‘The Manager the Supporters Wanted to Keep’

With memories of Brian Clough’s two-time European Cup-winning sides a distant in the minds of the Nottingham Forest fans lucky to be alive in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s

What’s Next for Steve Cooper?


With memories of Brian Clough’s two-time European Cup-winning sides becoming ever more distant in the minds of the Nottingham Forest fans.  How many were lucky enough to be alive in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, following the once globally recognised Nottinghamshire club?  Forest had become something of a chore for many in the 21st century.


After relegation from the Premier League, a division where Forest had spent much of their history, was confirmed in 1999, fans were subject to a generation of torture aimlessly lingering in the Championship, and even a three-year shift in League One.


Upon dropping into the third tier the former champions of Europe would embarrassingly lose a play-off tie with now non-league Yeovil Town in 2006. When Forest eventually did return to the Championship, fans were subject to a decade of mediocrity. Forest largely operated as the divisional archetype of the fallen giant struggling to seriously impose itself on the league. Going through a series of managers failing to make any kind of meaningful connection with the City Ground faithful.


In 2020 fans would’ve been forgiven for giving up altogether on a return to the Premier League. Forest, sitting in 6th at the start of play on the final day of the season, would throw away a three-goal lead resulting in the Nottinghamshire club missing out on their first play-off campaign in nine years.


Steve Cooper arrives at Forest


With a historic footballing city devoid of hope and ideas, lying in 17th place in the Championship, the board placed faith in the man who, ironically, devastated the hearts of Forest fans in 2020, Steve Cooper. The Welsh-born manager took advantage of Forest’s final-day capitulation, as his Swansea side snuck into the Championship’s final play-off position. Three years prior Cooper demonstrated his potential as a manager on the international stage, guiding England U17’s to World Cup glory for the first time.


Despite relative early success and promise in the game, it was unclear just how much of an impact Cooper could make on the seemingly cursed sleeping giants. Cooper’s tenure at Forest got off to a solid start, losing just once in his opening 15 Championship fixtures to quieten worries of relegation. Though, after January’s FA Cup win against Arsenal was followed up by defeating arch-rivals Derby County in the league. It was clear something was brewing at the City Ground. The unity, excitement, and momentum of Steve Cooper’s attacking style of football had fans whispering – ‘promotion?’


The momentum continued to grow through Spring. Steve Cooper’s men looked like winning every day they stepped on the pitch and by April a once seemingly unlikely promotion charge now had an air of inevitability about it.


Forest would dramatically beat Sheffield United on penalties in the play-off semi-final, before seeing off Huddersfield at Wembley in the final. As the final whistle blew the stadium erupted into a sea of hysterics. The pain, suffering, and frustration of a torrid 20-year absence from the Premier League was unleashed into a kind of ecstatic relief so rarely seen to this extent in English football.


Premier League dismissal


After an influx of summer signings by the board replaced many of Cooper’s play-off heroes, it was always going to be an uphill task to maintain the unity and togetherness formed in the season prior. Nonetheless, despite being amongst the favourites to go down, Cooper’s Nottingham Forest ended their first season back in the Premier League comfortable from the threat of relegation.


Cooper’s second summer as a Premier League manager was met with more controversial new signings by the Forest board, leading critiques to question how the Welshman could possibly integrate so many new bodies into the squad. Sitting in 16th after a run of four straight defeats, it felt for many like an unpopular, perhaps harsh dismissal wouldn’t be too far away.


Nottingham Forest’s defeat to Fulham felt like a grim confirmation that supporters were about to lose the hero who so sensationally returned the club back to the promise land. “Stevie Cooper. Stevie Cooper. Forest are magic” was emotionally sung by supporters for 15 straight minutes as if all involved were acutely aware of what was to come.


After a 2-0 defeat to Tottenham the following week the fairy-tale story finally ended – Steve Cooper was sacked, and Forest were left to negotiate Premier League life without their talisman. Cooper’s dismissal, though clearly harsh, is a perfect embodiment of the hire and fire approach to management in modern football.


The generational memories Steve Cooper gave to Nottingham Forest supporters will surely never be forgotten


What’s next for Cooper?


Steve Cooper was far more than someone who just relied on momentum through creating an emotional response with supporters. The former England U17 and Swansea City coach has consistently delivered exciting football and demonstrated the ability to motivate, develop, and galvanise modern players.


Cooper’s U17 World Cup-winning team gave a young Phil Foden the platform to showcase his technical brilliance for the first time. Meanwhile, at Swansea City, where Cooper achieved successive Championship play-off campaigns, he was accredited for large parts of the developments for now England international Marc Guehi. Most notably at Nottingham Forest, Cooper’s leadership transformed youth talent Brenan Johnson into a £47.5M man for Tottenham Hotspur.


What is striking about Cooper is, unlike many coaches’ renown for developing young talents, he often matches it with winning football. With a youth World Cup, three championship play-off campaigns, and a year’s survival in the Premier League, the manager, still only 44, has created the perfect springboard to land his next big role.


Cooper attracted the interest of Crystal Palace in 2021 and tabloid speculation suggests the South London club could go in for him once again if Roy Hodgson is to face the sack in the coming weeks. Crystal Palace’s strong youth academy and stable Premier League infrastructure would surely be a place where the Welsh manager could continue to grow his already strong reputation in the game.


Cooper’s next managerial step maybe with half an eye on longer-term prospects. If Cooper can really excel in the Premier League, there’s every chance he’ll be among the candidates to replace England manager Gareth Southgate, who many feel will step down after this summer EURO 2024. With a background at the FA, an understanding of the St George’s project, and a strong ability to unite teams and their supporters, there will be few better placed to continue Southgate’s impressive work with the national team.