Nottingham Forest Manager Steve Cooper’s Rapid Rise To The Top
Nottingham Forest manager Steve Cooper was the one to make the club’s long-awaited return to the top tier of English football happen. The famous old club battled their way through to an unexpected promotion after winning the Championship play-offs in 2022.
Cooper, who took over when the club was in dire straits in the early stages of their 2021/22 league campaign, faces yet another huge challenge in keeping them up there.
Cooper’s crowning Glory
With Nottingham Forest sitting at rock bottom of the Championship in September 2021, the club knew that they needed to make a change. Chris Hughton who had been in charge since October of the previous year, saw Forest get off to a terrible start in their campaign.
In mid-September 2021 Forest reacted to their troubles by sacking Hughton. It was a move that was taken early enough in the season for there to be a positive reaction. A change of manager never guarantees success. However, Forest appeared to find the right man for the right job at the right time.
That man was Steve Cooper.
Swansea’s near misses, Forest’s Fortune
In their search for a new Notts Forest manager the club turned their attention to fellow Championship Club Swansea. It was at the Liberty Stadium where Steve Cooper had already made himself known as a promising manager.
Cooper had taken over at the Liberty Stadium in 2019 and guided the Swans to a tremendous start to their Championship campaign. Swansea picked up 16 of a possible 18 points in a big undefeated streak at the beginning of the season.
That was Cooper’s first experience as a club manager, having spent five years with England’s Youth international set-up. He guided Swansea to the play-offs with a victory on the final day of the 2019/20 season.
That ironically was at the expense of Nottingham Forest. Swansea’s victory over Reading by a 4-1 scoreline, saw them snatch the final play-off spot ahead of Forest on goal difference. But a return to the top flight evaded Steve Cooper’s Swansea as they fell in the play-off semi-finals to Brentford.
But that run to the Championship play-offs proved not to be a one-hit wonder by Cooper. He backed it up the following season by taking the Swans back to the play-offs. Again they failed to get back to the top flight. Again it was Brentford who stood in their way, the Bees beating them in the play-off final.
Cooper Steps Away
Cooper’s tenure as Swansea manager came to an end after failing to earn promotion. It was harsh, but he left the Liberty Stadium on good terms with the club in the summer of 2021. It wasn’t long before he was back in the managerial hot seat with another Championship club.
In September of that same year, Steve Cooper became Nottingham Forest manager, being given a two-year contract with them. This at the time may not have been the most appealing of appointments for Cooper.
Nottingham Forest were sitting at the bottom of the Championship table when he took over. Forest had earned only one point from their first seven matches of the 2021/22 Championship season. They were a staggeringly long way from any thoughts of promotion.
Forest Trusts Cooper’s Track Record
Despite only having two seasons of club managerial experience with Swansea under his belt, Cooper was a hot ticket to be the next Nottingham Forest manager. Part of the issue that Forest were having at the time was that they had turned to youth. An operational focus had seen them purposely lower the age of their squad.
So Cooper was trusted to give the younger Forest squad guidance and support. That fit with his previous coaching experience with the England U16 and England U17 squads. With the proven track record that he had with Swansea on top of that, the Nottingham Forest managerial change was quickly initiated.
Cooper’s arrival at the City Ground had an immediate effect on Forest’s fortunes. In his first six Championship matches in charge, Forest posted a W5 D1 record in a run of positive form. That was in stark contrast to what had come before at the start of the season.
After losing six of their first seven matches of the campaign, following Cooper’s arrival, Nottingham Forest lost only six more games in total during the rest of the season.
The big change at the City Ground was the more disciplined set-up that the new Nottingham Forest manager installed into the young squad. Structure and organisation are at the core of his coaching, and immediately Forest started holding onto more possession, but being positive with it.
Cooper also installed aggression. That was the other big feature of the massive shake-up that he gave the club when walking in the door. He wanted his side to have a go at opponents and give it all they had to win the ball back when they could. It worked.
Forest’s Play Off campaign
After back-to-back failures in the Championship play-offs with Swansea, Cooper led Forest into their bid. In the play-off semi-finals, they faced Sheffield United and picked up a 2-1 win at Bramall Lane in the first leg.
Back at the City Ground, Forest opened the scoring, but then came under huge pressure. Sheffield United fought back and with two second-half goals, levelling the tie. It eventually went to a penalty shoot-out, with Forest winning it 3-2.
In the play-off final, The Reds met Huddersfield. It was to be Forest’s day at Wembley, as an own goal by Huddersfield’s Levi Colwill handed a place in the top flight to Cooper’s Forest.
Costly Premier League Return
After more than two decades away from the elite of the English game, Forest were back in the big time. But the model of signing and developing cheaper young talent to sell on for profit was thrown out of the window. Life in the Premier League meant that Forest had to open the cheque book.
Notts Forest lost a lot of players in the summer of 2022 after winning promotion. Players were sold, loanee’s returned to parent clubs and suddenly the Premier League newsboy’s squad was looking a bit thin on the ground.
The solution by Nottingham Forest’s board was to throw money at building a brand-new squad. A remarkable 21 signings were made by the club ahead of the first of their 2022/23 Premier League fixtures.
Time and time again during the spending spree, the club transfer record was broken. Among the pricey arrivals were Liverpool defender Neco Williams, and forward Taiwo Awoniyi from the German Bundesliga club Union Berlin. Topping the bill for them was midfielder Morgan Gibbs-White who Forest shelled out an initial £25 million for to sign from Wolves.
Spending Spree Breaks Forest’s Mould
The summer spending spree was largely targeted toward purchasing young talent. Forest avoided going down the route of bringing ageing experienced Premier League players into the fold. That’s often the path that newly promoted teams take, trying to bring experience in for what is usually a long, tough season at the top level.
Consolidation of Premier League status is generally the first thing on the mind of newly promoted clubs. A plan to steadily get established in the top flight is the most common approach as seen most recently by the likes of Brighton, Aston Villa and Leeds.
The fact that the core of Forest’s promotion-winning squad was ripped up, made things more complicated for the Nottingham Forest manager. It immediately broke the mould that Cooper had so successfully installed. There was nothing subtle about the wholesale changes.
While it was still a focus on young talent that Cooper’s reputation was built on, he needed to pull together a bunch of new faces into a cohesive unit in a short amount of time. Many teams before have tried throwing money at transfers after winning a promotion to the Premier League. It doesn’t always work.
Can Copper Repeat Championship Heroics
What Steve Cooper achieved with Nottingham Forest in the Championship was nothing short of remarkable. With only one point from their first seven matches of the season and directionless, Cooper had them 7th by Christmas 2021.
Come to the end of the 2021/22 Championship season, the Tricky Trees were in red-hot form, landing a fourth-place finish. It’s one of the great turnarounds in a single season of English football.
But for Forest to retain that Premier League status, Cooper is going to have to go deep into his well of ability once again. The Welshman saw his bold, brave tactics shattered at the start of the new Premier League season.
Forest lost four of their first six matches, conceding a massive tally of 14 goals in that spell. Six of those were in a rout against Manchester City. That match at the Etihad in September 2022, was a stark reminder that life in the Premier League can be brutal for newly promoted teams.
Can Cooper Stand Among Former Forest Manager Greats?
Founded in 1865 there have been some iconic Nottingham Forest managers in charge at the club. Former England international Stuart Pearce and David Platt had their time at the helm. As did Ron Atkinson and Steve McLaren.
But no Nottingham Forest manager was bigger than the late, great Brian Clough. He was appointed manager in January 1975. As outspoken and abrasive as he was, Clough was a winner.
He landed Forest the 1997/78 First Division title, four League Cup titles and back-to-back European Cup titles. The late seventies were the golden years of the club under Clough who is regarded as one of the greatest managers of all time.
There will probably never be another “Cloughie” but in Cooper, Forest have a manager who has the club buzzing once again.
Famous Brian Clough quotes:
- “We talk about it for 20 minutes and then we decide I was right”
- “Good managers make good sides. There’s no such thing as a side making a manager”
- “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one”
- “The River Trent is lovely, I know because I have walked on it for 18 years”