“We are working for a club that has football history and football soul,” Steve Cooper tells Sky Sports. “There is no doubt about that.” At Nottingham Forest, he has harnessed that history to take the club to the Premier League. Now he aims to keep them there.
He is speaking inside his office at the training ground where there are photographs of that promotion in May. Cooper arrived following the club’s worst start to a season in 108 years and finished it by taking them back to the top division for the first time this century.
But there are also images of Brian Clough, not just in the lobby as one might expect but in the office. As Cooper prepares his team to face Newcastle with 12th spot the prize for victory, the history that might have been suffocating feels inspiring again.
“We talk about Brian Clough and the European Cups and those teams. We are standing on their shoulders because of what they did for this club. It makes the club what it is. We all love being part of this club because of that and we should be proud of it.
“Having the ex-players around and visible makes everything more powerful. There is so much goodwill here. We need to keep that togetherness because the more we support each other, the more chance we have of succeeding. That means including our history.”
Cooper is making history too. Forest’s name always resonated but their more immediate past did not hint at the sort of transformation that his arrival sparked. Half a dozen teams in League One had played in the Premier League more recently until he intervened.
Forest appeared to be heading there too. Joe Worrall, now captain, called them ‘a whipped dog’ but Cooper flipped the thinking, told them anything was possible, instilled belief. The galvanising effect, bolstered by Cooper’s modern coaching ideas, was extraordinary.
Not that he wishes to style himself as this larger-than-life figure rejuvenating a football club and a city. He talks of it being a privilege, a responsibility. When he says that it is more about “not wanting to let people down than wanting to do well” you believe him.
That humility has taken him this far. It is a coaching journey that began half a lifetime ago, unusual given that he is only 43. He learned his craft in Liverpool’s academy and led England’s U17s to World Cup success before moving into club management at Swansea.
Did he think that he would reach the Premier League? “I never really thought about it because when you are coaching you are thinking one game at a time. You can’t look too far ahead in the Championship, for example. You never know what could happen.”
Cooper’s mantra is “do not get too high or too low” but this season has had plenty of both. From the emotion of that first home win and later beating Liverpool, to the heavy defeats not just to Manchester City and Arsenal but also Leicester and West Ham.
Forest’s away form might be a concern but the home record has been remarkable. They are unbeaten at the City Ground since September. The situation is still precarious but the vocal support for Cooper is anything but. The belief remains that he can inspire.
His own inspirations are eclectic. On the wall behind a photograph of Clough there is a canvas of Hollywood actor Denzel Washington. Fresh from Pep Guardiola discussing Julia Roberts, he is a little reluctant to draw attention to it but it is meaningful to him.
“If I talk about Denzel now, it will be like I am copying Pep,” he laughs. “But look at some of his speeches. They are really powerful. I like what he stands for.” The Washington quote that greets guests to his office? Ease is a greater threat to progress than hardship.
That resonates. This season has not been straightforward. “Different in every way.” From the lack of time after that emotional play-off win to the subsequent overhaul that has since stretched to 30 new signings, Forest suddenly found themselves in the spotlight.
“It has been my most difficult coaching challenge over 20 years of professional coaching but it is a brilliant challenge. It tests you every week. Obviously, the technical, tactical and physical demands. But there is also the media, the scrutiny. Everything is bigger.
“I remember the first press conference. I had never seen so many people. And certain games are even bigger. Say, if you play a top-four team or a Sky game. Friday and Monday nights when it is the only game on, it feels like everybody has to be there.”
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As with Forest’s past, the present is there to be embraced. “I will say that word again and again because we all wanted this,” he says. “Embrace it. Relish it. Try to thrive off it. Just because it is my most difficult challenge does not mean it is not a positive one.”
Positivity is a theme that he returns to often. “We are not always going to get the right results. But if you always have a positive approach and a can-do mentality, I think that gives you the best opportunity to do well. I am looking at everything with that mindset.”
The injuries that have been a feature of the club’s season, even losing his two starting centre-backs to the same muscle problem in the same game? “If I moan about it I think I am giving the players an excuse. Myself, as well. I do not want to do that.”
The turnover of players that presented cohesion problems and made taking momentum into the season more awkward? “If I looked at it by thinking we have not been able to do this or that, it would be a negative energy and we do not believe in that here.”
We or he? After all, this is a culture that has come from him, a club that was struggling before he came along. How do you develop that from scratch? “I think it is just about trying to create good relationships between people and being consistent.”
Even when circumstances might make it all but impossible, Cooper is trying to stay true to that principle. Players signed in the summer find themselves on the fringes or even off the squad list. It is enough to put a strain on relationships. How does he deal with that?
“I think that comes down to making time for people. Hopefully, the players here feel like they can come to you with things. I just try to give people the time of day. We have a big emphasis on one-to-one meetings and individual programmes.
“That is obviously around performance but it is also about wellbeing. It is not all about what happens on the pitch. Yes, it might be about in possession and out of possession, but it could also be about lifestyle or nutrition. We try to provide what the player needs.
“International football was an experience where it was exactly that. You have to try to become one team very quickly at a really high level. That was a really good experience and I think it did help me in terms of how to go about things, building that togetherness.”
Togetherness and positivity, embracing challenge and change.
The season of the 30 signings just needs an ending now.
“The hope and ambition of succeeding this year is my biggest driver. We are in a unique situation, so what an opportunity, the fact that we are trying to do something that has never been done before. That is the bit that motivates me the most.
“It is not a season for excuses.”
Watch Nottingham Forest vs Newcastle United live on Friday Night Football from 7pm on Sky Sports Premier League; kick-off 8pm