Sunday 29th of May 2022 – a day that will live long in the memory of any Nottingham Forest supporter, a day that washed away all the pain and hurt of too many failed opportunities to break through into the Premier League once again.
A lot of agony along the way was rendered irrelevant, heartbreak and misery eradicated at Wembley. A Levi Colwill own goal on the day would win the clash, Huddersfield’s shouts for two penalties fell on deaf ears as Nottingham Forest narrowly secured promotion with a 1-0 win.
The ecstasy was palpable at full-time – a sea of red bouncing up and down, Joe Worrall emotionally savouring the moment in his post-match interview, Steve Cooper hugging his defiant group who managed to turn the tide after Forest’s tag of nearly men had become an unbearable weight for those at The City Ground to contend with.
This curse of never being able to get out of the Championship has haunted Nottingham Forest for some time before this defining season, Sabri Lamouchi’s side in 2020 looked to be flipping the script with a playoff spot almost guaranteed on the final day.
However, after failing to win any of their final five games, a shock 4-1 capitulation at home to Stoke saw Forest’s grip on the sixth spot crumble. Swansea would benefit from another customary Nottingham Forest collapse, winning 4-1 against Reading to leapfrog Forest at the death on goal difference.
The irony of this is the manager in the Swansea dug-out on that day, Steve Cooper delivering a fatal blow to a club that now idolises him. The Welshman’s impact at The City Ground has been almost superhuman, coming in after Chris Hughton’s worrying spell in charge to finally break the doom and gloom at The City Ground.
Joe Worrall’s post-match comments after their Wembley win was full of praise for the former Swansea boss turned Forest icon, injecting belief back into a group that was resigned to never getting back to the promised land of the Premier League out of not believing they were capable of breaking this jinx over the club.
A player at Nottingham Forest since his youth days, the emotion was evident from Worrall – finally breaking the hoodoo, Wembley winners at last. Steve Cooper and co had delivered the unthinkable, winning at Wembley in the playoff final to finally break back into the Premier League after decades away.
Now, Nottingham is firmly back on the footballing map and excitement is now building for what Forest could achieve in the Premier League next season – a story similar to Leeds’ triumphant return to the Premier League, succeeding back in the top flight first season back under Marcelo Bielsa.
Whatever happens next season, the players from this defining season in Nottingham Forest’s history will be remembered as greats for some time to come – Brennan Johnson immortalised as a Forest hero already at just 21 years of age, Brice Samba’s eccentric mannerisms before being the difference-maker in a penalty shoot-out to clinch the playoff final will live long in the memory even if rumours circulate that he’s turned down a new contract.
Lots of Forest fans will begin to be worried about their current squad being dismantled – Brice Samba leaving is a concern as is Djed Spence departing for Spurs – but nobody is irreplaceable. Steve Cooper will have plans for the personnel he wants at The City Ground next season, players jumping at the opportunity to play under the Welsh boss who has a reputation for enhancing players.
Brennan Johnson’s first full season in the Championship has ended with him scoring 18 under the Welsh head coach, Joe Worrall playing a key role at the back only a few seasons on from a loan that nearly ended his Forest career under Aitor Karanka. The cohesive unit is strong at The City Ground, even if players such as James Garner will inevitably rejoin their parent clubs.
The daring and brave nature of Nottingham Forest in the Championship last season should stand them in good stead for the uphill battle of the Premier League, some alterations will need to occur so they don’t ship goal after goal in the Premier League though.
Still, they will need that same energy and drive that won them this promotion in the first place – Leeds went into the Premier League still playing Bielsa ball, something fresh and exciting to unsettle the rhythm of England’s top division even if Bielsa’s tactics became their undoing.
The final few months of the last campaign saw Steve Cooper’s men at their frightening best, a 4-1 away win at Blackpool saw Cooper’s side all guns blazing – Brennan Johnson terrorising the Tangerines all afternoon. The trusty 3-4-1-2 formation saw most of these wins get over the line, but one win away at Fulham did see Steve Cooper tweak the winning formula slightly.
A cautious 1-0 win at Craven Cottage was secured courtesy of Phillip Zinckernagel’s first-half goal, a scrappy effort but typical of Nottingham Forest’s hunger – the Danish attacker hunting the ball down, the ball trickling over the line as a result.
This adaptability will be needed for the top flight, going all out attacking every game will leave them open too much in the division above. As a result, the full-throttle mentality that saw Forest beat Swansea and West Brom 4-0 and 5-1 after this Fulham victory without breaking a sweat will have to be modified.
Steve Cooper will need his defence to be stronger and resilient when facing some of the world’s best attacking players, his attackers more clinical and decisive with opportunities inevitably drying up in a tougher league. But, a 4-1 win over Leicester in the FA Cup showcases that Forest can beat Premier League sides by blowing them away.
It’s brilliant seeing this on one-off occasions, but this manner of victory isn’t sustainable over an entire season, especially with the gulf in quality. There needs to be a happy medium, able to play their brand of counter-attacking and expansive football at the level above without being exposed at the back.
Nottingham Forest’s mentality shifting away from being nearly men will however stand them in good stead for bridging this gulf in quality, a 1-0 loss away at Bournemouth towards the back-end of the season didn’t derail their eventual promotion even with that narrow loss handing Bournemouth automatic promotion at the expense of Steve Cooper’s side.
Moreover, Sheffield United turning it around in the second leg of the playoff semi-final would have unnerved and unsettled those with Forest connections – a fear creeping in that the jinx lingering over them couldn’t be broken.
However, they eventually went through to the final via penalties with Brice Samba doing his homework in that infamous shoot-out. They flipped the script, the final going in their favour with a narrow 1-0 win on the day.
They won’t want to let their newly acquired Premier League status slip through their fingers at the first attempt, desperate to prolong their stay for as long as possible before cementing themselves as a top flight regular.
With Nottingham Forest rumoured to be in for the likes of Neco Williams as a potential wing-back replacement for Djed Spence, it’s an exciting time to be a Forest supporter – Neco a fellow compatriot to Brennan Johnson, the Welsh defender a slaloming wing-back by trade. Moreover, Danny Ings is even being touted for a move to the Midlands – an experienced striker at the Premier League level to slot in next to the likes of Surridge and Johnson.
Whoever lines up for Nottingham Forest come the opening day of the 2022-23 season, it should be a tantalising occasion for the Forest players, fans and Steve Cooper to enjoy and cherish. After so much anguish and heartbreak to get here, Cooper’s group will be eager to make the die-hard Forest masses even prouder of their football club.
By: Kelan Sarson / @SarsonKelan
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto