Nottingham Forest’s illustrious history is proudly displayed in bold letters across the stands at the City Ground. Starting in the corner of the Brian Clough Stand, with the FA Cup, and working all the way round to the Bridgford Stand, where the 1990 League Cup is the last entry, all the trophies are there. It would seem out of place to add “Survival” in 2023, but the achievement of manager Steve Cooper and his players in an extraordinary season – only the fourth time in the Premier League era when all three newly-promoted clubs stayed up – when it seemed inevitable Forest would pay the price for haphazard recruitment, and at the very least the manager would lose his job, deserves to be remembered long after the campaign itself.
Forest signed 30 players in total. Some, including Jonjo Shelvey and Jesse Lingard, have been massive disappointments. Lewis O’Brien could not even be registered as the club already had the maximum number of players when his January transfer deadline day move to Blackburn fell through. Forest almost went two months without winning a game between mid-August and mid-October and more than two months without winning one from 5 February to 26 April, when they collected three points from 11 games and slipped to second bottom in the table with six games remaining.
But Cooper did not give up. And the elation across the stadium as Forest ownership, fans, players and staff joined together to celebrate an unlikely survival with a match to spare was evidence of a spirit that has never wavered. “If I ever lacked belief or confidence there is no way players would have it,” said Cooper. “Never once did I lack that. At times it was difficult. We went two-and-a-half months without winning a game. Think about that. It was my fourth year in first-team football and I knew I would experience losing more. But I needed to suffer and go through difficult periods. I have a long way to go before I am a proper manager but if I am serious about managing this club I needed to show I could do it in difficult moments as well.”
Cooper hails Forest fans for steadfast support. In a season of pinch points for Cooper, one in particular stands out. Forest had lost four successive games when they travelled to local rivals Leicester for a Monday night fixture on 3 October which representatives of both clubs privately suggested might be better titled ‘El Sackico’ because of the firm belief the manager of whichever team lost would be out of a job. Leicester scored three goals in eight minutes on their way to a 4-0 triumph. Then something extraordinary happened. In the away section, in the corner of King Power Stadium, Forest’s fans repeatedly sang Cooper’s name. They had not forgotten the Welshman’s achievement barely four months earlier in taking Forest back to the Premier League for the first time in 24 years, rejuvenating a club that had been on its knees and bottom of the Championship when he was named manager the previous September. Those supporters were making it clear to owner Evangelos Marinakis that if he was to sack Cooper, it would be against their wishes. Many would have preferred to go down than sacrifice their manager, who has not forgotten that night or many others when they have stood with him.
“My family and myself will be in debt to these supporters forever,” Cooper said. “What they have given me this year in an era of people always wanting change and having no patience, our supporters have been the complete opposite. They have been the best with me in some difficult times. That takes some doing. The whole sense of being part of something, being wanted and that sense of belonging is such a powerful feeling. Our supporters have set the standard for how to support a team.”
Forest haul themselves back from brink. Cooper came under immense pressure again at the beginning of April, following a damaging defeat at Leeds. Speculation was immense that Marinakis would pull the trigger, that the Greek was unable to stand by and watch Forest’s top-flight status disappear. This time, there was a public stay of executive, which came with a warning. Calling the rumours around Cooper’s status “false and disruptive”, Marinakis added: “Results and performances must improve immediately.” They didn’t – Forest lost the next three. We can never know what would have happened if they had also been beaten by Brighton on 26 April and remained second bottom. As it was, they fought back from a goal down to surge to a deserved success. Morgan Gibbs-White sealed the victory with an injury-time penalty, triggering a revival of form that showed why Forest spent all last summer trying to sign him from Wolves, which they eventually managed for an initial £25m fee. Forest then had the character to bounce back from a morale-sapping defeat at Brentford, when they conceded twice in the last eight minutes, to beat Southampton and draw at Chelsea before achieving possibly their best win of the season, against Arsenal, on the night when the consequences were at their most intense.
Cooper refused to call survival “an achievement” – aware he would be comparing it to the club’s great days under Brian Clough. But he knows a second top-flight season should create the chance of progression given it, surely, cannot be as chaotic as this one. “I knew it was going to be a unique season,” he said. “It was never going to be perfect and was always going to be my toughest coaching challenge. But it will allow the club to move forward. It is the next step that is in my mind now.”