• Matthew Whiley

Under Steve Cooper, Nottingham Forest Are Seeing The Green Shoots Of Recovery

On a cold February night, the floodlights illuminating Ewood Park were drawing to the end of their shift as a post-match interview took place on the touchline. The subject, with cameras and microphones trained on him, was Nottingham Forest manager Steve Cooper, and at that point, it was unlikely there was a single Reds fan in existence who wasn’t hanging on his every word.

For this is the man, brought in by new chief executive Dane Murphy in September, who has entirely and utterly turned Forest’s fortunes around. When the Welshman replaced the sacked Chris Hughton in September, the club had won just one of their first eight games, losing six, and sat bottom of the Championship.

Yet, after that chilly night in Blackburn, where Forest had earned a 2-0 victory thanks to goals from James Garner and Brennan Johnson, Cooper had steered one of English football’s famous old institutions into the playoff positions for the first time this season.

The atmosphere around the club has gone from toxic to terrific, with pessimism replaced by positivity, and the 42-year-old must take a lot of credit for the turnaround which has taken place at the City Ground. For the first time in a long time, Forest are looking like a well-oiled machine, and the new approach they have adopted has many other clubs looking on enviously.

Tempting 35-year-old Murphy away from Barnsley in the summer to fill their CEO post was the moment Forest fired the starting gun on their youth-focused rebuild. The Oakwell outfit had, under Murphy’s stewardship, enjoyed a stunning previous campaign in which they reached the Championship playoffs, ultimately losing to a Swansea City side managed by none other than Cooper.

Decisions taken by the precocious American, himself a former professional player, drastically altered fortunes in South Yorkshire for the better. Hiring Valerien Ismael as manager was one. Adopting a transfer policy of signing young players was another. Among the players brought in during Murphy’s time in Barnsley were goalkeeper Brad Collins, right-back Callum Brittain, centre-back Mads Andersen, and striker Daryl Dike.

All were below the age of 22 when they were signed, and all played vital parts in the club’s stunning run to the playoffs, during which they repeatedly punched well above their budgetary weight. Inevitably, if a little unfortunately, that lack of financial muscle did catch up with them last summer, as alongside Murphy’s poaching by Forest, Ismael was also lured away, joining West Bromwich Albion.

It is no coincidence that since the duo departed Oakwell, the club’s fortunes have nosedived, and it is now those particular Reds who occupy the basement spot in the table. Ismael may have since been sacked by the far less-forgiving Baggies, but Murphy remains safely ensconced in his new post in Nottingham, and as Forest have discovered, Barnsley’s loss is very much their gain.

In his first few weeks on the banks of the River Trent, Murphy was certainly thrown in at the deep end, as his new club earned just one point from their opening seven league matches. Such a dire run of form forced him to act, and despite the new season being less than six weeks old, Hughton was relieved of his duties, with a 2-0 home reverse to Middlesbrough proving to be the final straw.

The last time Murphy oversaw a mid-season managerial appointment, 11 months prior, he could have scarcely got it more correct. Fortunately for the City Ground faithful, that was no fluke, and when the club announced they had appointed Cooper, who had left Swansea in the summer, the mood shift was almost instantaneous.

His football may have perhaps been known for not being particularly attractive, but it has been demonstrably effective, and regardless, the major reason Forest were so drawn to him was his record cultivating young players. Under Murphy, that was now a cornerstone in the club’s rebuild, and Cooper’s record in that regard comfortably spoke for itself.

He brought with him a CV that included time with the youth set-ups at Liverpool and the England national team, counting the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, and Raheem Sterling among his development success stories. At Swansea, he brought in, and achieved success with, Conor Gallagher and Marc Guéhi, both of whom are now Premier League success stories with Patrick Vieira’s Crystal Palace.

With Murphy overseeing operations at the City Ground, and a man with Cooper’s calibre available, this was a prospective relationship that just made sense. At the time he was brought in, the average age of Forest’s squad was 26.3; that has now been trimmed even further, to 25.6, with more than half of the 27-strong group aged 25 or under.

It is a way of thinking that the club’s Greek owners have bought into, as they sanctioned a January window that saw five players arrive, three of whom were aged 23 or below. Murphy involves himself heavily in recruitment, making use of a statistics-based approach to uncover bargains, and he knows he can trust Cooper with the sort of players he brings in.

The standout member of that quintet who arrived in January is striker Keinan Davis, signed on loan from Aston Villa, who has scored two goals, and made another two, in eight appearances thus far. His physicality allows him to hold the ball up effectively, and he boasts an excellent passing range as well as an ability to surge into threatening positions.

Davis steadily warmed up in the weeks after his arrival, enjoying a good performance on his league debut, a 1-0 win away to Millwall, as he twice found himself in threatening positions and produced the best passing accuracy in the Forest team, with 88%.

He then opened his account for his new club ten days later against Barnsley, utilising his heavy build to press Mads Andersen and force a mistake from the Dane, before nipping in behind and confidently stroking the opener beyond Brad Collins as Forest won 3-0.

He added another off the bench in the very next game away to Cardiff, nodding in James Garner’s corner, and he had also found himself at the heart of matters prior to that, demonstrating his impressive vision once more by playing a quick one-two with Xande Silva. That chance would be missed by Silva, and Davis’ own goal proved to be only a consolation as the Reds lost 2-1 in South Wales, but the signs remained encouraging.

In recent weeks, he has developed his aerial game; at a shade under 6’4”, the potential for him to be a dominant threat in that area was always there, but it has been refined to the point he could, in the FA Cup against Leicester, comfortably win a battle with Premier League defender James Justin and head back to Philip Zinckernagel.

Danish midfielder Zinckernagel duly obliged to smash home the hosts’ opener, and with Davis winning five aerial duels in the background, the joint-most of any home player alongside Scott McKenna, Forest thrashed their neighbours 4-1 in a raucous City Ground to advance to the FA Cup fifth round.

Such noise was just the latest example of the feel-good factor Cooper has installed in Nottingham. Attendances have always been excellent on the red side of the Trent, but as Forest have continued their march up the table, the famous old stadium has found itself repeatedly packed out. Over the season so far, the compound attendance figure for the City Ground stands at 424,685, comfortably the most of any second-tier club.

On average, the City Ground has been 86.7% full thus far this campaign, the third-highest in the division, and behind only Luton (95.9%) and Fulham (91.2%). However, only once the facts that those two clubs’ capacities combined add up to 29,226 – 1,376 fewer seats than the City Ground on its own – and between them, they have compound attendance figures of 424,242 all season – again, 443 fewer than Forest on their own – is the real picture unveiled of quite how strong the support is for the Reds.

Davis is one player to wear the Garibaldi red who those many thousands may have taken to their hearts, but there are others. 21-year-old Djed Spence, signed on loan from Middlesbrough, has been utilised in almost every possible position down Forest’s right flank, but has shone wherever he has found himself. In addition, no further can this article go without also mentioning perhaps the supporters’ most loved man of all – academy graduate Brennan Johnson, son of former Reds striker David.

Spence has been most effective, and most frequently deployed, at right wing-back, and impressive showings against top flight opposition in Arsenal and Leicester City have led to interest in him growing. The interesting point to note, though, is that while he may have blossomed under the new manager, he was not a Cooper addition, being signed in the summer window.

In fact, if an outsider was given the basic facts of how Cooper and CEO Murphy approach recruitment, then asked to pick which one of Spence or 30-year-old centre-back Steve Cook was signed when the duo were together, it may be a surprise when they are informed it is the latter.

However, what the signing of Cook does reveal is quite how much trust the club have in their man in the dugout, in that they know he will do what they are looking for in terms of young players, but that they also know he can simultaneously achieve success. Spence, Davis, and Johnson, alongside even more young names – Max Lowe, Ryan Yates, James Garner – have all been allowed to flourish, but they maturely recognised that the experience Cook brings will be invaluable in the short-term too.

Murphy himself proudly told the world when Cooper was appointed that the Welshman was “our first choice as head coach” and that the club was “delighted to have secured his services.” It’s a faith that has since been proven to be incredibly well-founded, with Forest flying high and seeming to look better and better with every week that passes.

Forest have been in the Championship continuously since 2008, making them the joint-longest-serving current second tier club, alongside local rivals Derby County. The last time they made the playoffs was more than a decade ago. This particular Forest has not exactly looked evergreen over the past few seasons, certainly by comparison of historical achievements.

Yet, right now, seen through the mist rolling in from the Trent, the shoots of something very special are beginning to show. Sown by an American and cultivated by a Welshman, those shoots are now blossoming fast. Even if they don’t quite make the playoffs this year, Murphy and Cooper have set Forest on a path that could certainly ensure things look very rosy indeed one or two years from now.

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Signing off,