Nottingham Forest have turned a corner under Nuno Espirito Santo, with statement victories over Manchester United and Newcastle. Yet there are those inside the Forest Ground who still hold former boss Steve Cooper in very high regard. Forest’s scattergun approach was always going to catch up with Cooper, a man who’d brought stability to a club teetering on the edge of collapse. Ultimately, his departure felt overdue and yet undeserved.
Cooper had taken Forest from the brink of relegation from the Championship to the Premier League in one whirlwind season. For Forest fans, that was more than enough, safety in their first season a bonus, but for their owner Evangelos Marinakis, it always felt insufficient. Dealing with a complete squad overhaul in his first year in the top flight, 30 players arrived in the summer of 2022. Cooper wasn’t short of options, but he was short of time to develop an identity.
Nottingham Forest have beaten Manchester United for the first time since December 17, 1994, with Nicolas Dominguez and Morgan Gibbs-White scoring in a 2-1 win at the City Ground.@tabuteauS on Dominguez: https://t.co/ZmPB0rblV8@tabuteauS on Gibbs-White: https://t.co/cLd15kIjC7 pic.twitter.com/PtpON9oHIe
— Breaking The Lines (@BTLvid) December 30, 2023
Forest unsurprisingly struggled in large parts to find form or familiarity last season, but powered by the goals of Taiwo Awoniyi, they found some rhythm, securing safety with a 1-0 victory over Arsenal at the Forest Ground. Awoniyi was the focal point that helped channel the creative energy of Morgan Gibbs White and Brennan Johnson, and the Nigerian’s goalscoring instincts carried over into this season, with his strike against Manchester United the seventh consecutive Premier League game he’d scored in – a club record streak that began last season.
It meant, however, that when Awoniyi was sidelined by groin surgery in November, Forest’s attack began to falter – they scored three goals in the final five games of Cooper’s tenure, with Awoniyi unavailable for selection. Forest had made a promising start to a tough opening run of fixtures, narrowly losing out away to Arsenal and United before beating Chelsea. But ultimately, it failed to yield many points, and a string of draws at the Forest Ground led to the familiar rumblings of change.
Forest had made their home a fortress last season – eight of their nine wins came at the Forest Ground, but last weekend’s win over United represented their first victory at home since the start of November and just their third all season. Whilst they were by no means the finished product under Cooper, they had predicated their success on two fundamentals, the goals of Awoniyi and their home form, especially against the top six, so when Cooper could no longer come to rely on either his side looked devoid of inspiration, and at that point, Marinakis had an excuse to wield change.
Espirito Santo has brought Chris Wood in from the cold and managed to get an uncomfortable level of commitment from a squad that collapsed under the slightest provocation during Cooper’s final weeks in charge, but the Welsh manager won’t be short of suitors. It remains to be seen, however, if Forest’s recent form is the by-product of a newly invigorated squad or the start of a brighter future for this talented but inconsistent group of players.
By: Sam Tabuteau / @TabuteauS
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / James Gill – Danehouse / Getty Images