Nottingham Forest in the Premier League: How Steve Cooper inspired team to promotion

(Editor’s Note: A version of this article was published on April 26)

“I’d like to raise a glass to somebody who cannot be here today. He is a big inspiration to me and to most people who know him. I want him to know we are all thinking of him. So please, can you all raise a glass to… Steve Cooper.”

If you want to understand the scale of the impact Steve Cooper has had at Nottingham Forest, the widely shared social media video clip of a recent wedding speech sums things up perfectly.

The unexpected toast is followed by an enthusiastic rendition of Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough. The song — fittingly released in 1981 during the era when Brian Clough’s Forest were at the peak of their powers — has become ubiquitous with Cooper’s side as he has overseen a remarkable transformation in both fortunes and mood.

At the time of his appointment in September, Forest had made their worst start to a season for 108 years as they claimed only a single point from their first seven Championship games under Chris Hughton.

The fact they have now secured a place in the Premier League is testimony to the incredible job Cooper has done.

But it is more than just results that have earned the Welshman a place in the hearts of supporters. It is the fact Cooper just seems to have an intrinsic grasp of this club and what it means to fans. He gets it. 

“It is a special club to be part of. I tell the players that it is not going to last forever because we are just passing by, really, aren’t we?” said Cooper recently. “You do have to take it in and recognise that not everywhere is like this. You should never take it for granted, having the opportunity to be involved with a club like this, in any capacity. I just want a team that the supporters can be proud of.”

So what has been behind his success? 

In the dressing room and on the training ground, the players more regularly refer to him as “Coops” rather than “boss” or “gaffer”. 

Cooper does not favour a hierarchical structure but an atmosphere of unity. His post-match fist-pumps in front of every corner of the City Ground have become his trademark. But, normally, those moments only arrive after he has taken the time to talk to and congratulate every single one of his players.

His fist-pump celebrations were not pre-planned but something that happened off the cuff and, while he appreciates the bond it has helped him to forge with supporters, Cooper has never wanted the spotlight to be cast solely on him. He can feel slightly embarrassed when it is. He prefers to see Forest’s achievements as a team effort.

His family, including his father, brother and son, regularly attend games. Cooper admits he has been known to feel emotional during the pre-match playing of Mull of Kintyre, which seems to have grown louder and more fervent with each passing week. 

Cooper still has a family home in north Wales, where there are a small but growing number of fans who now make the journey to the Midlands, having been inspired by the job their fellow countryman is doing.

There is nothing complex to Cooper’s approach. He is meticulous but still somehow manages to keep things simple. There are several meetings with players every single day, both as a group and individually. 

He is a friendly, approachable character but also possesses a sharp wit and the ability to deliver a cutting put-down if a player does mess up in training. 

“He is intense but good. He has a great nature. He is good around the lads but you don’t want to mess up one of his drills; you do not want to give balls away cheaply,” defender Steve Cook tells The Athletic. “He is very sharp when he wants to be… he can give you one or two lines that will bring you down to earth. If it is not you on the receiving end of it, it can be quite enjoyable — because I like hearing what he has to say. But if it is you on the end of it, it is much less enjoyable. 

(From left): McKenna, Cook and Colback have all benefited from Cooper’s guidance (Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

“The work he does with his coaching staff all has a purpose. You can see the thought process behind everything. We do not do drills for the sake of it; they all have a purpose. That is a good way of keeping players on it — particularly those who can kind of drift, attention-wise. There are a few of those! 

“They are always short, sharp sessions with a lot of detail. It is about keeping fitness levels up but also about getting the tactical ideas across. Because that can change game to game.”

While Hughton had doubts over whether Brennan Johnson was ready for Championship football, Cooper has honed the talent of the Wales international, who is now valued at as much as £25 million, such has been his progress. The 20-year-old has contributed 15 goals and nine assists. 

Similarly, Hughton regarded Jordi Osei-Tutu as being the first choice right-back at the start of the season and, while injury hampered his progress — to the point where his loan spell was terminated early and he returned to Arsenal — Djed Spence has subsequently evolved into a player that the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham are watching keenly.

The only regret is that it will be parent club Middlesbrough who benefit financially from his rapid development into one of the best young defenders outside of the top flight. He was an outcast in the north east in the summer but is now valued at £10 million.

Ryan Yates has long been regarded as a bright prospect by those who have worked closely with him, who see his qualities, but the midfielder had struggled to win fans around to the same idea. His work-rate and constant desire for personal improvement are indicative of the attitude Cooper demands. Yates’ personal improvement is a sign that they are more than just words.

“You rest at the end, not in the middle,” says Cooper. “I have said that to the players. They just have to be hungry to improve and hungry to get the best out of every single day.

“It is an elite environment. It needs to be challenging. Sometimes people need to be pushed — including myself.  To achieve that, things are not always going to be fluffy. What we try to do is get to a place where, if you are having difficult conversations, we have built good connections and relations with people, so that they know it is coming from the right place… Thick or thin, everyone sticks together. That is so important.

Forest have been granted planning permission to revamp parts of their training ground at the Nigel Doughty Academy. But, while he approves of the club’s ambition, Cooper is also a fan of the intimate, compact nature of the facilities and does not want that to be lost.

And his eye for detail extends to requesting that investment be made in new equipment to allow the ground staff to maintain the training pitches to the same degree that the City Ground pitch is carefully manicured.

Significant money could be invested to level off the slight slope on some of the playing surfaces at the training ground, where Cooper has already overseen significant changes to the previously cramped meeting rooms to create a more welcoming environment.

“He might as well have a rotating door in his office because there are players in and out of there so often,” says Cook. “He is very approachable. He is a good laugh. You don’t want your work environment to be an entirely serious place. (But) there is a line you need to remain on the right side of. Their expectations are very high. It all stems from that.”

When Cooper was appointed, Joe Lolley revealed he had held individual meetings with every single player to garner their thoughts on where things stood at Forest. It is a habit that Cooper has maintained since. Every player has been offered help or guidance of some sort.

When Lewis Grabban was injured, Cooper worked extensively with Joe Worrall on the challenges and demands of being captain of a club like Forest — and encouraged him to think about what kind of captain he wants to be.

Worrall has had to work on aspects of the role — including being more of a leader when other players are late for meetings or for training and need reminding of their responsibilities. Worrall’s performances on the pitch have gone up another level this season, as have those of fellow defender Scott McKenna. But while the academy product has never been short of confidence, the Scotsman, in contrast, has been encouraged not to be so self-critical.

McKenna would focus on every mistake or poor pass despite the fact that he — like Worrall — is hugely respected for his strong, no-nonsense displays and ability to carry the ball out from the back. Along with the experienced Cook and the resurgent Tobias Figueiredo, Forest have built one of the strongest defensive units outside of the top flight.

When Yates was left out of the starting XI, Cooper met with him to explain his thinking. The midfielder, respectfully but firmly, informed his manager that he was making a mistake. Cooper, far from being annoyed, loves the attitude of the midfielder, who is always the first into meetings and the last to leave the training pitch.

Ryan Yates has been in brilliant form under Cooper (Photo: Jon Hobley/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

When Max Lowe has been sidelined with injury, Cooper took Colback to one side to explain that he would be putting his faith in him to fill the void as the left-sided wing-back. His impressive performances culminated in him scoring a contender for goal of the season against West Brom.

“There is so much more improvement we can make still but we have come so, so far since the manager came in, and that is credit to him,” says Yates. “I look back at my clips from his first games in charge and from more recent games and some of the movements he wanted from me, I now do without even thinking.”

Even during the international break, Forest’s players could not escape Cooper’s demands.

“The gaffer was dropping messages into the group chat reminding us to keep focused for when we come back,” says on-loan Aston Villa forward Keinan Davis. “He just makes sure that we keep our eye on the ball. It is always about the next match.”

It says much that Davis and Sheffield United defender Lowe that both wanted to stay at Forest to complete their rehab from injury rather than returning to their parent clubs.

“It is great that they want to stay here,” says Cooper. “They are part of it. They are popular lads and they have made friends here. We just need to shut Keinan up a little bit!”

The appetite for Premier League football was only whetted by Forest’s FA Cup run, which saw them beat recent winners Arsenal and Leicester City, as well as Huddersfield Town, before eventually being narrowly beaten by Liverpool at the City Ground.

Forest may not have made it to the semi-finals following that defeat but Cooper did go to Wembley as he looks to continue his own football education.

“It was an amazing spectacle,” he says. “I am a football nut. I am always up for seeing what might be new, what is happening in the game — in foreign football as well. You are always looking for something; always looking for ideas.”

What was telling in those FA Cup fixtures was how Forest took the game to their opposition. It is a mindset that has seen them clinch promotion under Cooper. 

“We do not fear anyone,” says defender Lowe. “There is no player I have come up against that has made me think, ‘I need to be on the back foot’. The gaffer wants us to be positive, on the front foot all over the pitch. We are all confident and believe we can run over teams. That is why we score a lot of goals. We keep going in games, we never change our approach.

“It was not great at the start here. But once the gaffer came in, things changed so quickly. I cannot speak highly enough about the club.”

It says much that even an arch-rival can appreciate the job Cooper has done. Derby defender Curtis Davies played in both the 1-1 draw at Pride Park, which earned Hughton his only point of the season in August, and as Forest won 2-1 at the City Ground in January under Cooper.

Even Derby’s Davies can appreciate the impact Cooper has made at arch-rivals Forest (Photo: Mick Walker – CameraSport via Getty Images)

“Regardless of my feelings about the club, it’s clear he’s done a fantastic job,” Davies tells The Athletic. “Unfortunately, him coming into the club was at the expense of my former manager (Hughton at Birmingham City), someone I have huge respect for — but at the start of the season the club had lost a bit of its spark.

“When we played them earlier in the season, I think it was a game where Chrissy was on the verge of losing his job and in the second half they basically threw the game at us. They ended up getting the equaliser.

“The second game, I don’t think there was much in it. But they won the game and played some great football. Keinan Davis has been a great signing, Brennan Johnson has been used really well, leaving him up the pitch to frustrate teams. Not only has he got pace, he’s got skill to break down teams on the counter.

“(Cooper) feels like a perfect fit for the club. Not just the way he wants to play football but his personality. Forest was a squad that was full of players who all thought they should be playing at Championship level, every week. That’s 1-20 who felt like they should be playing. He’s found a way of keeping people onside. He keeps them ready and keeps them motivated. A hands-on coach but one who people want to work for.”

Closer to home, another experienced defender, in Cook — who signed in January from Bournemouth — has been equally impressed.

“I can appreciate the job he has done. You hear stories of how training used to be before he came in; about how we used to play and how things have changed — in just such a short amount of time,” says Cook. “Neil Warnock used to say that 90 per cent of being a manager is about man-management. I don’t know whether that is true but that management side of the game — dealing with young players, knowing how you can speak to players now and treat them has changed so much.

“The way that the manager does it here is a perfect example of how to do it. You have to speak to players in a certain way now, when they are on the pitch; you have to put your views across — there is an understanding of the game on the pitch that is needed, because the game is so tactical now. 

“It is a chess game. You have to understand what you are being asked to do. For me, learning that from him has improved me.”

Do not expect things to change too much in the Premier League. 

“It is important to stick to what you do more than ever. Why change? That is my feeling. Stick to the plan. Make sacrifices every day. Plan, prepare and review as you have done all season,” says Cooper. “If it has been a good enough way of working, it will get you to where you want to be.

“If it does not, then somebody else has a go, don’t they? That is the way it works. That is it really: stick to the plan. Believe in it.”

Forest have had 21 permanent managers since they were last in the top flight. With Cooper being mentioned in wedding speeches due to his success, is it any wonder this have proven to be the union that has taken them back to the Premier League?

Other contributors: Phil Buckingham and Daniel Taylor

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson using Getty Images)


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