Friday, October 7, 2022

Steve Cooper exclusive interview: Nottingham Forest in form and chasing promotion in style under positive coach | Soccer News

Something is stirring again at Nottingham Forest, a revolution in Garibaldi red. Steve Cooper, the man who has inspired it, is trying to keep feet on the ground. That might work with his players. For supporters, it might already be too late for all that.

It is almost 43 years since this famous East Midlands club were first crowned champions of Europe. Nearly 23 years since they were last seen in English football’s top division. Under Cooper, they are no longer merely surviving in the Championship but thriving.

Forest are the only team in the Football League to win their last five league games. If they beat Luton Town at Kenilworth Road on Friday lunchtime, they will move to within three points of automatic promotion to the Premier League. They are doing it with a swagger.

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Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship match between Nottingham Forest and Birmingham

“Our ambition is to play a certain style of football,” Cooper tells Sky Sports. “It is not easy because I am asking for us to play a brave, positional game which is about trying to be creative and exciting. Those are things that are hard things to do in the game. Sometimes we get it right, other times we don’t. That’s football.”

Ten times out of 14 they have got it right since the turn of the year, drawing all but one of the others. All five of their consecutive wins have come by at least two goals. There has been a first FA Cup quarter-final in 26 years. Win against Luton and West Brom over Easter and Forest will equal the club’s 100-year-old record for most consecutive league wins. The city is alive with possibility again.

David Marples is a columnist for the official matchday programme, the author of The History Boys: Thirty Iconic Forest Goalsedits the Forest fanzine Trevor Francis Tracksuits and describes himself as a general Nottingham Forest busybody. He is loving this.

“I am still a bit dazed as to how good we are, to be honest,” Marples tells Sky Sports. “Given where we have come from – quite literally, bottom of the table – it is pure excitement at the moment. This has been the most enjoyable season this century.”

The competition for that has not been fierce. Fourteen seasons have been spent in the Championship since winning promotion in 2008. “Yeah, about that League One thing. Can we not?” But it is over a decade since Forest reached the playoffs let alone won them.

Six defeats from the opening seven games of this season was the club’s worst start in 108 years. After being kept out of the City Ground because of the pandemic, many wondered why they had chosen to return. “It was every bit as rubbish as we had anticipated.”

But Chris Hughton left in September and something strange started to happen within a squad that some had assumed was barely good enough to stay up. Joe Lolley talked of playing with freedom again. Steve Cooper came in and soon won four in a row.

“Since he walked through the door, everything has changed.


Nottingham Forest's City Ground
Nottingham Forest’s City Ground has become a fortress once again

Cooper himself is reluctant to look too far forwards or too far back. This is his way. It is what has taken his Forest this far. Luton is his focus until it isn’t. Onto the next one. “We are analyzing what will be needed. That is the process. It is the process for every game.”

But that question of how remains. “He has brought the very best out of and improved every single player,” says Marples. Player after player talks of confidence restored. You cannot win without confidence. But you cannot be confident without winning.

How has he instilled it?

“We just try to be positive,” adds Cooper. “We have a can-do mentality. When you do that you give yourself the best chance. That is all it is. We just try to embrace the situation that we are in, playing for this huge, iconic football club and doing the best we can.”

Were the players not at rock bottom when he joined, though?

“You can only judge what you see yourself. You start as you mean to go on and that means belief in people, positive attitudes. We try to stick to that at all times. It gives you the best chance in rocky moments and allows you to enjoy the good times.”

If you show belief in people, they can surprise you.

“I believe in that a lot. I have been coaching professionally for 20 years now and most of that has been in youth development where you are drumming that into young players that they need to take the ball in difficult positions when they are under pressure.

“You want them to be free, to be creative, to express themselves, to play with team-mates, all these sorts of things. That is my belief. All we are really trying to do now is to do it at a more senior level. It is a bit different, of course, but those principles remain.”

No team in the Championship has completed more dribbles since he took over. “We want to get our dribblers in dangerous position, getting players up the pitch to attack in a variety of ways. If that is dribbling then great because we have some good ball carriers.”

Nottingham Forest's Djed Spence and Steve Cooper
Djed Spence has been a revelation under Steve Cooper at Nottingham Forest

It is indicative of the freedom they play with. Talent is expressing itself. Fans feed off that. “The full-backs, especially Djed Spence, are not only allowed over the halfway line but actively encouraged to spend more time there than in their own half,” says Marples.

That right side has been a huge factor in Forest’s success of late with Spence, incongruously, a loan signing from Middlesbrough, proving a revelation. In attack, Brennan Johnson has emerged as perhaps the outstanding young player in the Championship.

Nottingham Forest flank attacks in the Championship this season

His partnership with Keinan Davis, brought in on loan from Aston Villa in January, has made Forest even better. The only Championship game that Davis has not started since his arrival is the only game that they have lost – and he scored in that.

“Keinan had never really had a run of games in a first-team environment,” says Cooper. “We had to get him fit and be careful because he is such an explosive player. He has grown as the weeks have gone by, starting consecutive games in a busy period.

“It has given him an opportunity to show what he can do and he has obviously become a really important player for us. He is a good footballer, really good technically and uses his strength well. He can run with the ball and score but he can find a pass as well.

Nottingham Forest's Keinan Davis
Nottingham Forest are unbeaten in the Championship when Keinan Davis starts

“If you look at the two goals we scored against Coventry, he plays the key pass to Jack Colback who ends up getting the assist for the cross, and he ends up getting the assist himself for Jimmy Garner’s goal. That is what he has added as well as a few goals.

“We are enjoying him but at the same time pushing him to improve.”

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Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship match between Nottingham Forest and Coventry City

That is the mantra from Cooper. Enjoy it but improve.

Fans wonder how far it might take them.

Asked by one journalist whether he has thought about Forest’s previous play-off disappointments – they lost out twice under Billy Davies and twice more prior to that – Cooper says the only past he is interested in are those European Cup wins.

Marples is of a generation that grew up with tales of European glory. One of his first games was a famous UEFA Cup tie against Celtic at the City Ground. But after two decades of “generally uneventful” times for the club, the spark is back. Forest might just be back.

“The Forza Garibaldi tifos are more numerous. A café just off Trent Bridge sets off fireworks after each home win and Cooper has his own post-win fist pump ritual. Some of which sounds a bit cheesy, but we are all in – absolutely every single one of us. Fully in.”

Cooper is determinedly in his bubble. For him, time away from the training ground means watching the midweek Champions League action rather than basking in the adulation of supporters around Nottingham. When pressed, he is aware of the excitement.

“I don’t go looking for it. I am a bit paranoid about making sure we are in the best shape going forward, I am focused about putting one game to bed and moving on to the next one. If you start thinking outside of that, you are not doing your job.

“But the atmosphere has been great, both home and away, from our supporters. That has been very, very helpful. It is always a feeling of pride when you see that a home game at the City Ground becomes this real gathering of the Nottingham Forest community.

“A home game here at the City Ground has this real sense of belonging. When you are part of something like that, you just want to give your best, really. It is the least that we can do. I am just really focused and motivated right now on not letting anybody down.”

Just as Cooper himself is steadfast in his refusal to discuss progress as if it is a fait accompli, aware that the job is not even close to being done, there is that fear among the fans that this could be as good as it gets. Forest could fall short. Loan players could leave.

“The voice in my head worries,” says Marples.

“Stop football now and let us enjoy this forever.”

One suspects that Cooper, however, is just getting started.

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