Sometimes football is much more than 22 players on a pitch. Sometimes it offers a sense of belonging, community and hope. For Peter Blackburn, the bond between Steve Cooper and Nottingham Forest means all of these things
My son — my first child — was born four days after Steve Cooper was appointed manager of Nottingham Forest.
I can’t remember much about the days, weeks and months before. When I close my eyes and try to think back to those times I can grasp broad feelings or sensations, like trying to catch smoke or explain colour.
There’s the deep, lead-belly, fear and dread. There’s an almost overwhelming rush of panic which presents as that sudden nausea in the throat and the back of the mouth. And everywhere — so consuming — there’s hurt. All I can remember about the hurt is that I needed to hide it. It was mine. Everyone else needed to be protected.
It had been an incredibly complicated pregnancy. Nottingham’s Queen’s Medical Centre had become a second home. But not the sort that entrepreneurs, the born-privileged or politicians have. It took away our freedom and snatched our opportunities to enjoy a new phase of life while so many around us were excitedly sharing the joys of pregnancy and taking a newborn baby home.
We desperately appreciated what the incredible doctors, nurses and midwives — in neonatal intensive care, in particular, I met a couple of nurses who felt like second, or third, mums — were doing for us, but we hated what the place meant.
Our pregnancy was dominated by wires, monitors and gloomy discussions about outcomes. Conversations were centred around clinical mathematics not nervous excitement. Like many parents — some of whom have to live with far greater tragedy that we luckily avoided — we never had the chance to celebrate the early stages of this miraculous journey of life. My son’s early life was in an environment which could not be further from the peaceful, sky-blue, Harry Potter-themed nursery we had prepared at home.
I still can’t look at the first photo of my son. He’s absurdly small, in a plastic box, supported by tubes and wires which make him look like a tiny, helpless, fighter pilot. And even though time has healed so much, and he’s now the happy love of our lives with boundless opportunities ahead of him, the memory of the pain — the anger for what my wife had to cope with every day — is too vivid.
There have been two occasions in my life around which I’m unable to find my memories. The other was the death of one of my best friends in his early 20s. I wouldn’t claim to have dissociative amnesia — a medical condition where genuinely chronically traumatic events are hidden by the brain — but there seems to be some sort of defence mechanism trying to protect me. It’s a mechanism for which I’m grateful. I’m not sure how I would have, personally, coped if things remained vivid. But it also makes me feel guilty. Almost like I checked out of the grief.
We weren’t sure what the future would look like when we eventually got to take our son home. He was healthy overall, but he was tiny, and life was likely to be a challenge. In the early days I struggled deeply with paternal postnatal depression. Everything we had been through — and the worry for the future — suffocated me. I’ve no idea how I, and we, made it to where we are now but my wife and our friends and family certainly dragged me through, whether they all knew it or not.
Slowly and steadily, my son grew and thrived. I was able to see him as the gift of wonder he is — I began to see myself as a person who could enjoy life again and as a dad, not just the bloke who was there in body but not always in mind through the late nights, the early mornings, the nappies and the bottle feeds.
During these days the colour returned to life. My family became a source of joy — our relationships blossomed and optimism returned. It was, and still is, often hard. Parenthood isn’t easy. But the foundations were positive and forward-looking. Everything had changed. I no longer needed my brain to protect me from my memories. I wanted to cherish every moment.
As we breathed new life into our lives, Steve Cooper was busy doing the same at Nottingham Forest. Cooper seemed to understand our football club in a way that so few before him had been able to. He wore our history as a badge of honour, not a millstone around his neck. He took the cinders and smoke of a fanbase trying to love their club again and whispered those ashes into dancing flames. Steve Cooper navigated the mess off the pitch with dignity and masterminded success on it with clarity and innovation.
For much of the promotion season I was watching Forest’s successes from home, living the joy through friends and family. The Forest story had reminded me what football could be — it could be anything from distraction to hope, with so many rich emotions in between.
Toward the end of the campaign I felt home life was stable enough for me to take a full part again. The sense of belonging was instant. Steve Cooper was mine. I was his. Most importantly, he was ours; we were his. I couldn’t even remember sensations like these — of wanting to give everything from the stands for a team of players and for their leader. In so many years of supporting Forest, of the miserable season tickets during Championship struggle and relegation to League One, through the constant churn of staff and players and the relentlessness of owners and hangers-on who embarrassed our city and our club. This was just so different.
During a period of my life where the ghost of recent trauma still echoed, Steve Cooper provided moments where the past was forgotten and football and life were intertwined so joyfully. Memories were made and don’t need to be forgotten — they can still be cherished.
The home-leg of the Sheffield United play-off semi-final was the best atmosphere I have ever experienced at a football match. We picked our team up when they were down. We proved the cliche about the 12th man has a basis in truth. We were there for Cooper and his team just as they had been so often when I needed them in the weeks and months before.
And then there was Wembley. One day — one set-piece occasion. It was pure, unbridled joy. It blew away any negativity that lingered. It meant everything. It wasn’t really about the football, albeit the relief and joy of promotion was extraordinary. It was a celebration of what football can be in a wider sense — of what life can be. It was distraction and it was hope — and it was everything in between. It was friendship, it was family, it was love.
As that now iconic playlist boomed across a half-full Wembley stadium I held one of my best friends tight. We both cried. My brother, the person responsible for my relationship with this disastrous and brilliant football club, hugged me. These were moments to cherish forever. They sit in my vaulted memories alongside my wedding day, being best man for loved ones, and with the proudest achievements of my professional career. This is what a Steve Cooper Nottingham Forest meant for us. These were the best days of our lives.
Results help. Success helps. But those aren’t the defining factors. It’s the togetherness, the buy-in, and the opportunity to embrace your football club rather than be ashamed of it.
I’ve felt those things on so many occasions during this Premier League season. At West Ham I stood with my best man and his dad and proudly cried as Steve Cooper and his team took to the City Ground turf for the first time as a Premier League team. I was overwhelmed by an occasion we had been waiting to witness for more than two decades, but most of all I was so happy to be experiencing it with people I love.
There have been so many moments like that this season. Even when relegation has seemed looming or likely. It isn’t the destination that defines that joy, it’s the journey. Every hug when meeting friends and family before games. Every pint accompanied by hotly anticipated team news chatter. Every goodbye and see you next game. All of these were made possible by Steve Cooper. And they will stay with me forever.
There will, of course, be a time when Nottingham Forest and Steve Cooper are no longer a partnership. But, until then, thank you for the distraction, thank you for the hope — and thank you for every emotion in between. I needed them all.