When Steve Cooper was appointed to Nottingham Forest last September, he arrived with just one initial goal.
Get out of the relegation zone.
The Reds got off to a miserable start to the season under Chris Hughton and, having lost six in their first seven games, were bottom of the league table. They were 20th after eight games last season and there was little prospect of a rare promotion challenge.
Eight months later, Cooper’s side are hours away from the play-off final where they will take on Huddersfield in hopes of clinching a Premier League spot again after almost a quarter of a century.
There is no doubt that they very much deserve to be in this position. In the 38 league games since September 21, no team has picked up more points than Forest (76), lost fewer games (six) or conceded fewer goals (28). In fact, only eventual champions Fulham equaled their winning tally (22) and surpassed the number of goals scored (66 vs. 88).
Changing a team’s fortunes in the way the Welshman has done in such a short space of time is largely unheard of in the Championship, which is notoriously one of the most unpredictable divisions.
How on earth did he do that?
“It was still pretty early in the season [when I joined]so after seven or eight games had gone by, there was still a lot to play,” he says Sky Sports in an exclusive interview ahead of the trip to Wembley on Sunday.
“We had three games before the international break and we set the goal with the players to be above the dotted line of the relegation zone by the international break. Neither of us liked the sight of where we were.
“We drew here against Millwall, then we went and beat Barnsley and Birmingham away and we played well. To be honest, the international break came at a good time because we gave ourselves a chance to do some work with the team .
“We went step by step. I get a little paranoid sometimes that the local media hears me saying ‘next game’ week in and week out, but it was literally. There were a few times I was just looking at the league standings and while we’ve had some really good runs this year, we haven’t seemed to be getting anywhere.
“After Christmas, maybe February, March, we did that. We kept our form, then got in the top 10, got in the top 6 and then out. We knew April was going to be a pivotal month in terms of where we were going to end up in the league because we had eight games and managed to win seven and lose one against Luton.
“We were so busy that we didn’t even think about the playoffs because the automatic was on the horizon, so we didn’t have to go through the drama of whether or not we get to the playoffs; we did that subconsciously while you were trying to go into automatic.”
Due to Brian Clough’s legendary 18-year tenure at the City Ground, which included European Cup victories in 1978/79 and 1979/80, Forest have been seen as a sleeping giant since final relegation from the Premier League under Ron Atkinson in 1999.
Cooper knows all about the story and hopes to write a new chapter on the banks of the River Trent, taking inspiration from the previous ones.
“Regardless of what happens at the weekend – and we go there to win, we go there to play well, we go there with great motivation – this football club is different,” he adds.
“It’s something special. I think this football club is built on the legacy of success – and not just on the trophies and the memories, but on the values and principles of Nottingham Forest. I’m a bit of a football nerd if you will and I’ve watched all the documentaries about the success and the Brian Clough documentaries etc.
“We’ll always be standing on their shoulders – and we want to, I want to – but we want to stand on them proudly and say, ‘This is us’ to try to write a positive next chapter.
“I’ve met so many European Cup winners and I’m intrigued by their stories but probably even more intrigued by their love for the club because it’s really strong and a lot of them still come to the games, a lot of them are still at the now see training ground. we meet her Not just them, a lot of ex-players because that’s what this club is – you look around and it builds on that.
“Embrace it, be proud of it, represent it well, but at the same time be really clear that we also want to create a positive next step.”
Above all, he wants to give the long-suffering fans back their pride.
“I can’t think of a game where there was a vacancy in the Forest allocation. I’ve made it very clear to the team and even the local media throughout the season that our job is to be a team the club can be proud of if we want the support we want – everyone wants to be well supported – then you must also do your part.
“We tried to do our bit and the fans are behind us; we have to try to build on that amazing connection – especially in the town square – between the fans. It’s a unique atmosphere when the team is playing well and the fans are behind us, but even if you look at the second semi-final when things didn’t quite go according to plan, the crowd got better and pushed us through.
“They have been brilliant this year, the fans and it was just a really good example of what this club means to everyone. We’ve got the older generation, with respect, who’ve seen the good times and lots of young faces watching the team really buy into the club – and then everyone in between.
“It’s nice to see how all generations of fans and diversity really stand behind the football club. We have to keep going if we can, do our best, commit to our way of playing, and hopefully all of those things will continue to grow.
“The more supporters say positive things, the more paranoid I get about not letting people down. And not letting anyone down means focusing 100 percent on helping the team be ready for the next game and improving the way we work. Everything we do is for the fans and if we keep that connection, it gives us a real opportunity.”
His focus is so narrow that he probably won’t be referring to it himself, but it will be natural for Cooper to want to set his own playoff record on Sunday.
In the last two seasons – his first two in senior management – Cooper led Swansea to the Championship play-offs. In 2020 his side were beaten 2-3 on aggregate by Brentford in the semi-finals and in 2021 they were beaten 2-0 by the Bees in the final at Wembley.
With Covid restricting visitor numbers in both this will be in front of a full crowd and a very different kettle of fish first.
“All you can do is go back to some of the big games you’ve played – and we’ve had a lot of big games here this season,” he says.
“Personally, I’ve been involved in a couple of big games with Swansea [as well as] World Cup final and European Championship final [with England youth teams]. They need to step back and ask the players and staff to also go back to their experiences and ask themselves what went well, what we could have done better and then try to incorporate that into what we’re doing here now, like we are are group and try to be the best version of us at Wembley.
“I don’t think there’s a secret ingredient or a complete science to gather experiences and make sure they work; I think it’s just a matter of going with your gut and sticking to the plan you believe in and seeing where it takes you.
“What I really want them to do is really refine what it took to get us to this place and just try and iterate and try not to get caught up in the size of the game too much let, the event that Wembley offers you. the amount of people that are there.
“It’s hard I think. If we want to be successful we have to focus on what we have control over and that’s our performance.”