THERE have been 22 permanent managers of Nottingham Forest since Brian Clough — and few of them have less in common with Old Big ’Ead than Steve Cooper.
No bombast, no ego, no witty one-liners, no stellar playing career and certainly no just popping into the training ground on a Friday after leaving the coaching to his backroom staff all week.
Cooper could guide Forest to the Prem via an automatic spot or the play-offsCredit: REX FEATURES
Clough won back-to-back European CupsCredit: REX FEATURES
But should Forest win at Bournemouth in the biggest match of the Championship season, then follow it up with another victory at Hull on Saturday, their 23-year absence from the Premier League will be over — barring an unlikely goal swing in favour of the Cherries if they also win their final game.
And special agent Cooper will be able to stroll along the River Trent in the manner of his greatest Forest predecessor.
Incredibly, Forest were bottom when Cooper took over in late September but a thunderous late run of nine wins in ten matches leaves them just two games away from what would be an extraordinary top-flight return.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” as Clough once said, “but I wasn’t on that particular job.”
Neither was the transformative Cooper.
Many of Clough’s successors have shied away from his legacy of back-to-back European Cups but Cooper was adamant that history should be embraced, that Forest needed a ‘big club mentality’.
Memories of long-gone glory days at a rocking City Ground were revived in Forest’s FA Cup victories over Arsenal and holders Leicester, along with a near-miss against Liverpool this season. Their league form has been more impressive still.
And while the end of Leeds United’s 16-year wait for Premier League football attracted far greater publicity, a return for Forest would be even more significant.
No former European champions have ever been devoid of top-flight football for remotely as long as they have.
They last slipped out of the top flight in a disastrous 1998-99 campaign, with several leading players sold, star striker Pierre van Hooijdonk on strike and an 8-1 home defeat by Manchester United under Ron Atkinson summing up the entire shambles.
The Premier League hierarchy, while never expressing any public preference, would like one of England’s grandest clubs to win their automatic promotion duel against Bournemouth — with their tiny ground and Russian-born owner.
And while ‘dirty Leeds’ were the club everyone loved to hate, Clough’s Forest were many people’s favourite second team. Their return would be cherished by footballing nostalgics.
Cooper is similar to Clough in their old-school respect for refsCredit: REX FEATURES
If Cooper has one similarity with Clough, it is an old-school respect for referees — not least because the Welshman is the son of former Premier League ref, Keith.
Cooper, 42, is an outstanding coach of young players — having managed England’s Under-17s, including Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi, to glory in the 2017 World Cup.
At Forest, this season’s stand-out players have been 20-year-old Welsh winger Brennan Johnson — the Championship’s Young Player of the Season — and wing-back Djed Spence, 21, a cute loan signing from Middlesbrough.
While Cooper preaches possession football, the stats from Saturday’s victory over his former club Swansea were remarkable. Forest had just 30 per cent of the ball but mustered 27 shots in a 5-1 victory.
A return to the top flight for Forest will be more significant than Leeds’ return after a 16-year absenceCredit: REX FEATURES
That is possession with purpose, not necessarily a hallmark of Scott Parker’s ball-hogging Bournemouth.
It also suggests a tactical flexibility which will be mandatory if Forest are promoted.
England boss Gareth Southgate rates Cooper extremely highly as an innovative tactician and man-manager, employing him as an opposition scout during the 2018 World Cup.
But there are plenty of bookish career coaches who excel in youth football and never step up to succeed in the professional game.
Cooper is highly rated by Three Lions boss SouthgateCredit: REX FEATURES
Cooper has the necessary mettle and does not suffer fools.
If securing automatic promotion from such a distant start would represent a footballing miracle, Cooper was complicit in another, at Forest’s expense, just two years ago.
Then, on the final day of the season, his Swansea side needed to win at Reading and hope Forest lost at home to Stoke, with an unlikely goal-difference swing of five required, to pip them for the final play-off spot.
The Swans won 4-1, Forest conceded three late goals to lose 4-1, slipping out of the promotion race in the final minutes of the season, after 207 consecutive days inside the top six.
Cooper is an innovative tacticianCredit: GETTY
No day has better summed up the frustrations of Forest’s vast stretch in the wilderness than that.
Should Cooper now lead Forest back to the land of milk and money, there will be no public bragging.
But he might just have taken heed of another famous Clough quote.
“I knew I was the best,” the great man once said, “but I should have said nowt and kept the pressure off cos they’d have all worked it out for themselves.”
No pick axe
AT some point in the next six months there will be a heated debate as to whether Everton keeper Jordan Pickford should be England’s No 1 at the World Cup — there always is.
But when it comes around, just watch back his heroics in the 59th and 60th minutes of Everton’s victory over Chelsea on Sunday.
Pickford, who has never let England down, will not be moved.
Pickford has never let England downCredit: REX FEATURES
SO is this season’s title race absorbing and compelling, as those of us in the media keep insisting, or is it dull and predictable, as plenty of real people claim?
When Manchester City and Liverpool are so far superior to everyone else in the league, and never seem to drop points unless they are playing each other, does their two-horse race lack true drama?
And is the Premier League in danger of turning into a glorified version of the Scottish Premiership, where Celtic and Rangers have lost a combined total of six league games this season, while Liverpool and City together have suffered five defeats?
We’ll need a few more seasons of this duopoly before that could be true but some of those yawning might have a point.
City are locked in ANOTHER title race with LiverpoolCredit: REX FEATURES
Wreck it Ralf
RALF RANGNICK may be the least successful Manchester United manager of the Premier League era in terms of results but he has done a mighty fine job of acting like a truth drug to a club with delusions of competence.
Barely a single press conference of Rangnick’s goes by without the interim boss delivering brilliantly accurate take-downs of the club, its hierarchy or individual under-performing players.
Rangnick is off to manage the Austrian national team but he will leave behind an important legacy.
He was the bloke who dared to give it to United straight.
Man Utd needed Rangnick’s brutal honestyCredit: GETTY
BT SPORT’S anchorman Jake Humphrey — who is nailed-on as TV’s next Richard Madeley — says it’s difficult to ‘have a pop’ at Newcastle’s Saudi ownership when Eddie Howe has lifted his team to mid-table.
We must have missed the clause in the UN universal declaration of human rights which claims that genocide and the dismemberment of dissident journalists is fine once your points-per-game ratio sneaks above 1.5.
Humphrey says it’s difficult to ‘have a pop’ at Newcastle’s Saudi ownership when Eddie Howe has lifted his team to mid-tableCredit: REX FEATURES
FANS of Walsall are none too happy at a sponsorship deal renaming their ground as the Poundland Bescot Stadium.
But rugby league followers will know that there is worse.
Castleford Tigers’ home is known as The Mend-A-Hose Jungle.
Walsall’s stadium will be renamed the Poundland Bescot StadiumCredit: GETTY
JUST because Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff failed as England captain, it does not mean fellow all-rounder Ben Stokes will also flop.
Watching the World Cup final and the Headingley Test of 2019, I didn’t get the impression Stokes was a man who found responsibility too weighty.
England Cricket hero Stokes doesn’t find responsibility too weightyCredit: PA
The Insidexpress is now on Telegram and Google News. Join us on Telegram and Google News, and stay updated.