You wouldn’t say it was Nottingham Forest’s best result in the top flight this millennium but it was in the top one. And if Cloughisms abound, there may not be a club in English football as defined by one man as Forest. As the City Ground staged Premier League football for the first time since 1999, their greatest living manager was present. It is a moot point if that is Frank Clark, who steered them to third place in 1995, or Steve Cooper, who followed stirring FA Cup triumphs over Arsenal and Leicester with promotion and then victory over West Ham, but the club Brian Clough transformed is back.
Their supporters spent the early minutes of the City Ground’s maiden Premier League game of the 21st century chorusing: “Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.” And, over 1,058 league games in 23 years in the Championship and League One, Aston Villa were their only opponents who had suffered such a precipitous decline from continental glory.
But Forest were always the outlier, the provincial club who won promotion, then the English title, then successive European Cups in four seasons. If there will never be another Clough, Cooper displayed a difference from a manager who was always sure of his own opinion. “I don’t know what I am talking about,” said his modern-day successor, losing his train of thought after beating West Ham.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest he does, however. Cooper inherited a team 24th in the Championship 11 months ago. Now they have won a Premier League game this season before Manchester United or Liverpool, West Ham or Leicester. Forest supporters had a cardboard cutout of Cooper in the stands. The real thing occupied the technical area, organising a side who started with eight of their 14 new signings. That became 15 with confirmation of the signing of Atalanta midfielder Remo Freuler shortly after full time. Forest have risen at pace under Cooper, and this was football’s version of speed dating.
He has been quick to make an impact. One of Clough’s most famous one-liners was: “They say Rome wasn’t built in a day but I wasn’t on that particular job.” It may not stand up to scrutiny – it took Clough two-and-a-half years to get Forest up to the old Division One – but in a sense Cooper is trying to build Rome in a day, to turn a group of strangers into a team in double-quick time.
The host of successful home debuts against West Ham was a sign of prowess. In goal, Dean Henderson saved a penalty. In attack, Taiwo Awoniyi delivered the winner. In between, Lewis O’Brien was relentless in midfield, Orel Mangala promising, the wing-back Neco Williams an influence in both boxes. Jesse Lingard’s mishit shot became an inspired pass for the winner. “Great assist,” deadpanned Cooper, but Lingard looked lively. The focus on Forest has been on the quantity of signings; more excellence and it may switch to the quality. But more incomings are anticipated.
“I really hope everyone is looking into why we have had to make so many signings and not just put the narrative, ‘Forest have signed loads of players: why?’. There has been a real rationale behind it and [it has been] a real necessity,” Cooper insisted. “We have had no choice.”
The many new arrivals were accompanied by two with deep roots in Nottinghamshire: Joe Worrall, the captain and local, and Brennan Johnson, son of a Forest forward and a player who has followed in his father’s footsteps. Around them, new players highlighted past deeds.
“We have reintroduced the club back to the Premier League and the world stage and the image of the Brian Clough Stand,” Cooper said. History can be a burden, especially when it is as luminous as Forest’s, and his 19 immediate predecessors suffered by comparison as they were unable to restore the club to the top flight. He did, and in a season that started with them seemingly plotting a course to League One.
Now they have returned to the Premier League, with the atmosphere at the City Ground testament to how much it meant. As Cooper identified, they were playing to different audiences. There is a global one for whom Forest are a historical oddity with a curious suffix. And then there are the long-suffering locals and the younger fans for whom a 23-year exile meant their football-watching had been confined to the lower leagues, with the Championship having lost its charm.
The crowd was a mixture, the replica shirts celebrating both Lingard and Stuart Pearce. “There were three generations of supporters, one who remembered the really good days, another for who this was a first Premier League game they had seen, and another the generation in between,” Cooper noted.
Some are the Clough generation, some are brought up on the legend of him. All know about the two times Forest conquered Europe and the two decades they were shut out of England’s elite league. And now, for the first time since Clough was alive, Forest have won a top-flight game.