On October 30th, table-toppers Bournemouth extended their unbeaten start to the Championship season to 15 games, sitting 19 points above 18th-placed Nottingham Forest.
Even back then, the two clubs being engaged in a shoot-out for the division’s second automatic promotion place seemed pretty remote – yet 25 games, five and half months and 165 days later, a 16-team gap has been shortened to one side and a mere six points.
When Chris Hughton departed the City Ground in September, Forest had endured the worst start to a campaign in over 100 years, picking up a solitary point from their opening seven games.
But with Easter just around the corner, Steve Cooper’s side now sit fourth in the second tier, with Saturday’s victory versus Birmingham City marking a fifth consecutive victory and 10th game unbeaten.
No wonder then that the astonishing revival has left Reds fans dreaming of a return to the top flight for the first time since 1999 in what is sure to be a thrilling climax to the season.
“Forest have had a major turnaround from where they were at the start of the season,” Rich from 1865: The Nottingham Forest Podcast tells FansBet.
“We struggled massively under Chris Hughton and the club placed their faith in him turning things around but it never got going and after seven games we had just one point.
“To put that into context, that’s the same as Forest having a 20-point deduction and losing seven games at the start of the season, so the fact that we are in the top half of the table is something to behold.”
Forest suffered four successive league defeats from their four opening games with just three goals scored and seven against.
As a result, they found themselves a place from the bottom of the Championship and only propped up by local rivals Derby County, who had accrued a points deduction.
The run would ultimately cost former Norwich and Newcastle boss Hughton his job as Steve Cooper was charged with the unenviable task of steadying a heavily listing City Ground ship.
Cooper, who had previously managed Swansea, came with a good track record having taken the England under-17 side to World Cup glory with a squad that included the likes of Phil Foden, Emile Smith Rowe and Jadon Sancho.
🔻 “At the start of the season, we thought we were going down!”
🙏 “This might be our best chance of getting promotion since 1998!”
👏 “I don’t think any team would want to face Forest at the moment.”
— FansBet (@FansBet) April 13, 2022
And his impact was almost immediate as he picked up 18 points from a possible 27 following his appointment back in September – a tally bettered only by Fulham and Bournemouth in that period.
He’s transformed the club thanks to a combination of acute tactical nous and meticulous attention to detail and, in 31 league games, he has registered 18 wins, nine draws and four losses with a total of 63 points seeing Forest rise from 22nd to fourth.
But perhaps more impressive is the fact that the Forest have kept eight clean sheets and only shipped eight goals in the whole of 2022, something Rich believes deserves a lot of credit following the club’s awful start.
“When Stephen Reid took over as caretaker manager following the departure of Chris Hughton, he immediately realised that Forest would be better playing three at the back,” explains Rich.
“And that’s been the formula that’s got Forest going though Steve Cooper has tweaked and refined that all the way through since his arrival.
“The other thing is making shrewd signings with Steve Cook coming in as an experienced centre-back and adding leadership while making the players around him look even better – he has made a huge difference.
“And while Cook has been injured, Toby Figueiredo has come back in and looks like the strong-arm defender we know he can be but for the last season and a half hasn’t been playing with any confidence.
“Scott McKenna has also been a revelation and is probably the player of the season, he’s just so consistent and so economical with what he does but also looks really composed at the same time.”
With the Easter weekend marking the final lap of a gruelling Championship race, just six points split second-placed Bournemouth and Forest.
Cooper’s side are undefeated in 10 league games and are in the better form than their South Coast rivals while, in one intriguing final twist, the two clubs meet in a rearranged match at the Vitality Stadium on May 3rd.
So, starved of Premier League football since 1999, is it a step too far to start dreaming of a return to the top-flight for the two-time champions of England?
“Promotion is definitely possible,” says Rich. “As for automatic promotion, I don’t think so.
“However, it is just so exciting to have that chance that Forest could chase Bournemouth all the way.
“At the start of the season we thought we were going down without a trace and now we might just have our best chance of getting promotion since certainly 2011 – maybe since we went up with Dave Bassett in 1998.
“The key difference with Bournemouth and Forest is that Cooper has got Forest playing greater than the sum of their parts while Scott Parker has done the opposite.
“They’ve got some really good players, but they have really high moments and really low moments, however, they don’t have that level of consistency that Cooper has instilled since his arrival here.
“If we can maintain a good sense of form, even if we don’t catch Bournemouth, we will have some great form to take into the play-offs and I don’t think anyone would want to play us at the moment.
“There are whole generations of fans who haven’t seen Forest play in the top flight and there is a real feel-good factor in the city thanks to what Forest are doing.
“Our match away at on the South Coast on the last week of the season could well be a six-pointer to decide an automatic promotion to the Premier League.”
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