Guest blog by Arthur Annabel
Bottom of the league after eight games. Five straight defeats. Baffling tactical decisions. Ripe circumstances for fan unrest and anger, directed at the person who has to face up to the myriad of factors that dictate the success or failure of a football club. 99 times out of a hundred, if not more, the fans would be calling for the manager’s head.
Add in that the most recent of those defeats was a 4-0 battering away from home at the hands of a local rival and you’re bordering on grounds for insurrection if they’re not sacked.
But there’s a piece missing from this story.
It’s a piece that explains why, while 4-0 down in that game, the dominant noise from the crowd was the away fans singing the managers name, over and over again. It’s a piece that explains why when news started to break over the following 24 hours that his job was on the line, that there were potential replacements being lined up, that change was on the horizon, the dominant reaction online was a fan campaign to make it clear that whatever else might need changing, the name on the manager’s door should stay the same.
A week of briefings and counter briefings, of Twitter ‘In The Knows’ stating with certainty the latest updates and seemingly a vast majority of fans dreading the official statement and the solemn corner flag of doom that would mean they were gone.
Then, out of the blue, midway through Friday morning it was confirmed that Steve Cooper had signed a new contract committing him to Nottingham Forest until 2025.
I’ll be honest and admit I found myself surprisingly emotional at the news. Now part of that is inevitably the time of the year and the coincidental interweaving of last season’s triumph with personal grief (see my previous blog post for a more personal take on what last year meant – https://cathannabel.blog/2022/06/05/right-when-i-needed-them/), but I don’t think that’s all, or even most, of the story here. If it was, I’d have been a lone voice projecting my need for meaning on to an otherwise disinterested fan base.
But I wasn’t alone. The announcement was met with near universal praise and emotion. How often can a manager being offered a new contract after a run of results like this have been greeted with such enthusiasm?
To understand it I think you have to understand where we were as a club before Cooper walked through the door.
Bottom of the Championship, sure, 8 games without a win, sure, managed by the undoubtedly very nice Chris Hughton who delivered some of the most dire football I’ve ever watched amongst stiff competition, sure.
But it wasn’t just how the past month or so had gone.
It was the past 23 years.
For many fans like me, their entire time supporting the club.
There’d been four managers in that time who’d delivered anything resembling success. Hart, who built a team of academy kids into a free-flowing side that came close but fell short and was sold off to the highest bidder. Calderwood, who grafted to get us out of League One, culminating in a glorious last day of the season against Yeovil. Davies (first time round specifically), who delivered play off campaigns two years in a row but couldn’t get us to a final and more importantly couldn’t avoid his ego derailing everything, but it is what it is. Then Lamouchi, who built up hope then saw it collapse in farcical fashion as we missed out on the play offs when it genuinely seemed impossible to do so.
Those four cover barely a third of the 23 years and all ended in calamity and depression.
We’d seen a whole range of approaches over the years but in the end the conclusion to be drawn was the same. Don’t ever get your hopes up because Forest will make you pay for such naivety.
We’d become a joke of a club. The only time national media paid attention to us was to mark how far we’d fallen.
Older fans could potentially cling to past successes (though I suspect the disparity between what was and what is brought its own pain), but for any fan born after around 1985 true pride and joy in Forest was at best a childhood memory and for most of us, fleeting moments enjoyed almost despite rather than because of the club.
We’d learned not to truly hope. We’d learned that whatever we’d once been as a club, we were now a Championship team at best. We’d learned that whoever took over that particular poisoned chalice would be out the door before we could form a solid bond (though we tried, Lamouchi, J’adore).
Then Cooper arrived and gradually, really quite subtly, started to rehabilitate us.
In the immediate aftermath of the play off final our captain Joe Worrall used the analogy of a beaten dog finally shown kindness. He was talking about the players but it applied to the fans too. Cautiously, always waiting for the rug to be pulled and the pain to return, we started to believe that the joy we’d seen so many other teams enjoy could really be ours.
And that sense of hope built. One of my most abiding memories of last season was how the atmosphere ramped up almost exponentially, how Mull of Kintyre was belted out each week with that little bit more passion, how “Nottingham Forest are magic, on and off the pitch” moved from being an occasional away day place holder to a loud and proud declaration by the whole city ground. how those opening few bars of Depeche Mode signalled that we were one step closer to a dream we’d started to believe would never come true.
His low drama interviews, full of self-deprecation and appreciation of the people around him, his fist bumps to each stand after one more win, his ability to make the team recover from occasional setbacks with statement wins. It created a bond I’ve never known between the fans and the manager. Previous generations had Clough, and to an extent Clark, but my generation of fans never knew what it was to truly love a manger.
Not because we believe we’ll only see triumph with them, not because we think they’ve solved all our problems, not because we believe we’re entitled to anything.
No, we love Steve Cooper because he gave us permission to hope again. He provided therapy to a fanbase as he guided us to promotion. He delivered something that so many had failed to and in doing so expanded the fan base’s view of what was possible.
There’s a lot of fans saying that they’d rather go down this season with Cooper in charge and try again than change manager and I’m in that group, but even if this all ends in tears and P45s long before that, the reaction to the news of his contract shows something. It shows that in the seemingly every increasingly brutal world of club management, where there’s no margin for error, that it’s still possible for managers to form a bond that transcends short term results.
Whatever happens over the next few weeks or months, however Cooper’s story ends with Forest, he will always be the man who made us hope again, who offered us something to believe in and that’s not a debt Forest fans take lightly.