The year is 1980, Nottingham Forest is at the top of European football after two consecutive European Cup victories.
The East Midlands region is collectively cheering to the name of one man – Brian Clough, a man who has brought immeasurable joy to the working-class town of Nottingham.
“I wouldn’t say I’m the best manager in the business, but I’m at the top,” Clough says with a twinkle in his eye.
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Nottingham ran world football.
When the gleaming new English Premier League was born in 1992, Forest was regarded as one of the ‘pioneers’ teams of the revolutionary English top league.
The team still led by Clough boasted of Roy Keane and Stuart Pearce and a new era of optimism surrounded the club.
A goal by Teddy Sheringham in the first-ever Premier League game on Sky Sports sent Nottingham fans into delirium.
“Nottingham’s first goal in the Premier League, and it’s a peach!” named Martin Tyler.
Few would have predicted the disaster that was to follow.
Relegated that same season, the famously merry; witty Clough carved a sunken, defeated figure.
“We weren’t good enough,” he said, before retiring from management for good.
After ten years of tossing and turning between the first and second divisions, things got worse in 2005 when Forest was sent to England’s third division.
The same fans who drank champagne in Munich after the European triumph were now gloomy in the branch at rainy Doncaster.
Seventeen years pass and Forest is at the bottom of the English Championship ladder in 2021. It’s been over twenty years since they last tasted top-class English football and the mood in the city is bleak.
They have only one point from their first six league games and confidence in the playing group has been shot. Relegation is imminent.
Fans grow restless and start calling for manager Chris Hughton’s resignation – they soon get their wish.
Dane Murphy and his Nottingham recruiting team are pushing for the appointment of Steve Cooper, a man out of work since he left Swansea City – his managerial lineage is modest.
Cooper, aware of the arduous task ahead, along with the responsibility that comes with managing a club of Nottingham’s historic stature, signs on the dotted line.
Unassuming in looks and speech, Cooper isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms upon first arriving at Forest.
Fans are skeptical after his abrupt departure from Swansea, and murmurs of relegation to the third division are starting to circulate in Nottingham taverns.
Eager to impress, Cooper settles in the heart of the city and begins chatting with fans as he goes about his day.
“He’s polite,” the Forest fans think. “But can he get us results?”
Forest plays at home against Barnsley and manages to take home a win. That’s how they are on the board.
Then they beat Birmingham, then Blackpool and then Bristol.
The story begins to swing.
Cooper brings in three players who have each been rejected by their previous clubs, Bournemouth’s Steve Cook, Aston Villa’s Keiran Davis and Stoke City’s Sam Surridge – all three prove to be masterpieces.
The acquisition of Steve Cook is particularly valuable to Forest as it brings leadership and organization to a young backline. After his arrival, the team conceded only ten goals in twenty league matches.
Cook is one of the many teammates his manager publicly compliments, and he speaks glowingly of Steve Cooper: “He’s intense but good. He has a great character.”
“He might as well have a revolving door in his office because there are so many players going in and out.”
The wins keep piling up and the players’ faith continues to rise.
“We’re not afraid of anyone,” said Forest defender Max Lowe.
“There’s not a player I’ve come across that made me think, ‘I have to get on the back foot’.
Even young winger Brennan Johnson, whom Chris Hughton described as “too young” for championship football, begins to excel under Cooper and is eventually named on the championship team of the season.
Something special is in the air and the city of Nottingham is bouncing.
Avid fans of the club known as “Forza Garibaldi” are beginning to unveil huge, colorful red tifos, and ticket sales are rising to the point where stadium expansion plans become urgent.
Lifetime Nottingham Forest fan Craig Woolley says this kind of fan activity from his club is unprecedented.
“Our fans’ displays are like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
“It has been 23 long years since we last played at the top of England. It would be a dream for me personally to see us compete at that level. It’s been way too long!”
On the final day of the season, Nottingham are third and need only one final win against Bournemouth to seal automatic promotion to the Premier League.
Hundreds of millions of pounds are at stake and the stark reality of a two-decade absence from top-level football may soon be just a memory.
They fall at the last hurdle. 1-0 Cherries. Bournemouth are back in the Premier League but Forest will battle it out in the play-offs for one last chance at promotion.
The dream could still be alive, and Steve Cooper is quickly building morale on his side after a heartbreaking loss.
“We gave the automatic (promotion) a really good chance and because of that we managed to reach the play-offs. They are brilliant in the play-offs – they are unique and we want to get excited about them.”
“Seize the moment”, is the message Cooper is sending to his players ahead of their first leg play-off against Sheffield United.
And while statisticians question Forest’s ability to make it to promotion, having beaten no one in the top six this season, all you need to do is listen to the echo of Brian Clough’s famous words:
“I hope no one is stupid enough to write us off.”
Nottingham Forest will take on Sheffield United on Sunday 15 May at noon in the first leg of their Championship play-off semi-final.
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