When Steve Cooper walked into the City Ground as Nottingham Forest’s new manager on September 21, 2021, the club were bottom of the Championship and the brief was to keep the ailing giant out of League One.
Two years later, Forest are in their second season in the Premier League after winning promotion for the first time this century.
Last month Forest broke their transfer record to sign Ibrahim Sangare, one of Europe’s most highly-regarded central midfielders, for more than £30million from PSV Eindhoven.
Before the international break, Cooper’s men won 1-0 at Chelsea, one of their best results for many years.
As he approaches his second anniversary, it is safe to say Cooper has surpassed the original job description.
Steve Cooper has transformed Nottingham Forest’s fortunes in the two years since he arrived
Forest are now re-established as a Premier League club and picking up wins against big clubs
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Not that the Welshman spends much time reflecting on his achievements.
During the recent two-week pause, Cooper met owner Evangelos Marinakis in London. The pair communicate regularly and despite Marinakis’ exacting nature, their relationship is largely good.
Forest would not be where they are now without Marinakis’ ambitious investment and he has finally found a coach to make the most of it.
Cooper was also spotted at dinner in Nottingham with Callum Hudson-Odoi, a member of his England Under-17 squad that won the World Cup in 2017.
Hudson-Odoi was one of seven new signings on transfer deadline day and has turned to Cooper to revive a career that has drifted since Bayern Munich wanted to sign the 22-year-old from Chelsea in January 2019 and hand him the No 10 shirt.
Cooper likes to hold regular meetings with all his players and will often speak to them over FaceTime or voice calls to gauge their mood and what makes them tick.
He also joined members of Nottingham Forest’s European Cup winners for one of their weekly Thursday lunches and spent time replying to some of the letters he receives from Forest supporters. Cooper makes a point of trying to respond to every one.
It is at Forest’s training base – the Nigel Doughty Academy on the outskirts of the city – where Cooper really comes alive.
Cooper congratulates Anthony Elanga on his winning goal at Stamford Bridge this month
Callum Hudson-Odoi, who won the Under-17 World Cup for England under Cooper in 2017, is the latest brought to the City Ground to try and revive his career
Monday Burnley (H)
Saturday Manchester City (A)
October 1 Brentford (H)
October 7 Crystal Palace (A)
October 21 Luton Town (H)
October 29 Liverpool (A)
‘He started his coaching career early and he has worked incredibly hard in that period to fine-tune his process,’ says Coventry defender Jake Bidwell, who played for Cooper at Swansea from 2019-2021. ‘He has so much confidence in it.
‘Nine times out of 10 if we lost a game it was because we did not carry out the plan. On a Monday you would go to training knowing exactly how the week would look.
‘Nothing shocked us. He had always done that much homework that he could predict exactly what was going to happen in a certain game. He took my game to the next level.’
Many players would say the same. Brennan Johnson – sold to Tottenham for £47.5million this summer – and Ryan Yates are two Forest academy products to thrive under Cooper.
Brazilian midfielder Danilo found the pace of the English game a little tricky in central midfield, so the coaches used him in a more advanced role.
Danilo would play a crucial part in Forest’s survival last term, scoring three goals in as many matches in the run-in.
Cooper has fully engaged with Forest fans and makes a point of replying to every single letter
Having stayed up last season, Forest will aim to enjoy a more comfortable top-flight season
Crystal Palace defender Marc Guehi speaks glowingly of Cooper, who also had a key influence on fellow England international Conor Gallagher, as well as James Garner, Djed Spence and Rhian Brewster. The list goes on.
Cooper leads training, marching about among his players directing operations. He was fully behind the owners’ move to invest £2m in new pitches at the training ground, while dressing rooms and meeting rooms both there and at the City Ground have been upgraded.
Cooper’s meticulous approach is paying dividends at the City Ground
There is also a greater emphasis on nutrition than in the past as Cooper and sporting director Ross Wilson seek to instil a Premier League mentality across the club.
Cooper and his team are at the training ground early and after sessions are complete, they will review them and prepare for the games ahead.
These analyses are usually divided into four categories – in possession; out of possession; transitions; and set pieces.
Meetings are a vital part of Cooper’s approach and he will speak individually to his players and staff as often as he can.
His attention is not focused solely on the training ground, either. During the week, Cooper will visit the City Ground to pop into the club shop and greet office staff.
This is not done for effect: Cooper has taken Forest to his heart and even thinks about what the club could do to make the matchday experience for fans even better.
In fact, Cooper thinks of little else beyond family and football. With his family still living near Wrexham, the 43-year-old spends most of his weeks at his East Midlands base.
Cooper will work well into the evenings and devotes the majority of that time to watching matches.
Three concepts – belief, self-worth, and ownership – underpin his work, and Cooper found them in short supply when he joined Forest.
Forest are double European champions – a past that has burdened Cooper’s predecessors but one he has chosen to embrace by meeting club legends regularly for lunch
Yet from day one, he resolved to see the job as an opportunity rather than a burden.
Instead of recoiling from the history, why not embrace it? Instead of worrying about other managers who had failed, why not be the one who turned it around? The owners were committed to invest heavily. Why not make good use of it?
The result was a barnstorming campaign that ended in promotion via the play-offs. After Cooper arrived, Forest picked up more points, scored more goals and conceded fewer than any other side in the Championship.
The frayed bond with supporters was stitched back together, and the remarkable atmosphere at the City Ground drove Forest to crucial points so often last season.
What is Cooper’s ultimate aim for Forest? Take a look at that Under-17 World Cup victory in India With current Forest playmaker Morgan Gibbs-White in the team alongside Phil Foden, Hudson-Odoi and Guehi, England crushed Spain 5-2 in the Final, playing spectacular football.
Elanga’s goal split the teams as Forest won 1-0 away to Chelsea before the internationals
Winning at Stamford Bridge supplied more happy memories for the Nottingham Forest fans
Pep Guardiola is thought to have followed the tournament closely and it is intriguing to note that Cooper also used Foden in a wide attacking role.
That performance is the blueprint for how Cooper would like to play. In Forest’s position, it is not always possible, and they stayed up by becoming an effective counter-attacking side. That style also delivered the win at Stamford Bridge.
But the current squad offers Cooper new possibilities. There is more scope to tweak formations and play more progressively, especially at home.
As he prepares his team to take on Burnley on Monday, Cooper is only just getting started.