He may still have some way to go to mirror the achievements of Brian Clough, whose name remains synonymous with Nottingham Forest, but the Reds’ new king was crowned at Wembley Stadium on Sunday as he led the East Midlands club back to the big time.
Indeed, Clough, the man who last took Forest to Wembley, a League Cup final 30 years ago, was an unavoidable presence ahead of the 2021/22 Championship play-off final. His face plastered on many of the scarves, flags, and t-shirts of supporters and appeared on the big screen ahead of kick-off, but a Reds fanbase in great voice weren’t afraid to make it clear that, now, Steve Cooper is their king.
On Saturday, Nigel Clough cut a frustrated figure in the stadium at which his father enjoyed a famously strong record. He slumped against the Wembley hoardings during Mansfield Town’s 3-0 League Two play-off final defeat to Port Vale but a day later that same sideline would prove the location of Cooper’s coronation.
The Welshman has written his name into Forest folklore by taking them back to the Premier League after 23 years away.
The crowning moment was not pretty, with Levi Colwill’s first-half own-goal enough to give the Reds a 1-0 victory over Huddersfield Town in Sunday’s play-off final, but that matters little.
What will be remembered is the meteoric rise that the Reds have enjoyed since Cooper took charge back in September.
They were bottom of the Championship with just one win from their first eight games when he was installed as Chris Hughton’s replacement but have soared up the table and into the play-offs in the months since, while knocking Arsenal and Leicester City out of the FA Cup for good measure.
“We’ve just tried to put a sense of belief in amongst the club, which has then connected with supporters and there is no doubt that we deserve to be promoted,” A clearly emotional Cooper reflected in the post-match press conference.
“The football that we’ve played, the games that we’ve won, and the attitude that we’ve given. Every time we’ve had an average performance or a loss we’ve recovered.
“I’m just really proud of everybody connected with the football club, the supporters. It’s a magical football club and we’ve reminded the world of that.”
He has done so with a talented support cast – with the likes of James Garner, Djed Spence, and Brennan Johnson all surely destined for lengthy top flight careers – but there can be no denying that it is Cooper that has brought the magic back.
Where so many others, including Chris Hughton, a fantastic manager in his own right, have failed, he has invigorated new life into this fallen giant.
For more than two decades the City Ground faithful have longed to be back where they feel they belong – at the top table of English football – and in August they will see that wish fulfilled.
“It isn’t about individuals, it isn’t about anyone’s individual success,” said the Reds boss when pressed on his role in the club’s rejuvenation.
“It’s about the team, it’s about the football club. You cannot have a football club with this support and this belonging and it be about individuals.
“I knew it before I came but when I walked in the biggest thing that struck me was how proud these people are of their football club. I’m just delighted that the Nottingham Forest supporters can say ‘This is my club and we’re in the Premier League’.”
It has been 23 years away for Forest but for Cooper, it is a case of third time’s the charm. The 42-year-old coach has reached the play-offs in all three of his seasons in first team management – seeing his Swansea City side defeated by Brentford in both the 2019/20 semi-finals and the Wembley final last year.
Indeed, the Premier League’s newest arrivals have the Swans to thank in some small part for their success. It was the South Wales club that plucked Cooper from the England coaching setup and gave him the experience that without he may not have been a candidate they considered in September or been able to mastermind this remarkable promotion.
“It’s been a brilliant season,” he said, as he reflected on what has been built over the past eight months.
“In terms of the attitude and the culture…the training ground is such a good laugh. There’s such a pride in there, such a togetherness and it’s been brilliant to be part of it from day one.
“I”m just really proud to be at Nottingham Forest, it is just such a nostalgic, brilliant, massive club in the country that everybody knows. I’m just pleased that I’ve been part of the journey that’s got us back to the Premier League. It sounds great.”
Cooper added: “It takes a group of men to get off the canvas and fight back and that’s what they’ve done, the players. Everyone has looked down their nose at them thinking of where they were but it takes a group of men to stand up for their club, to get off their knees and fight. They did that in a really attractive way.
“We live a privileged life there is no doubt about that but it can be a harsh one as well and a spiteful one at times. There is somebody somewhere wanting to criticise a footballer, whether it’s away supporters, home supporters at times, the media, or social media but I don’t want those players at any moment worried about what I’m thinking.
“I’m tough with them, challenging and demanding but I’m with them. I’m with them 100% and I think that’s how you get the best out of people, that’s how they get the best out of themselves.
“I felt it back as well. I’ve asked them to do things at times and trust me. Certain tactics and all that. Never once have they wavered. Like I said it’s been a real togetherness.
“I can’t put it into words now. Maybe in a few days, I’ll give you a better explanation. I’m just really proud of the football club, making so many people so happy.
“Like I said before, we’ve reminded the world of how special and how big this football club is. That means a lot to me.”
The Premier League awaits for Forest and for Cooper but whatever happens next term, the events of 2021/22 have etched his name into the East Midlands club’s history.
Forest fans may have considered Cooper their king for much of the season but Sunday at Wembley was his coronation.