In the dressing room of Wembley, Steve Cooper called for calm. He had two final messages for his players before they headed back to Nottingham, delirious and delighted. The first was that they should spend as much time with their families as possible over the next few days; these were the people who had sacrificed the most and were the most proud. The second, delivered as a punchline with a faux-serious expression, was simple: “We are Premier League”. Cue raucous celebrations and Cooper beaming as he tried to escape the sprayed champagne.
Those two messages reflected the mood amongst supporters. On Wembley Way they created a sea of red that engulfed Huddersfield’s blue and white. Thirty years ago, trips to the national stadium were commonplace: 1988, 1989 (twice), 1990, 1991, 1992. And then…nothing. A light turned out on Brian Clough’s tenure and with it Forest’s time in the sun. Saturday was about kinship, community and family, those who remember great nights taking those still seeking great days.
If getting to the Premier League was the ultimate reward it was, as nonsensical as it sounds, an afterthought. When there is redemption to seek, glory to reacquaint yourself with like a long-lost friend, the experience itself becomes everything. Those on trains home barely spoke of the future, merely the mesmeric, overpowering present.
On Monday, Forest held a hastily organised victory presentation in the city’s Market Square. The banner draped across the balcony of the Council House, where Forest once paraded European Cups and the First Division title in 1998, reinforced Cooper’s message to the tens of thousands of revellers who can’t quite believe it yet: We are Premier League.
The work has already begun. Forest drew up plans in case of top-flight or second-tier football next season and will delight in screwing up the latter into a ball. One of the inevitabilities of promotion via the play-offs, to a league containing super clubs and state-owned investments, is that you are the favourites to be relegated. Shortly before leaving for the parade, a PR email landed: “Nottingham Forest are 8-11 to be relegated next season after they defeated Huddersfield in the Championship play-off final”. Way to kill the buzz.
The most noticeable aspect of the victory ceremony was not the trophy lift, the players dancing nor the heady, final rendition of Mull of Kintyre for the season, but the repeated chant when certain individuals – Philip Zinckernagel, James Garner, Djed Spence, Keinan Davis – were announced to the crowd: “Sign him up, sign him up, sign him up”.
That is reflective of the uncertainty – albeit with an emphatically positive tinge – that Forest face this summer. Each of the loanees lapped up the chant, asking fans to sing it louder and longer. Cooper has built something that they clearly want to remain part of, but it is not all their choice. Johnson, the new apple of Nottingham’s eye, told supporters that he can’t wait to play for the club in the Premier League and received the biggest cheer of the afternoon.
Nottingham Forest targets
As well as tying down their loanees, Forest have been linked with a number of new additions, including a reunion with former defender Cyrus Christie. Christie is being released by Fulham, but it is also possible he’ll stay with Swansea, where he’s been on loan this season.
Forest have also reportedly shown interest in Morgan Gibbs-White, with the Wolves midfielder having spent last season on loan at Sheffield United, and Southampton midfielder Will Smallbone.
Forest’s best strategy is surely to continue this season’s blueprint. Keep as many of that aforementioned list as possible, if the fees are not outrageous. Target the cream of the Championship. Buy younger players who have high sell-on values and can be sculpted by Cooper. If this exceptional coach has one specific talent above all others, it is the development of youth. The young players in this Forest squad love him dearly.
There is an ambition at Forest that relegation need not be a probability. On Monday, the owner Evangelos Marinakis, rarely heard in public, spoke of writing new history that could leave the past behind. He insisted that Forest can compete towards the upper end of the Premier League eventually and even mentioned Cooper eclipsing Brian Clough. You can’t accuse him of not playing to his audience.
That will not happen. There is only one Brian Clough and provincial teams don’t win European Cups anymore without using billions of pounds as fuel. But that is not the point. The release of pent-up frustration and remorse over 23 years may have coincided with the full-time whistle, but to be content with that as the conclusion of this redemption story would be to settle. Marinakis isn’t happy to settle. Cooper isn’t happy to settle. Forest don’t just want to survive in the Premier League; they want to thrive.