The chatter in the bar at the posh Bahamas hotel was mostly about golf. It was expected given that journalists from India and England had gathered there for the Hero World Challenge featuring Tiger Woods and a clutch of PGA Tour stars. It had been just over a month after England had won the under-17 World Cup in India so football found a way into the conversation. The English nodded politely to stories of how efficient England were under Steve Cooper till a journalist from a leading tabloid said: “Nobody back home has really heard of him.”
No one would be saying that before Nottingham Forest travel to Newcastle on Saturday for their first Premier League match since 1999. They haven’t been saying that about the former Liverpool academy director for a while now. Not since Cooper took Swansea close to the Premier League before joining Nottingham Forest last September. Forest then were at the bottom of The Championship, England’s second division, on one point from seven games. It was their worst start since 1913. It was also days before Cooper’s first game.
That was against Millwall at home and it ended 1-1. Forest won their next two games before the October international window gave Cooper time to work. From October 30 to December 18, Forest didn’t lose in the league. From struggling for goals, they beat Preston North End 3-0 and Swansea 4-1. The Premier League was a bridge too far even then but things were getting better and not just in the league. Arsenal and Leicestser City were beaten 1-0 and 4-1 en route to an FA Cup quarter-final against Liverpool. Forest lost 0-1.
Phil Brown remembers that game. “I remember the Liverpool manager speaking of how Forest had no fear and a lot of flair. They are certainly not going into the Premier League facing an identity crisis,” said Brown who took Hull City to the Premier League and kept them there for a season. He also shepherded Southend United to League One and last season helped Barrow stay in League Two, the fourth tier of English football.
Soon after beating Huddersfield Town 1-0 in The Championship play-offs, a result that sealed a return to the Premier League for the former European champions, midfielder Joe Lolley spoke of sticking to their identity even though the Premier League would be a step up. “Forest pride themselves in having a share of possession,” said Brown.
It is something Cooper’s teams are known for. “We like to play possession-based attractive football and that won’t change,” Cooper had said ahead of England’s under-17 World Cup semi-final against Brazil. In front of over 63,000 at Kolkata’s Salt Lake stadium, England won 3-1 through a Rhian Brewster hattrick; the second goal coming off a slick five-pass move. England overcome a 0-2 deficit in the final to beat Spain and ended the competition scoring 23 goals, the most.
At Forest, Brennan Johnson is blossoming into an efficient striker on Cooper’s watch. He scored 19 goals and had nine assists in 53 games last season. Johnson is 21 and joined Forest’s youth set-up when he was eight. Like with Erling Haaland and Manchester City, Johnson’s father too has played for Forest.
Need to buy
On promotion, Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis had said the club wouldn’t scrimp on players. He has kept his word with Forest signing 11 including Dean Henderson, Jesse Lingard and Taiwo Awoniyi. “You have to imagine he (Lingard) felt wanted at Forest. And yes, clubs need to be ambitious. Forest were a big club, everyone knows their record from the 1970s. Maybe Lingard was sold on the club’s past greatness,” said Brown.
Signing new players at a promoted club can boomerang, as Fulham found out in 2018-19 – the last two times they were promoted they couldn’t stay up. They need time to settle down and that can come at the cost of games. But there is no getting around it, said Brown. “The most important thing for any promoted team is to get players who have the experience of the Premier League. Players who are 28-30 and have played a few games at their old clubs but who know what it takes to play in the Premier League.”
Bournemouth, who along with Fulham too have been promoted, did that getting Ryan Fredericks. And they have former Liverpool striker Dominic Solanke who got 29 goals in The Championship last term. Fulham signed Joao Palhinha from Portugal, Andreas Perreira, Bernd Leno and Shane Duffy. They also have former Newcastle striker Aleksandr Mitrovic who got 43 goals in 2021-22.
Target staying up
“Your first target is to stay up, preferably for two seasons. That is what we targeted at Hull. Because staying up guaranteed £70million and staying up for another season meant we got another £70m, money that could then be spent wisely,” said Brown. That amount is nearly £85m per season now.
Brown learnt that as Sam Allardyce’s assistant at Bolton Wanderers. “If we stayed up in the Premier League it was because Sam had a long-term plan. He would say, within the club it was okay to end 17th.”
At Hull in 2008-09, Brown said he knew the team would have 30% of the ball. “But we too had no identity crisis. We knew we could make it tough for others if we kept shape and discipline,” he said. Hull won six of their first nine games and stayed up.
None of the promoted clubs in 2022-23 want to play that way, said Brown. They love the ball and could eschew a low block. “All the clubs that have come up can play a brand of football that will enhance the Premier League,” said Brown.