals ever — a game that was worth just £10m back then, compared to £170m now — and I think to myself, ‘How amazing would it be to have that elation, that moment of pure joy?’.

Sure, automatic promotion is assured. It’s proof of your dominance that season. It’s steady and guaranteed. But there’s no one single moment; the feeling of absolute, unadulterated euphoria. (You could draw parallels with Peterborough United in April 1994… but we finished nine points ahead of Millwall; it was just a matter of time. Not a toss of the coin.)

Fast forward 19 years to 2017, and we’ve just escaped a second relegation to League One. Fawaz Al Hasawi had hollowed the middle out of the club, continually made us embarrassed of our club, almost ruined us. The next few seasons continue the cycle of narrowly missing out on the play-offs or awkwardly avoiding relegation — there’s never any mid-table obscurity, only despair of some kind at the crunch point of the season.

And then, somehow, the moment I’ve dreamt about for more than half my life arrives — Wembley, for the first time in 30 years. Obviously, I would’ve taken automatic promotion at any point this century. And who knew it would take this long? But to come when it did is like all of your Christmases at once. And then some.

Of course, it felt like something was happening this season. But this is Forest. All our history is simply that now — history. We know it counts for nothing. You can’t expect anything. The only thing you can rely on Forest to do is clutch defeat from the jaws of victory; the weight of all of this was upon us back in September.

The worst start in 108 years, a year after our worst start in 66 years. It looked ominous. We were ‘too good to get relegated’ in 1994, so we know the signs. We know how this can end. And we know there is no easy fix, because we’ve tried them all. Until now…

Maybe the difference this time, is that this season was built on something. A success with foundation. The Marinakis years have taken some time to get going — there were false starts, mistakes, promises not followed up, chaotic recruitment and, to put it politely, internal battles.

But the arrival of Dane Murphy in July last year was the catalyst. A proper chief executive for the first time in nearly a decade. A man with a vision of how things could be — a true north. George Syrianos, head of data and analytic recruitment, followed and an actual transfer strategy emerged. Quite why Chris Hughton was persisted with for so long doesn’t matter now, but the final piece of the jigsaw emerged when Steve Cooper arrived.

However, appointing good people and realising a plan isn’t enough. Establishing an identity helps. But whatever aligned in the universe, whatever magic dust was sprinkled at the City Ground, it became the bedrock of success.

Gary Brazil’s steady hand has remained ever present for a decade now, throughout years of turmoil. And the spine of this team comes from his Academy — Joe Worrall, Ryan Yates, Brennan Johnson. Players that have been on loan, that have learned the game, that aren’t wet behind the ears.

It’s the heart of this side — the connection to the club, to the city, to the fans — that has been crucial to the success. That and Cooper’s ability to inspire, to understand, to complete the circle that nobody else could see or imagine.

And this connection is what makes it all feel so special, so important. This season is not about statistics and numbers. It’s not about where we were in the table, or how many years it’s been. It’s about the style of football, how we approached games, how we stuck to our gameplan, how we reacted when we won or lost…

The togetherness, the belief, the pride in the Garibaldi has been clear to all. While this promotion was a once in a generation moment, this team was a once in a generation moment as well — united in fighting for the shirt at all costs.

There has been no one single star, not a lone standout player… they were all stars; the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Every part of the jigsaw this year has been crucial. And somehow Cooper has — thanks to his ‘next man up’ strategy — kept the whole squad motivated; all for one, and one for all. No petty squabbles, no egos, no drama.

All the fringe players played their part — Tobias Figueiredo, Ethan Horvath, Alex Mighten, Cafu and Joe Lolley all stepped up when needed, and performed exactly as required. All the squad members were involved, whether they played or not. Gaëtan Bong might not have had a happy time on the pitch, but he’s been an influential figure in the dressing room — and clearly enjoyed the success at Wembley. Lewis Grabban may well have played his last game for Forest, but the striker has been one of the club’s outstanding performers this century; again, his experience and knowledge equally important to Cooper and the team, on and off the pitch.

And the beauty of promotion this season is that it keeps much of this swashbuckling core together. We don’t know how long Cooper might have stayed without promotion — another year, maybe two? He is clearly destined for the Premier League. As are Worrall, Johnson and Yates, as well as loanees Spence, Garner and Davis. And now we all are.

We could’ve started again if we’d failed. We could’ve rebuilt. We could’ve had a chance next season — there is something to build on, for the first time in years. But the feeling at the club, in the city, is that this is the team we want. The manager we want. The feeling we never want to let go.

It was the season that nobody really wanted to end, but if it had to end then it needed to be on a high; and ideally one in which we exorcised some demons — the play-off hoodoo, Sheffield United, Wembley itself. More so, this was the first season with fans back in stadiums… without the support at the City Ground, who knows what might’ve been. Had we made the play-offs in 2020 and got through to the final: no fans. While 2021 was a lowly 17th place finish, the final had a capacity of just 12,000 fans.

Getting to the play-off final is only a dream come true if you can actually go — and win. And to experience that moment after the full-time whistle was like nothing I’ve ever known. The pride, the joy, the emotion, the euphoria.

More than half my life — some people’s entire lifetime — waiting for a return to the Premier League and we didn’t just fluke it, we didn’t just get lucky… we did it after one of the most incredible seasons in the club’s history.

What will happen next season? Who will we sign? How will we fare? Don’t worry about it right now. Treasure this summer, ride the feeling. There’s no reason to say we can’t top this at some point. But it’s been almost a quarter of a century since we had anything significant to cheer. The status quo is, once again, resolved.