Seven league games – one draw and six defeats. A puny point. Pure sadness. Concrete fear of relegation.
And yet this is a feel-good story.
Even if, in mid-September 2021, nobody could have guessed what a miraculous turnaround the Nottingham Forest season would take after a major false start.
Although: The loyal fans of the prestigious traditional club from the decades before were sufficiently used to grief. In 1999 you had to take the bitter step into the second class, in the meantime it even went down to the third performance level.
For 23 years, the club, the city and above all the supporters had to do without Premier League football. A whole generation of supporters have no idea what Oberhaus football feels like.
That changes on Saturday with the guest appearance at Newcastle United (4 p.m. in the LIVE Ticker). The following weekend, West Ham play their first home game at the City Ground, the stadium on the south bank of the River Trent.
The fans can’t wait
“The anticipation is on an immense level,” reports Lee Clarke of “Nottingham Forest News” in conversation with LAOLA1.
“Being outside the Premier League for 23 years has created a certain existential angst among supporters. They have seen some good coaches fail to bring top quality football back to the city ground.”
In the past few days and weeks, the excitement before the official return has built up bit by bit. In short: “The fans can’t wait for the season to finally start,” said Clarke.
An average of 27,176 fans accompanied Forest on their way back to the Premier League in 2021/22 at the home ground with space for 30,445 spectators.
Steve Cooper understands Nottingham Forest
The fact that there would be an almost fairytale happy ending after the horror start is mainly attributed to one man: Steve Cooper.
His tally after taking on a dismal bunch of lacking confidence players last September: 45 games – 27 wins, 11 draws, 7 losses.
In addition to promotion via relegation (semi-finals against Sheffield United, final at Wembley against Huddersfield), the 42-year-old coach also led his team to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, with victories against Arsenal and Leicester, among others, in which the eventual title holders Liverpool FC had to give up late with 0:1.
“Honestly, he just gets this club,” Clarke explains, explaining the secret of success, which at first glance seems simple, why Steve Cooper and Nottingham Forest are such a “perfect match”.
“He understands the fans and what being employed by Forest should be all about,” continues the Forest insider. “He has established a solid style of play and under his tutelage, scoring points is a meticulous priority.”
On his first day at work, Cooper worked out publicly the responsibility of coaching such a glorious club.
Godfather Brian Clough
Past successes can be both a blessing and a curse in football. A great history can also make you attractive, but in times of need it may create even more pressure, impatience and longing. Forest isn’t the only big name in world football to have been trapped in the House of Commons for (too) long.
Of course, the club has above all its two victories in the Meistercup, the forerunner of the Champions League, in 1979 (against Malmö) and 1980 (against Hamburger SV). The basis of this European title defense was the English championship title in 1978.
A side note: Erich Linemayr, an Austrian referee, refereed the final win against Malmö in the Olympic Stadium in Munich – which is also rather unthinkable in the present.
Patron of these triumphs is Brian Clough, who, together with his longtime assistant Peter Taylor, sensationally led Nottingham’s rival Derby County to the championship title in 1972.
Clough was Forest’s boss for 18 years from 1975 to 1993. One reason for his departure was that towards the end a certain alcohol problem was no longer controllable.
The main reason was probably the club’s departure from the Premier League, which was also held under this name for the first time in 1992/93.
Time for new heroes
Clough said goodbye in tears at the last home game. Certainly also because of the relegation, but perhaps even more out of emotion because of the love and gratitude that the fans showed him.
If a relegation coach elsewhere might have to fear, the supporters who stormed the pitch chanted loudly and repeatedly demanded that Clough should return to the lawn.
This may be football-romantic folklore from a bygone era, but the status of an icon can hardly be better described.
“Clough symbolizes Nottingham Forest, but you can’t build success on the glamor and glory of the past,” says Clarke about the Godfather role of the coaching legend and continues:
“Fans of a certain age now have their own heroes, and for many of them, what Cooper did last season resonates more than anything Clough did, as silly as that might sound.”
Or to put it another way: In order to write a new chapter of success, it is high time to push the glorious past a little into the background.
When Damir Canadadi was in conversation
It shouldn’t be denied that Nottingham cut a good figure in the 90s, even immediately after the Clough era.
In 1995, with the likes of Stuart Pearce and Stan Collymore, they finished the Premier League season as a promoted team in third place. A success that could not be preserved and in 1999, shortly before the turn of the millennium, culminated in a descent that could no longer be corrected.
With interims, Cooper is the 36th head coach since Clough. At the beginning of 2019, Damir Canadi was even talking to an Austrian.
The background was that the Greek forest owner Evangelos Marinakis, who is also in charge of Olympiakos, valued the Viennese from his work at Atromitos Athens.
Marinakis is generally an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle of the upswing. “He’s very popular and, bottom line, he kept the promise he made when he took over the club. Now the club could do a lot more under his leadership,” Clarke believes.
A transfer offensive of 94.75 million euros
Because one thing is certain: The transfer summer is not over yet and rumor has it that there are still one or two changes in the pipeline, but Forest is already playing with the big ones, at least when it comes to invested fees.
The newcomer has spent 94.75 million euros so far, which means sixth place in the ranking of big spenders behind Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Leeds and Tottenham, all of whom have broken the 100 million mark.
Perhaps the best-known newcomer came on a free transfer from Manchester United in the form of Jesse Lingard.
After only sporadic stints under ÖFB team manager Ralf Rangnick in the pre-season, the 32-time England international would like to show that he can lead a team.
New record signing in the club’s history is striker Taiwo Awoniyi, who came from Union Berlin for 20.5 million euros, just ahead of 21-year-old Welsh international Neco Williams. The Liverpool right-back was worth €20m to Forest.
Friends of the German Bundesliga will be familiar with other purchases in addition to Awoniyi. Orel Mangala (VfB Stuttgart), Moussa Niakhaté (Mainz) and Omar Richards (Bayern Munich) also ventured onto the island.
The Local Hero from Nottingham
There are a dozen new faces fighting for a Leiberl in Nottingham this season. That means a completely renewed squad.
“It goes without saying that the team will step onto the field in a new look this season,” says Clarke, but that doesn’t mean the promotion heroes are completely left out.
With Brennan Johnson, a young star stands out. The 21-year-old striker may play for Wales, but was born in Nottingham and, apart from being loaned to Lincoln City, has not known any club other than Forest since childhood.
“When it comes to the players from last season, he’s definitely in the spotlight. He contributed 16 goals and nine assists to promotion,” Clarke said.
Johnson played all 46 league games. Now it’s time to exploit the potential one class higher.
The makers dream bigger than the fans
As for every climber, staying up in the league should be the first goal for Nottingham Forest in order to gradually re-establish itself as the biggest attraction in Robin Hood’s city.
“I think Cooper has bigger ambitions than just staying inside, the same applies to Marinakis,” Clarke sees the Forest makers looking at higher regions of the table.
The fans, however, are more cautious when it comes to expectations: “No matter which supporter you ask, we also take 17th place.”
A club where the makers dream bigger than the audience. Okay, after 23 years of grief and longing, it’s kind of understandable.