We are in 1980, Nottingham Forest stands at the top of European football after two successive victories in the European Cup.
The East Midlands region collectively toasts in the name of one man – Brian Clough, a man who has brought immeasurable joy to the working town of Nottingham.
“I wouldn’t say I’m the best manager in the business, but I’m tops,” Clough said with a twinkle in his eye.
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Nottingham ruled world football.
When the brilliant new English Premier League was born in 1992, Forest were seen as one of the ‘pioneer’ teams of the revolutionized English top flight.
The team still managed by Clough, boasted the likes of Roy Keane and Stuart Pearce and a new era of optimism surrounded the club.
A Teddy Sheringham goal in the first ever Premier League game on Sky Sports has Nottingham fans going wild.
“Nottingham’s first ever Premier League goal, and it’s a peach!” called Martin Tyler.
Few would have predicted the calamity that would ensue.
Relegated that same season, the famous optimist; Witty Clough cut a sunken, defeated figure.
“We weren’t good enough,” he said, before retiring from management for good.
After hovering between the First and Second Divisions for a decade, things took a turn for the worse in 2005, when Forest found themselves relegated to the English third tier.
The same fans who drank champagne in Munich after the European triumph now stood sullen outside in rainy Doncaster.
Seventeen years pass and Forest are at the bottom of the English league ladder in 2021. It’s been over twenty years since they’ve had a taste of top-flight English football, and the mood in the town is dark.
They have just one point from their opening six league games, and confidence in the squad is shaken. Relegation weighs heavily.
Fans get restless and start pleading for manager Chris Hughton to be sacked – they soon get their wish.
Dane Murphy and his recruitment team at Nottingham are pushing for the appointment of Steve Cooper, a man out of work since leaving Swansea City – his managerial pedigree is modest.
Cooper, aware of the daunting task ahead as well as the responsibility that comes with running a club of Nottingham’s historic stature, signs on the dotted line.
Unassuming in appearance and speech, Cooper isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms when he first arrives at Forest.
Fans are skeptical after his abrupt departure from Swansea, and rumors of relegation to the Third Division are beginning to circle the taverns of Nottingham.
Eager to make an impression, Cooper moves into the heart of town and begins to stop and chat with fans as his day goes by.
“He’s polite,” Forest fans think. “But can he get us results?”
Forest play Barnsley at home and manage to pick up a win. Just like that, they’re on the board.
They then beat Birmingham then Blackpool, then Bristol.
The narrative begins to shift.
Cooper brought in three players each rejected by their previous clubs, Steve Cook from Bournemouth, Keiran Davis from Aston Villa and Sam Surridge from Stoke City – all three proved to be masterstrokes.
The acquisition of Steve Cook is particularly valuable for Forest as it brings leadership and organization to a young backline. The team only conceded ten goals in twenty league matches after his arrival.
One of many teammates to publicly compliment his manager, Cook speaks enthusiastically 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 players coming in and out so often.”
The wins continue to pile up and player confidence continues to rise.
“We fear no one,” says Forest defender Max Lowe.
“There’s no player I’ve met who made me think, ‘I have to be on the back foot.’
Even young winger Brennan Johnson, who Chris Hughton described as “too young” for Championship football, began to excel under Cooper and was eventually named to the Championship Team of the Season.
Something special is in the air, and the city of Nottingham is bouncing back.
Fanatical fans of the club known as “Forza Garibaldi” begin to unveil sprawling, colorful red tifos, and ticket sales increase to the point where stadium expansion plans become urgent.
Long-time Nottingham Forest fan Craig Woolley says this type of fan activity at his club is unprecedented.
“Our fan displays are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”
“It’s been 23 long years since we’ve played in the English top flight. It would be a dream for me personally to see us compete at this level. It’s been far too long!”
On the final day of the season, Nottingham are third and need only a final victory against Bournemouth to seal automatic promotion to the Premier League.
Hundreds of millions of pounds are at stake and the grim reality of a two-decade absence from top-flight football may soon be just a memory.
They fall at the last obstacle. 1-0 Cherries. Bournemouth are back in the Premier League, but Forest will be battling in the playoffs for a final chance at promotion.
The dream could still be alive, and Steve Cooper is quick to lift his team’s spirits after a heartbreaking loss.
“We gave a really good automatic (promotion) shot and by doing that we managed to qualify for the playoffs. They’re brilliant in the playoffs – they’re unique and we want to get excited about them.
‘Seize the moment’ is Cooper’s message to his players ahead of their first leg against Sheffield United.
And while statisticians doubt Forest’s ability to secure promotion, due to their inability to beat anyone in the top six this season, just listen to the echo of Brian Clough’s famous words –
“I hope no one is stupid enough to write us off.”
Nottingham Forest take on Sheffield United in the first leg of the Championship play-off semi-final at 12pm on Sunday May 15.