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Cooper appointment recovers Forest from nightmare start - Interview
Thursday, 28th Oct 2021 16:37 by Clive Whittingham

A shame we couldn't have played Nottingham Forest slightly earlier, as Chris Hughton's hapless rabble has been turned into an effectively functioning unit in double quick time by former Swansea boss Steve Cooper, according to our regular contributor Jack McCormick.

Crikey, you've crammed a lot in already (as usual), let's start with the summer - quiet for a while, mad trolley dash at the end, who came, who went, how did you do in the window?

I think we did OK — and, despite what the numbers looked like by the end, our ins versus outs was still net negative. We sent a lot of very average players packing, which was something we’d desperately needed for a few years. Of all those who left, I’m struggling to think of a single one I’m disappointed isn’t still in the Garibaldi red.

As for incomings, they’ve been mostly positive. We’ve had a couple of customary odd ones who’ve barely even smelled the hallowed turf yet, but players like Max Lowe and Djed Spence have already made a hugely positive impression. Add to that the general change in transfer policy towards well-scouted younger players with decent sell-on potential — like 21-year-old Braian Ojeda from Paraguay — and it was a solid window.

We also secured the return of James Garner for a second loan spell and, despite not yet having quite the same impact as he did last time, that’s a cracking bit of business. People will moan about too many loans and not getting a striker on deadline day, but that’s the market we — and most of the league — are operating in.

Ins >>> Braian Ojeda, 21, CM, Olimpia, £2m >>> Cafu, 28, CM, Olympiacos, Undisclosed >>> Mohamed Drager, 25, RB, Olympiakos, Undisclosed >>> Xande Silva, 24, RW, West Ham, Undisclosed >>> Ethan Horvarth, 26, GK, Club Brugge, Free >>> Rodrigo Ely, 27, CB, Unattached, Free >>> Max Lowe, 24, LB, Sheff Utd, Loan >>> Philip Zinckernagel, 26, RW, Watford, Loan >>> Jordi Osei-Tutu, 22, RB, Arsenal, Loan >>> James Garner, 20, CM, Man Utd, Loan >>> Djed Spence, 21, RB, Boro, Loan

Outs >>> Jordan Lawrence-Gabriel, 22, RB, Blackpool, £700k >>> Sammy Ameobi, 29, LW, Boro, Free >>> Michael Hefele, 30, CB, Huddersfield, Free >>> Tyler Blackett, 27, LB, Cincinnati, Free >>> Nikolas Ioannou, 25, LB, Como, Loan >>> Yuri Rebeiro, 24, LB, Legia Warsaw, Free >>> Fouad Bachirou, 31, DM, Nikosia, Free >>> Glenn Murray, 37, CF, Retirement home >>> Michael Dawson, 37, CB, Different retirement home >>> Samba Sow, 32, DM, Released >>> Abdoulaye Diallo 29, GK, Released >>> Nikolas Ioannou, 25, LB, Como, Loan >>> Harry Arter, 31, CM, Charlton, Loan >>> Nuno Da Costa, 30, CF, Caen, Loan

Why did it subsequently go so horrendously for Chris Hughton? More Ahtletic deep-dives than points.

He had more than a year in charge but, truthfully, I can’t point to a single thing Hughton improved about the team during his tenure — or a single game I enjoyed watching with him in charge. Granted, he took over a side that had been performing way above itself — and one whose confidence had been battered by that horrific capitulation under Sabri Lamouchi — but he somehow managed to make them even worse.

Throughout his whole spell in charge, I think a lot of fans wrestled with the notion that we were either a terrible squad with a decent manager, or a decent squad with a terrible manager. Turns out it was very much the latter.

I was so excited to get back to the City Ground post-lockdown, but any positivity was quickly squashed by the sheer dross being served up.

I accept that Hughton’s had success everywhere he’s been, until Forest, but I really saw nothing from him to suggest that will ever be the case again. It could be the conditions — huge player turnover every year, boardroom interference, the looming shadow of Brian Clough, the list goes on — but the instant turnaround under Steve Cooper makes a mockery of those arguments.

Every Saturday we’d think “surely they’ve worked on something in training”, but the 11 on the pitch would do the same things again and again. What’s that definition of insanity people like to quote?

Passing backwards and side to side, looking for an opening we weren’t set up to create, before punting it forward for the opposition centre half to head away. Our ‘plan B’ was getting it out to the wings for a cross into a box devoid of Forest players. And, reading what the players have had to say since Hughton was sacked, that was very much the directive from the dugout.

It's no exaggeration to say we didn’t score a goal from build-up through the middle of the pitch for a year or more. Imagine not seeing a player go through one-on-one against the ‘keeper for that long — not feeling that equal sense of excitement and dread as your striker pulls the trigger.

Those edge-of-the-seat moments are the ones we live for, and we were starved of them for what felt like an eternity — force-fed a diet of hopeless long balls and aimless crosses. Most games, we never even looked like scoring — in fact for a long time last season ‘own goals’ was our leading scorer.

That form continued this season, and I think we went four games without a shot on target. Seven games, one draw, six losses before we changed things — and, while I’m not one for sacking managers every year, Hughton was left in charge for far too long.

It was a nightmare, so thanks for giving me the chance to relive it.

Forest league results with Hughton…
Coventry 2-1 Forest Gyokeres 81, McFadzean 90 – Taylor 36
Forest 1-2 Bournemouth McKenna 48 – Brooks 28, Billing 58
Forest 1-2 Blackburn Zinckernagel 69 – Ayala 47, Lenihan 69
Stoke 1-0 Forest Tyman 66
Derby 1-1 Forest Lawrence 11 – Johnson 82
Forest 1-2 Cardiff Grabban 23 – Colwill 58, 73
Forest 0-2 Boro Sporar 24, Hernandez 72

What did you think of the Steve Cooper appointment at the time, what has he changed since?

When his name surfaced I wasn’t exactly over the moon. I knew he’d done well at Swansea, but reading their fans’ takes you’d have thought he was a more negative manager than Hughton. I’m not sure what happened with him in Wales but those opinions really couldn’t have been more wrong.

To say Cooper has flipped the entire atmosphere around the club on its head is an understatement. I can’t remember the exact stat — or, more accurately, I can’t bring myself to look back at last season's fixtures — but I think in his six games in charge we’ve already scored two or more goals on more occasions than we did during Hughton’s entire reign.

And it’s not just new manager ‘bounce’ or the players wanting to impress the new man in charge. It’s a completely different outlook. We’re attacking, we’re exciting to watch, we’re creating chances and look like we’ll score every time we get forward. Cooper has removed all the shackles imposed by the former regime and given the players the confidence to do what they’re good at — like I said before, it turns out we had a few decent players all along.

Of course it remains to be seen whether our good form continues, but it says a lot that we were clapped off after a 4-0 loss to Fulham on Sunday. We were their equals for most of the game, missed a sitter at 1-0 and then fell apart in a 10-minute spell where we conceded three. But we were positive throughout, kept playing our game, and were good to watch. You can’t really ask much more than that.

Similar thing happened to QPR against them not long ago, if I recall — which probably means tomorrow will either be an absolute goal fest or a 0-0.

Forest league results without Hughton
Huddersfield 0-2 Forest Grabban 22, Nichols og 48
Forest 1-1 Millwall Lowe 52 – Smith 32
Barnsley 1-3 Forest Woodrow pen 20 – Zinckernagel 61, Johnson 68, Grabban 81
Birmingham 0-3 Forest Grabban 11, Yates 29, Spence 53
Forest 2-1 Blackpool Johnson 22, Grabban 61 – Yates 53
Bristol City 1-2 Forest Scott 39 – Taylor pen 90, 90
Forest 0-4 Fulham Spence og 7, Mitrovic 58, pen 67, Kebano 61

Stand out players and weak links in the team?

The aforementioned wing-backs Spence and Lowe get forward at every opportunity, which makes for an exciting watch. Still struggling to understand why Sheffield United and Middlesbrough let them go out on loan.

Lewis Grabban looks like he’s back to his best. Philip Zinckernagel is a creative genius on the wing or in the 10. Ryan Yates is a man possessed in the middle since Cooper arrived. Joe Worrall and Scott McKenna are Michael Dawson reincarnate.

Perhaps most exciting, though, is Brennan Johnson — the 20-year-old Wales international forward back from a loan spell at Lincoln last term. He’s one of those who gets you off your seat every time he has the ball, and looks destined for the top. Hopefully we’ll tie him down to a new contract soon so we’ll at least get a good fee for him when he does inevitably outgrow us.

If you’d asked me a few weeks ago, I’d have called every player a weak link. Right now I’m struggling to think of anybody who consistently lets the side down. Tobias Figueiredo, the other of our three centre backs, and Brice Samba, our ‘keeper, always have a mistake in them, but that’s me clutching at straws. We’re not blessed with depth at left wing-back, so could be in trouble if Lowe gets injured.

Presumably another busy January ahead. What's needed this time?

I’m not so sure. I’d like to think we’re relatively happy with the squad as it stands — we do need a backup left wing-back, and another striker would be nice. But we don’t need wholesale changes. I’m hopeful we’ll go into January in decent form, which should discourage the owners from doing anything too drastic.

How do you see the rest of the season going? Your year again after all?

The Fulham match was a reality check for those who’d started looking at hotels in London for the May bank holiday, but at least it feels like we’re looking upwards for the first time in a couple of years — it’s a relief to say I don’t think we’re in a relegation battle any more. I imagine we’ll be mid-table and make the occasional push to within a couple of points of the top six, but don’t realistically expect us to make it considering our start to the season. We all know this is a crazy league, though, and anything can happen if you put a few wins together.

Much talk about the Barnsley CEO coming your way in the summer, but there's a lot of execs in place, including the old CEO still hanging around. Does Cooper's new manager bounce potentially mask problems that will surface again down the line?

There’s always that, of course. Dane Murphy, the new CEO, needs time and the benefit of the doubt — I’ve certainly been impressed with what he’s managed so far, transfer-wise and in bringing in Steve Cooper, who really does look like the perfect fit for the club at the perfect time. But there are a few dodgy people still involved in some capacity, and I do worry that they’ll cause problems before long. Doing well on the pitch helps us forget about that for a while, but we’re going to have to trust that people like the old CEO (who has moved back to Greece, but is still listed as a director) keep their noses out. Time will tell.

Links >>> Official Website >>> Nottingham Post – Local Press >>> LTLF – Message Board >>> Bandy and Shinty – Fanzine >>> Forza Garibaldi – Blog >>> LFW Reciprocal Interview >>> Matchday with Max – YouTube Channel

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The Twitter @jack_mccormick, @loftforwords

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Patrick added 19:17 - Oct 28
An awful lot of managers with a decent reputation have gone to Forest and left with their arse hanging out of their trousers. At some point you think "maybe it's the club"....
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simmo added 00:48 - Oct 29
A really bad time to play them, but a great time for them to meet us. I smelt 'one of those weeks' coming after Peterbrough but I really hope I'm wrong.

Another unfortunately timed manager change away at Cardiff coming next week, Friday is a big opportunity to stem the tide before it carries all the good of the first few months away.
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TacticalR added 19:22 - Oct 29
Thanks to Jack.

I wonder if time's finally up for some of these managers like Hughton and McCarthy who have previously been able to hold their own at Championship and lower Premiership level?

From the outside Cooper seemed to be doing a reasonable job at Swansea, but didn't seem to fit with the supporters who wanted more flair. Let's see how things pan out for him at at Forest.
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