Steve Cooper and NFFC, a love affair on the brink? - Alex Jeffery
Is the Forest-Cooper fairytale coming to an end? Nottingham Forest fan Alex Jeffery reveals all in this deep dive into Nottingham Forest: what’s going wrong, what’s to come and why Cooper is still the one!
‘If they’re looking for a reason to change it, now
would be the time’: Steve Cooper and NFFC, a love affair on the brink?
1 win in 10 and 3 defeats in a row, two of which have
been consecutive home losses, has naturally created mounting speculation over
the future of current Nottingham Forest manager, Steve Cooper. Sky Sports’
post-match dissection of the miserable 0-1 loss to Everton led pundit Jamie
Redknapp to claim: ‘if they’re looking for a reason to change it, now would be
the time’. Given the current run – during which Forest’s only win came at the
beginning of November against Aston Villa – it seems that NFFC owner, Evangelos
Marinakis, faces a simple decision, as Redknapp suggests. But is it that simple?
This article will seek to explore the issues that have surfaced this season and
examine some of the factors that have contributed to Forest’s difficulties.
Speculation over Cooper’s position at Forest is
nothing new. Throughout last season’s successful survival as a Premier League
side there were multiple occasions when the Welshman’s time as Forest manager
looked to be over. Even this season the Aston Villa game was earmarked by
sections of the NFFC fanbase as “must win”. Cooper’s ability to calmly navigate
these pressurized situations had earned him a reputation for being able to
deliver results when they were most needed.
However, the fixture against Everton – the latest game
to be billed as “must win” – did not follow previous patterns. The limp defeat,
following last week’s 2-3 home defeat at the hands of injury-hit Brighton,
suggests that the City Ground is showing signs of brittleness. This, arguably
more than any other factor, is the major cause for concern. Indeed,
Forest’s survival last season came down to being able to deliver at home (30
out of 38 points came at the City Ground). The defeat to Brighton last week was
the first time Forest had lost in the Premier League at home since Manchester
United came away with all 3 points last April. Alarmingly, the recent
consecutive losses on the banks of the Trent suggest Cooper’s ability to deliver
under pressure and win at home are showing signs of vulnerability.
Nevertheless, Cooper is adored by most Forest fans.
This, along with the other factors outlined above, has previously helped to
stave off calls for change. But is sentimentality and emotion enough to keep
him in a job this time round? The current run, when contemplated in the cold
light of day, speaks for itself, and implies that this current campaign is slowly
sliding into a repeat of last season’s relegation scrap. The persistent dropping
of points from winning positions and brittleness when it comes to defending set
pieces suggests there is a soft under-belly to this Forest side, which teams
including Luton Town and West Ham have exploited. As Forest currently sit 6
points clear of the drop, you’d be forgiven for questioning what all the fuss
is about, especially considering the precarious situation they found themselves
in this time last year. However, the poor starts of the three promoted sides
this season has masked Forest’s lackluster form. This current situation will
certainly not be pleasing for the ambitious Marinakis, nor for sections of the
Forest fan base which are becoming increasingly restless with the lack of
But it isn’t the lack of results, alone, that accounts
for this restlessness. Forest’s current squad is, undoubtedly, better than the
one that saw out the 22/23 campaign. The frenzy of deadline day signings during
the most recent transfer window not only raised expectations over what could be
achieved this season, but created hope that improvements in style of play would
follow. Though last season’s counter-attacking approach proved effective in
keeping the Reds up, the summer additions of central midfielders, Ibrahim
Sangare and Nicolas Dominguez, suggested that fans could hope to see the Reds
have more of a foothold in the middle of the park and, therefore, more of the
However, Dominguez, after an impressive start to his
Forest career, has lost his place in the side whilst Sangare, who missed the
defeat to Brighton with a virus, was hooked after 65 minutes against Everton. Moreover,
Forest, despite having 68% possession against Everton, did not look comfortable
on the ball. Cooper, himself, referenced this in his post-match interview on
Saturday night, stating that ‘there’s no question of spirit, attitude or work
rate, just sometimes quality on the ball’. Indeed, multiple phases of play
against Everton culminated in hopeful balls being pumped up field to the
isolated Chris Wood, as the Reds struggled to cope with Everton’s combative
On the ball struggles have been a feature of several of
Forest’s performances this season. Misplaced passes, sloppy turnovers, and a
lack of precision when in possession have marked several matches in which the
Reds have struggled to dictate the play. It is clear to see that Forest are a
better side when they have less of the ball and are able to use the pace at
their disposal to counter on the opposition. Against Everton this pattern of
play didn’t materialize, as Sean Dyche’s side were happy to sit in and let
Forest have the ball.
Of course, fans want to see Forest dictate games and
be comfortable in possession. However, the idea of transitioning from a
counter-attacking team to a ball playing side in the space of one transfer
window was, arguably, always highly optimistic. It takes time to implement such
changes and arguments relating to this issue in debates over Cooper’s future
should not, at this moment in time, carry as much weight as other factors.
Despite Brennan Johnson departing in the summer, the
expectation was that Forest would be fine with Taiwo Awoniyi leading the line.
Nobody, however, had planned for Awoniyi to be sidelined for ‘months’ and for
Forest to have to turn to their plan B, Chris Wood, who has been something of a
scapegoat since arriving at Forest last January. Wood does not bring the same
presence to the side as the talismanic Awoniyi, nor the same goal return. The
Nigerian’s absence is glaringly obvious when Forest play without him. In fact, Forest
last won a league game without Awoniyi in the side in February against relegated
Leeds United. This is a crucial point. Will a new manager be able to turn
things around without Awoniyi? A January move for a striker looks certain regardless
of who is in the home dugout at the City Ground. However, picking up a player
to fill Awoniyi’s boots at that point in the season is an incredibly difficult
prospect, but something the club must, nevertheless, address.
Playing Morgan Gibbs-White centrally as a false
forward is one avenue that could be worth exploring whilst Awoniyi remains
sidelined. Gibbs-White, an undoubted talent, has not managed to reproduce last
season’s form in recent performances. There have been several theories proposed
by NFFC fans as to why Gibbs-White isn’t performing (Brennan Johnson leaving,
becoming a father, fatigue from playing over the summer for England U21’s) but the
positional change that has seen the midfielder moved to the right from the
no.10 spot seems to be the reason most fans believe he is struggling this
season. Getting Gibbs-White central and firing on all cylinders has been
identified by supporters as a must if Forest are to get out of this slump.
Cooper demonstrated tactical flexibility throughout last season and must
utilize this now to find a way of returning Gibbs-White to a more central
position so the Forest talisman can begin thriving again.
The complexity of the decision facing Marinakis is not
as simple as Redknapp’s quote at the beginning of this piece suggests. Cooper
is, undoubtedly, very popular among the players and fans. He has demonstrated
an ability to get Forest out of difficult situations before. This ability is
being tested again this season when many expected a relatively serene season. The
City Ground, a fortress for so much of Forest’s time in the Premier League, has
now been breached on consecutive occasions, with key players misfiring and
injury issues again hampering matters.
Is getting rid of Cooper the way to address the
current situation? There is certainly a case to suggest that the existing slump
warrants a managerial change. Julen Lopetegui or Graham Potter are candidates
that should certainly be considered should Cooper be moved on. However, the
Welshman’s standing among the Forest fanbase is massive. Would either of the out-of-work
managers referenced above be able to fill his shoes and do much better with the
current crop of players?