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We Dive Into Nottingham Forest’s History-Making Season, Which Saw Them Return to the Premier League for the First Time in 8,414 Days

2 July 22 words: Gareth Watts
photos: Nathan Langman

A kebab shop with a firework-fuelled marketing masterstroke. Depeche Mode blaring from passing cars. Our right-back’s mother carried shoulder high in her Calippo-fluorescent replica shirt rhyming ‘shite’ with ‘dynamite’. Red smoke. Handwritten plans taped to a water bottle wrapped in a towel. Que sera, sera

Nottingham Forest’s story this season is a narrative arc as steep as the letter ‘U’ and it’s important to remember that the reason us fans are still, several weeks on, floating like we’ve been propelled into ecstatic orbit is that we slid so low to begin with.  

As August turned to September, the City Ground groaned as hapless manager Chris Hughton toiled to guide the team to their worst start for 108 years. Things got so bad that sarcastic ‘olés’ rang out each time our back four (and yes, it is significant that it was a back four) sheepishly passed the ball sideways. Hughton was so cautious that the joke he ‘would do whatever he could to defend a 1-0 defeat’ wasn’t funny anymore. You’re getting sacked in the morning was supposed to be something you sang to opposition managers. 

Sliding down that U-bend, we learned that Brennan, son of beloved goal-machine David Johnson, was very quick and loved scoring against Derby. Philip Zinckernagel looked to be a shrewd signing reflecting a promising new recruitment strategy, led by data analysis rather than name recognition. Further signings included Middlesbrough misfit Djed Spence: young, mercurial and desperate to prove a point. Our new CEO, Dane Murphy, was clearly a man with a plan. He spoke eloquently to connect with the fans, promising to guide us ‘True North’. 

We fought and won points in the very last minute of games. Coherence? Tick. Resilience? Tick.

In more ways than one, True North turned out to be Huddersfield. Managerless and attired in a bright orange and yellow third kit, assistant boss Steven Reid switched the defence to a back three and gave the team freedom against the Terriers. We scored two goals. We won a football match. That Lovin’ Feeling wasn’t gone, gone, gone after all.  

And then he arrived. Modest and modern, Steve Cooper was the man who’d help bring Trent Alexander-Arnold through at Liverpool; who’d led the England under 17s to World Cup glory; who’d taken a Swansea side diminished by Premier League player-poaching to two consecutive play-offs. And Forest had just recruited young players: coachable, adaptable and hungry for first team action. The whole thing smacked of coherence. 

We drew the first match under Cooper. We won the second, third, fourth and fifth. Consecutive wins. We fought and won points in the very last minute of games. Coherence? Tick. Resilience? Tick

At the start of December we won three further games in a row. In January, Forest knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup with a beautifully worked Lewis Grabban goal; reminding a terrestrial TV audience about our stately old ground, but also the new confidence Cooper had instilled in us all.

A week later we clinched a win away at Millwall in the 91st minute. We then beat Derby at home – the highlight of any other season, this was a mere appetiser. Perhaps the outrageous expectation levels around the club at this point are best summed up thus: Cooper was unhappy after our next home game, because a 3-0 victory against Barnsley wasn’t as emphatic a performance as he demanded.  

Next up in the cup? Liverpool at home in the quarter-finals. This. Doesn’t. Happen. To. Us.

In early February the team reached further levels of excellence: destroying FA Cup holders Leicester 4-1, with a performance that Cooper identified as his benchmark for the rest of the season. Another Sunday teatime TV audience reminded us that this quaint collector’s item called ‘Nottingham Forest’ might no longer be just an antiques roadshow. Promotion contenders Blackburn were beaten 2-0 away, we even nicked a draw at home to Stoke with an outfield player in goal. We could add ‘belief’ to the list

The FA Cup run pitted us against our friends from Huddersfield next and, despite a dodgy refereeing decision, in the end we were comfortable 2-1 winners. Next up in the cup? Liverpool at home in the quarter-finals. This. Doesn’t. Happen. To. Us.

Oozing confidence, we beat Reading 4-0 without breaking a sweat; promotion-rivals QPR were overcome 3-1 after a sublime goal from Spence. Liverpool arrived and again the nation’s eyes were on Nottingham. Their squad of international swashbucklers were held at arm’s length for 78 minutes until Diogo Jota poked one in to take them to the semi-final. Jurgen Klopp compared the atmosphere at the City Ground to a European night at Anfield. We had come together, united in pride at our amazing young team and Steve Cooper’s alchemy. We looked at home sharing a pitch with those great players, but the Wembley dream was gone, right? 

Not if Brennan Johnson had anything to do with it. Away at fellow play-off chasers Blackpool, he was electrifying – his speed matched with swagger, and Johnson bagged two as Forest won 4-1. Home victories and clean sheets against Coventry and Birmingham seemed rudimentary. A brutal affair on the narrow pitch at Kenilworth Road saw a perfectly good Djed Spence goal disallowed and Luton bully us to a 1-0 defeat. 

For thirty second-half minutes, the ghost of Hughton’s Forest came back to haunt us. Agony. Their legs were gone. It was 3-3. Despair doesn’t begin to describe it.

Maybe the bubble had burst – how would we respond? With Jack Colback’s Marco van Basten-esque goal of the century and a 4-0 win against West Brom, of course! At the business end of the season, we won away at Peterborough and, amazingly, took all three points from our trip to champions-elect Fulham. Automatic promotion was within the realms of possibility. We just couldn’t get enough.

Cooper’s former club, Swansea, were hammered 5-1 at the City Ground and fan delirium reached fever pitch. Thousands of them (who am I kidding? Thousands of us) lined the streets to cheer the players’ coach as it made its way to Bournemouth. Another dodgy refereeing decision and another frustrating 1-0 away defeat meant that the automatic spot had gone. Hello play-offs, my old friend…

Forest were sublime in the semi-final first leg away against Sheffield United - dominant to the point whereby a 2-1 win didn’t seem to do us justice. The home leg was one of the most extraordinary nights of my life. A typical Brennan Johnson bullet made the aggregate score 3-1. And then it all went: the energy, the confidence, the poise… for thirty second-half minutes, the ghost of Hughton’s Forest came back to haunt us. Agony. Their legs were gone. It was 3-3. Despair doesn’t begin to describe it.

We are Premier League. We are a team in the present tense again. We are still smiling.

And then, inexplicably, the Forest fans – who in my thirty-plus years of support have always been quick to complain about a losing team – rose to their feet and sang their hearts out. Loose corrugated walling was hammered for percussion. Forest are magic on and off the pitch. The players remembered who they had become and what they could achieve. They fought valiantly and survived through to the penalty shootout.

Our enigmatic ‘keeper Brice Samba kept them waiting, he checked his surreptitious list of where the research suggested each penalty would go. The list was taped to a water bottle, rolled inside a towel. Cooper’s Forest are always prepared. The list was right. He saved three penalties. We were going to Wembley. 

True North London. Against Huddersfield again. An ugly squeak of a football match. A whipped ball from James Garner and an own goal from Luke Colwill just before half time. 1-0 to Forest. Decades of angst, pessimism and gallows-humour undone on one glorious afternoon. We are Premier League. We are a team in the present tense again. We are still smiling.

@tokyobeatbox

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