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Opinion – Forest Make Uninspiring Appointment to Replace Cooper.

Appointment of Steve Cooper at Nottingham Forest

Forest’s Championship Struggle and Management Changes

On the 21st of September 2021 Nottingham Forest, sitting rock bottom of the 24-team Championship appointed former Swansea City manager Steve Cooper to replace Chris Hughton.

At the time, Forest were a month into their 23rd season outside of England’s top flight. Following their relegation from the Premier League in 1999 after a one-season stay in the Premier League, they spent five seasons in the Championship before exiting in the wrong direction and finding themselves in League 1.

The Fall to League 1 and Recovery

For the first time since the 1950/51 season, Forest found themselves in the third tier of English football. It was quite the fall from grace for the two-time European Cup winner. Just 25 years on from that famous night in Madrid in May of 1980 when John Robertson’s goal defeated Hamburg to cap an incredible four-year run for the club under Brian Clough, Forest were in League 1.

It took them three seasons to get out of League 1 and back into the Championship under the stewardship of Colin Calderwood. Calderwood was sacked the following season as Forest battled relegation, and was replaced by Billy Davies.

Billy Davies Era and Playoff Disappointments

Davies was not a popular appointment, as his previous job had been at fierce rivals Derby County. Davies would quickly turn the fans around and after keeping the club in the Championship in his first season in charge he then oversaw two promotion charges that ended in Forest being eliminated in the playoffs.

Photo: IMAGO

It seemed like Forest might be on the cusp of returning to the top flight but Davies was sacked after the second of the playoff disappoints and Forest never got as close to promotion again.

A Decade of Managerial Instability

Ten years and twenty managers – including seven caretakers and Davies’ second spell at the club, later, they had managed only four top-half finishes and zero playoff appearances following the sacking of Davies.

Steve Cooper’s Arrival and Instant Impact

Enter Steve Cooper.

Photo: IMAGO

Bottom of the league, looking much more likely to exit the Championship by the slide rather than the ladder, the club turned to a man who had twice reached the playoffs with Swansea but failed to achieve promotion.

Fan Skepticism and Functional Football Approach

Forest fans seemed unsure about the appointment. Cooper had a reputation for playing functional football, rather than attractive attacking play. Quite why Forest fans thought their club should play like Brazil is anyone’s guess.

Remarkable Turnaround and Promotion Success

Forest had lost six of their eight outings in the league and sat bottom with just four points to their name when the Welshman took charge. The turnaround was instantaneous. Thirteen points were taken from their first five matches under Cooper, propelling Forest into midfield.

Over the 38 League matches Cooper oversaw, Forest only lost six. They worked their way into 3rd place in the table, before defeat away to Bournemouth – a game which could have seen Forest move into 2nd and secure automatic promotion, dropped them into 4th.

They overcame Sheffield United via a penalty shoot-out in the playoff semi-finals before an own goal by Levi Colwill helped them defeat Huddersfield in the final and secure a return to the top flight.

Photo: IMAGO

Steve Cooper had worked a miracle. He had taken a club that was lost and wandering aimlessly towards the edge of a cliff and turned them around without the aid of a pre-season or significant financial backing.

The Return to Premier League

Nottingham Forest, league winners in 1978 after winning promotion in 1977, and European Cup winners in 1979 and 1980, were back in the big time.

Then the real hard work began, overhauling a squad in need of a massive amount of reinforcement.

Forest signed 23 players in total in the summer of 2022, to the laughter of the masses. People were appalled at such business but missed the fact that it was necessary. With loans and contracts coming to an end, plus Brice Samba forcing his way out of the club, Forest were in need of an entirely new squad.

The Challenge of Integrating New Players

The problem for Cooper was that he needed to turn those 23 players, and the handful of holdovers, into a coherent squad and build a team. Those players arrived in dribs and drabs and the manager did not have a full pre-season to work with them.

Things started poorly, Forest took just six points from their first 11 games and seemed destined for a return to the Championship. They didn’t look like a team, merely a collection of hastily thrown-together individuals. But this is where Cooper thrived. In the chaos.

As with the previous season where he was forced to take players put together by a myriad of former managers and craft a team, Cooper drew on his experience working with the England underage set-up and slowly built his team. He found the combinations that worked and the results turned around.

Further Squad Expansion and Tactical Adjustments

In the January window, they added another seven players because 30 is more than 23 and more is always better. Right?

It was a tough season for Forest but by its end, they had secured survival, and beaten Arsenal for the second season in a row after an FA Cup victory during their promotion season.

Second Premier League Season and New Signings

Given the influx of players the previous summer, it was assumed that a more targeted approach would be taken in their second season back amongst the elite. In some ways, that is what happened. In other ways, it was more of the same.

Fifteen players were signed on permanent contracts, though five were signed for the under-21s, while another four arrived on deadline day. In the last 48 hours of the window, they completed eight deals, six of them permanent signings which pointed to the scattergun nature of their approach.

Cooper’s Sacking and Comparison with Previous Performance

Any manager would struggle under those circumstances but unlike last season Forest got off to a decent start with three wins and four draws in their first 11 games as opposed to the one win and three draws last season.

The wheels have come off though, and after taking just one point from their last six games they find themselves on 14 points which is the same as last season. They have scored more goals and conceded fewer goals than they did through 17 games last season but the points tally is the same, and the powers that be have deemed that unacceptable.

Last season they sat 19th at this stage, this season they are 17th and hold a five-point lead over the teams in the relegation spots, but again that has been deemed unacceptable.

So Cooper has been sacked. His incredible work getting the club promoted and then keeping them in the division cast aside. He leaves after 110 games in charge and with the highest win % of any Nottingham Forest manager since Dave Bassett who left the club in January of 1999, and the third highest in history after Bassett and Brian Clough.

Nuno Espirito-Santo’s Appointment and Future Prospects

In his place comes Nuno Espirito-Santo, a fine manager in his own right but hardly an inspiring choice.

Photo: IMAGO

With Graham Potter, Oliver Glasner, and Julen Lopetegui on the market, it appears Forest had eyes for only one man and made Nuno their top target from the off. Perhaps they have been eyeing this move since he was sacked by Al-Ittihad in the Saudi Pro League in November.

Nuno becomes the seventh permanent manager of Evangelos Marinakos’ time as owner of the club will be hoping that this job works out more like his time at Wolves than his time at Tottenham, or indeed at Valencia, Porto, and Al-Ittihad where he was sacked at each stop.

There is a funny coincidence in this situation. Nuno began his managerial career with Rio Ave in his native Portugal. He was sacked from his most recent job in November. Also in November, Marinakos bought himself a third club, to go with Forest and Olympiakos, Rio Ave.

Nuno did excellent work at Wolves, taking them from the Championship to the Premier League and then into Europe during his four years there. The football was, like with Cooper, very functional and not exciting. The end was not fun for anyone, as every Wolves game became a slog. He left by mutual consent at the end of the 20/21 season, less than a year after signing a new three-year contract.

Assessing Forest’s Direction Under New Management

The current Forest squad should lend itself to Nuno’s preferred way of playing with a back three but this feels like, at best, a sidewards move by Forest. Maybe the club felt that they wanted someone like Cooper who could potentially get a new manager bounce over the Christmas period to propel them a bit higher up the table and eliminate the risk of being dragged into a relegation battle if one of Luton, Burnley, or Sheffield United put together a good run of results.

But it seems like a missed opportunity.

After what Cooper achieved at the club, to move on from him for a sideward step – if even that, just doesn’t seem like the best way forward for the club.

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