Against the bookies, against the public and against themselves at times, Nottingham Forest have defied the odds to remain in the Premier League in their first top-flight season for over two decades. George Edwards looks back on a season of ups and downs
The greatest league in the world. With the eyes of the world watching, Premier League football finally graced the city of Nottingham for the first time since 1999. A roller-coaster ride later and their status has been maintained in a season not for the faint hearted.
Only five players from the Reds victorious promotion season featured in the opener at St James’s Park, that number falling to three for their final outing at Selhurst Park; with just the 33 different players making league appearances throughout. That twinned with away woes has made for a difficult watch at times, something that hasn’t phased the Reds supporters one bit.
Our fans have been sensational throughout, never being silenced even when they were staring defeat in the face. The City Ground has recorded one of the highest decibel levels of any ground this season, a noise rarely heard in the Premier League. It’s no surprise — and quite right — that the Garibaldi have been applauded by many fellow fan bases in the league: there truly isn’t anyone quite like us.
My dad — who lives over two miles from the ground — has sent me videos of our noise travelling into his home, and you can hear us vividly. Our fan base kept Cooper in his post, created individual chants that the players love and thrive off, and travel in their thousands every week without fail. The united front we have shown has made me more proud than ever to support this special football club and our fan base deserve survival as much as anyone.
That raucous support created a fortress at the City Ground, the primary reason Forest have stayed up. Despite having the least amount of passes of any team this season, they found a way to grind out results at home game after game.
Memories that will be cherished forever have been formed on Trentside. That first Premier League victory against West Ham, an unexpected beating of Liverpool, maulings of Leicester and Leeds, vital victories versus Brighton and Southampton and, of course, that all-important win against Arsenal. All of it is locked away forever in our minds, bringing a glowing smile whenever the memories come flooding back.
Three of the final top six were beaten at Forest’s home this season, with 79% of their 38 points being won at home. A place to be feared by any visitor.
Forest finished 10th in the Premier League home table, but firmly bottom of its away one, showing that if their away form improves, they will be comfortably mid-table.
There is no getting away from the fact that Forest have been dire away from home. Despite weekly sell-outs, they just never managed to gain any momentum or confidence on the road, only picking up eight points. Unfortunately they just looked a completely different side away, often scared to venture out of their own half, and finishing the season with both the most goals conceded (44) and fewest goals scored (11) of any away side.
However, those above mentioned away points have been the difference. The sole win at bottom side Southampton and battling draws against Everton, Brighton and Chelsea were important points. But it was an away day performance that seemed to reignite the season…
Although they lost at Anfield, the manner in which they did left the club in a good place. Two goals and a defiant spirit continued into their final six games, as the Reds lost only once after that, the run of form that kept them up.
Togetherness has been what has set Forest apart from their other relegation rivals, but there are undoubtedly individuals that have got them over the line. Record signing and player of the year Morgan Gibbs-White has been instrumental and at the heart of everything good. The Englishman has created the 12th most chances in the PL this season, ahead of the likes of Mo Salah, Jack Grealish and Harry Kane.
Statistics aside though, what a player. He has had his ups and downs in form, which any player does, but something I love about that boy is his desire. He will always have an impact on a game. Even when he had a seemingly bad one, he never went missing, and his ‘bad games’ only really came when what he was trying wasn’t coming off. The lad takes risks and is clearly a special player, the spark that connects our team and makes it fluid.
The relationship between him and Taiwo Awoniyi over recent weeks has been staggering. For a fee of £17.5 million, the relatively unknown striker has certainly imposed his influence upon his side. Alongside being our top scorer with 10 league goals (only the fourth player to reach that feat for the Reds in the Premier League), his impact has been felt most when he wasn’t playing.
Only having 26 appearances, when the Nigerian was injured, Forest lost all their attacking threat. Awoniyi is a thorn in the side of defenders and although maybe not being the best on the ball, is always in the right place. He knows where to be to score goals, scores crucial goals and without him, the Reds would more than likely be in the Championship.
At the age of 22, Brennan Johnson has done magnificently well to have appeared in every Premier League game this season. His goals, particularly at home, have got Forest over the line many a time; his pace and skill something feared by defences up and down the country. This season has undoubtedly been more difficult than last, but whether starting or coming off the bench, Forest’s prized asset has been integral.
Talking about integral. A word that describes Ryan Yates in a nutshell. Over 70% of points won this season have been when the midfielder was on the pitch and it’s clear to see why. Much like Gibbs-White, you always know he’s on the pitch. His tough tackling, galvanising spirit and endless effort at the heart of this Forest side have been clear to see, the type of player every team needs. We were craving for his return during his time on the sidelines and his impact both on and off the pitch is unquestionable.
While Forest’s vice-captain has been key, the attitude of the club captain has been outstanding. Joe Worrall will certainly have wanted more game time. However, the figure he portrays is everything about this football club. Whether in the XI, on the bench or in the stands, the positivity and selflessness he has shown has been an example for everyone. Coupled with his outstanding recent performances, Worrall has been just as important as anyone in keeping his club where it belongs.
I could go on.
Felipe’s impact since coming in. Lodi and Aurier fighting for every ball at full-back. Dean Henderson becoming a fan favourite with his buoyant persona and vital penalty saves. Every one of those lads that has stepped onto that pitch (bar a certain bald midfielder) has embraced the club and the style of play and has given their all in a red shirt. For that we can only be thankful.
You can have the best players in the world but without an elite manager, that’s nothing. There’s no doubt that Nottingham Forest have that with Steve Cooper. Much has been said about the bloke. The warm, well-spoken and much-loved man that has guided them to safety. But don’t let that take away from the fact he is a top coach.
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve written about Forest having next to no possession. Next to no shots. But in unforeseen circumstances due to the amount of players through the door, Cooper has shown his tactical best throughout the season. While at times seeming negative with his subs, his adaptation throughout the campaign has been clear to see.
We looked completely out of our depth on the opening day. Cooper has turned us into a competitive side who can compete with any side in the league. He addressed the fact we were getting overrun in midfield early on by changing formation which in turn secured the revolving door that was the Forest defence. He brought out the best in our attack by playing on the counter and with pace. He took responsibility when the going got tough and made it his mission to turn things around.
Our football hasn’t always been pretty but at the end of the day it has been effective. Effective in getting the 38 points required to see him lead Forest into yet another Premier League season in a few months’ time.
The season was concluded at Selhurst Park with a 1-1 draw against Crystal Palace, a game where the party outcast the football. Sure, there was a game on, where another class Awoniyi finish was cancelled out by a Will Hughes header, but travelling Reds fans were rampant all game. A day which they deserved, belting out chants without a care in the world because they knew their fate for next year.
At full time at Selhurst, the players, staff and ownership stayed to applaud the fans for over 10 minutes — a moment cherished by all involved. We would have done it all again regardless of which league we would have been in come August, but mixing with the elite is where we deserve to be.
So, the Reds are Premier League for another season at least and Nottingham Forest remains a club that is truly on the up.