How a band of outcasts dragged a fallen football giant to the brink of PL redemption
The year is 1980, Nottingham Forest stand at the pinnacle of European football after two successive European Cup triumphs.
The East Midlands region collectively toasts one man’s name - Brian Clough, a man who has brought the working class city of Nottingham immeasurable joy.
“I wouldn’t say I’m the best manager in the business, but I’m in the top one,” Clough says with a twinkle in his eye.
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Nottingham were running world football.
When the shiny new English Premier League was born in 1992, Forest were considered one of the “pioneer” teams of the revolutionised English top tier.
The team still led by Clough, boasted the likes of Roy Keane and Stuart Pearce and a new era of optimism surrounded the club.
A Teddy Sheringham goal in the first ever Premier League game on Sky Sports sent Nottingham fans into delirium.
“Nottingham’s first ever goal in the Premier League, and it’s a peach!” called Martin Tyler.
Few would have predicted the calamity that would follow.
Relegated that same season, the famously upbeat; witty Clough cut a sunken, defeated figure.
“We weren’t good enough,” he uttered, before retiring from management forever.
After seesawing between the first and second division for a decade, things took a turn for the worse in 2005, when Forest found themselves consigned to England’s third tier.
The same fans who drank champagne in Munich after European triumph, now stood glumly in the away end at rainy Doncaster.
Seventeen years pass and Forest sit rock bottom of the English Championship ladder in 2021. It has been over twenty years since they last tasted top flight English football, and the mood around the city is sombre.
They have just a solitary point from their six opening league games, and the confidence in the playing group is shot. Relegation looms large.
Fans grow restless and begin to advocate for manager Chris Hughton’s sacking - they soon get their wish.
Dane Murphy and his recruitment team at Nottingham push for the appointment of Steve Cooper, a man out of work since leaving Swansea City - his managerial pedigree is modest.
Cooper, aware of the arduous task that lies ahead along with the responsibility that follows managing a club of Nottingham’s historic stature, signs on the dotted line.
Unassuming in appearance and speech, Cooper isn’t exactly met with open arms upon first arriving at Forest.
Fans are sceptical after his abrupt departure from Swansea, and murmurings of relegation to the third division begin to do the rounds in Nottingham taverns.
Eager to make an impression, Cooper sets up home in the heart of the city and begins to stop and chat with fans as he goes about his day.
“He’s polite,” think the Forest fans. “But can he get us results?”
Forest play Barnsley at home and manage to grind out a win. Just like that, they’re on the board.
They then beat Birmingham then Blackpool, then Bristol.
The narrative begins to swing.
Cooper brings in three players each rejected by their previous clubs, Steve Cook from Bournemouth, Keiran Davis from Aston Villa and Sam Surridge from Stoke City - all three prove to be masterstrokes.
The acquisition of Steve Cook is a particularly valuable one for Forest, as it brings leadership and organisation to a young backline. The team concede just ten goals in twenty league games after his arrival.
One of many teammates to publically complement his manager, Cook speaks glowingly of Steve Cooper: “He is intense but good. He has a great nature.”
“He might as well have a rotating door in his office because there are players in and out of there so often.”
The wins keep piling up and player belief continues to surge.
“We do not fear anyone,” says Forest defender Max Lowe.
“There is no player I have come up against that has made me think, ‘I need to be on the back foot’.
Even young winger Brennan Johnson, who Chris Hughton described as “too young” for Championship football, begins to excel under Cooper and is eventually named in the Championship team of the season.
Something special is in the air, and the city of Nottingham is bouncing.
Fanatical fans of the club known as “Forza Garibaldi” begin to unveil vast, colourful red tifos, and ticket sales surge to the point where stadium expansion plans become urgent.
Lifelong Nottingham Forest fan Craig Woolley says this kind of fan activity from his club is unprecedented.
“The displays from our fans are like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
“It’s been 23 long years since we last played in the English top flight. It would be a dream for me personally to see us compete at that level. It’s been far too long!”
On the final day of the season, Nottingham are third, and need just one final win against Bournemouth to seal automatic promotion to the Premier League.
Hundreds of millions of pounds are at stake and the grim reality of a two decade absence from top flight football might soon be just a memory.
They fall at the final hurdle. 1-0 Cherries. Bournemouth are back in the Premier League, but Forest will fight it out in the playoffs for a final shot at promotion.
The dream could still be alive, and Steve Cooper is quick to build up his side’s morale after a gut wrenching loss.
“We gave automatic (promotion) a really good go and by doing that we’ve managed to get to the playoffs. They are brilliant the playoffs – they’re unique and we want to get excited about them.”
“Seize the moment,” is the message Cooper sends to his players ahead of their first leg playoff against Sheffield United.
And while statisticians are doubting Forest’s ability to gain promotion, owing to their poor record against top six opponents this season, you need only listen to the echo of Brian Clough’s famous words —
“I hope anybody’s not stupid enough to write us off.”
Nottingham Forest take on Sheffield United in the first leg of their Championship playoff semi final at 12am on Sunday, May 15.