Under Steve Cooper, Nottingham Forest have gone from playing catch-up in September to chasing down a play-off spot, in one of the most incredible turnarounds in Championship history.
By mid-September, Forest had taken only one point from their opening seven games and were rooted to the foot of the division – a run of form which resulted in the inevitable dismissal of Chris Hughton.
Since the appointment of his successor Cooper – who twice led Swansea City to the play-offs in his two seasons in charge – only Fulham (48) have won more points in the second tier than the Reds (46)
Not only has the ex-England U17 World Cup winning boss helped transform the club’s league form, but Cooper has inspired Premier League scalps versus both Arsenal and Leicester City to reach the Fifth Round of the FA Cup.
“It’s quite a nice feeling really,” says Rich from 1865: The Nottingham Forest Podcast. “It was not something we expected given the way the season started.”
“I think we have momentum, which always helps, and with Lewis Grabban still to come back, plus Alex Mighten and Joe Lolley just coming back to fitness too, we’ve suddenly got options.
“We’ve got players who can slot in if others get crocked. We know that injuries and fatigue will cause problems but we seem to be quite well-equipped to deal with it.”
If the Reds were to get stronger with returnees, that would make them a daunting proposition for their competitors, having won six, drawn one and lost one since the turn of the year.
“Is it a surprise that Forest are doing so well? It is and it isn’t. We always knew that Forest have some good players, but what we hadn’t been able to do for some time was get those players to gel together as a team.
“That’s something we’ve seen to great effect since Hughton left, even in that first match when Steven Reid was caretaker. The players looked as if they were playing with a sense of liberation and playing to their strengths, and Cooper’s really harnessed that as the season’s gone on.”
🙏 “Forest have a good chance. We have momentum.”
👥 “We’ve suddenly got options.”
✅ “We seem to be quite well equipped.”
— FansBet (@FansBet) February 18, 2022
Rich appreciates Cooper’s progressive methods, which have garnered a lot more out of this squad than predecessor Hughton, but he also cites man management and media-handling as impressive facets of the 41-year-old’s work.
The likes of James Garner and Brennan Johnson, both 20, and Djed Spence, 21, have thrived under the new staff at the City Ground.
“He obviously knows how to do and say the right things. He’s got this track record of managing at youth level, and you can see that the young players really enjoy working with him.
“He also knows how to do and say the right things in terms of the fans, he has got them onside. Fist-pumps when we win create a big impression!”
However, Rich was keen not to gloss over their defeat at the hands of Cardiff City – a 2-1 loss where Forest switched to a new system in the absence of stalwart Joe Worrall.
“It was a really, really disappointing game, possibly the most since Cooper took over.
“We didn’t manage to turn up on the day and we were a bit restricted with Joe Worrall injured.
“Cooper felt he had to play with a back-four but we’ve looked more dynamic with a back-three, wing-backs and Philip Zinckernagel as a false nine behind Grabban and Johnson. The 4-2-3-1 just didn’t work.
“But hopefully we’ve now got a better squad to deal with that.”
Broadly speaking, though, the former Swans boss has won many plaudits for the transformation on Trentside.
With so much harmony in the camp, Rich thinks keeping key players fresh and injury-free will be vital to Forest’s promotion hopes.
“We need players like Johnson to stay fit and in-form. Spence has been an absolute machine but there’s a danger he’s going to get tired at some point.
“What’s also crucial is that, at the back, we have three warriors in Joe Worrall, Steve Cook and Scott McKenna.
“Opposition teams were not expecting us to cope so well with the loss of Lewis Grabban and he’s out for another six weeks, but we’ve got Keinan Davis making such a big impression up front as a battering ram: one with guile and ability.
“Sam Surridge has not looked as though he’ll score too many goals, but he’s made a big impression off the bench. We’ve got two strikers eager to fill the gap, and Johnson has kicked on since Grabban has been out.”
The Welshman’s main strength, after an outstanding 2020-21 campaign in League One with Lincoln, has been his explosive wide play and smart cut-backs, but with top goalscorer Grabban absent, he has since bagged three in three.
With that in mind, Rich has belief in his side, whilst respecting the congested nature of the Play-Off scramble.
“The form is good and hopefully the momentum will carry us over the line.
“There are lots of high hopes – it’s a competitive division as ever – but Forest are looking strong and they’ll want to keep up with that momentum.”
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