IAN HERBERT: As Cooper saved Nottingham Forest, he had class to embrace club’s past
It was not an offer that John McGovern, twice European Cup-winning captain of Nottingham Forest, had ever received from one of the club’s managers.
So he asked Steve Cooper, ‘Are you really sure?’ when invited to call by whenever it suited him, to watch the players training. Yes. Cooper was sure. ‘We’d like you to be involved,’ he told McGovern.
And so it has come to pass that at 11am on many a weekday this season, one of the legends of Brian Clough’s great Forest side has been there on the touchline, watching Cooper run the training sessions which, against considerable odds, have now kept the club in the Premier League.
It’s a very different world now, of course, McGovern tells me. It looks to him a bit like a Star Wars set, with the drones buzzing overhead to film the players and a battery of machines to monitor them.
Certainly a long way from the Nottingham Corporation asking Clough’s players to leave the public pitch which they trained on before the ’79 European Cup semi-final against FC Cologne.
Nottingham Forest legend John McGovern (pictured holding the cup) had never received an offer to watch players training from one of the club’s managers in the past – until this season
McGovern captained Forest to two European Cup wins in successive years in 1979 and 1980
Manager Steve Cooper enjoys cult status because he has the class to embrace the club’s past
But one football principle remains as fundamental now as it was when Clough put them through their paces. ‘Attitude,’ states McGovern. ‘That’s what I always look for first.’ He’s seen a lot of that in the past nine months. The intensity of the warm-ups and the tasty tackles flying in, in the small-sided games.
He’s been struck by the way Cooper asks players for their opinions. (Not something Clough would have generally invited.) He’s been struck by the importance Cooper ascribes to getting his messages across to the players, collectively and individually.
And by his occasional intolerance when he senses he doesn’t have a group’s attention. ‘Listen to what I’m saying,’ he’ll demand.
McGovern laughs when asked if he sees a little of Clough in all this, as if to say that man was simply incomparable, but he certainly sees a thread back to the past. ‘The way the crowd sang Steve’s name at the last match against Arsenal took me back,’ he says. ‘It was an echo of how they felt for Brian Clough.’
Many managers would not want a legend of their club’s glorious past observing their work from close quarters and McGovern is acutely conscious of not being one of those ex-players who ‘poke their noses in,’ as he puts it.
But Cooper will occasionally seek his thoughts, along with those of Garry Birtles, Paul Hart and Ian Storey-Moore, who have all watched training this season. Managers with the class to embrace the past generally have the modesty to know that they are not bigger than it.
That’s certainly the case with Cooper – and it goes some way to explaining his cult status in Nottingham. Those who know nothing of Nottingham Forest were oblivious to this bond during some very dark days last autumn when the Sky Sports Fantasy Football show was mocking Cooper’s appearance and he seemed to be dust.
At the training ground, there was a constancy about him even during a run of five successive defeats, early in the season, McGovern says. Cooper would head back out onto the training pitch and return to the coaching staple of making players better.
McGovern said the way fans sang Cooper’s name was similar to what they did for Brian Clough
When the club was struggling, Cooper made players – like striker Taiwo Awoniyi – better
Morgan Gibbs-White (right) has been a relevation and is arguably their best player of the year
Many of the 29 players who arrived at Forest in the mayhem of last summer have improved – in particular the forward Taiwo Awoniyi, who was raw and needed coaching after arriving from Union Berlin.
There is a pattern here. Cooper made players better when he led the England Under-17s to the 2017 World Cup. And when he took over at Swansea, where the club’s American owners were reluctant to invest and it fell to him to find younger, cheaper talent.
Many of his England winners joined him in South Wales, including Morgan Gibbs-White, who has been a revelation at Forest and arguably their player of the year.
Gibbs-White has created 63 goal-scoring chances this season, more than Jack Grealish, Mo Salah and Gabriel Martinelli. He is being closely observed by Gareth Southgate. And the FA are closely observing Cooper, whom they view as one of their own. Do not be surprised if he ultimately succeeds Southgate.
There are no guarantees, of course. It is a measure of football’s brutal powers of destruction that Cooper’s prior achievements counted for nothing at his point of gravest jeopardy this season.
Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis proved the exception to the rule by not sacking him – in part, because he could not find a better alternative; in part, because Cooper so obviously carried the supporters with him. They even sang his name after those five defeats.
The decision is one to celebrate, as we near the end of a season of crushing managerial insecurity, with those in the hot seat living in what observer has described as ‘a permanent state of impermanence.’
If Cooper is not quite the Premier League’s manager of the year then he is certainly the most underrated manager of the year: an individual who will have turned the light out most nights last winter, wondering if the following day would bring the roof down on his career.
The FA are observing Cooper – don’t be surprised if he eventually replaces Gareth Southgate
He did not complain about the pressure, or about the fact that he was being asked to cohere a team from one of the most rapidly assembled squads the Premier League has ever known.
‘He kept the laughter going,’ McGovern says, relating what he saw from the touchline. ‘There’d be a nutmeg and the players would be in pieces, taking the mickey. That told me that things were alright.’
McGovern will be back at the training ground at 11am on Thursday.
Cooper is not one for extensive reflections on his body of work but in his office, next to a number of portraits of Clough, hangs an image of Denzel Washington appended with a quote.
‘Ease is a greater threat to progress than hardship,’ it states.
Stockport victory testimony to the elation of sport
A friend sends me a clip of her granddaughter, who lives at Edgeley, a five-minute walk from Stockport County’s ground.
She’s not a fanatic follower, just a seven-year-old who was swept up by everyone talking about County’s play-off match against Salford, at the stadium just down the road. So someone took her along.
‘Guess what, Stockport County are going to Wembley and we watched the game live and they won – on penalties,’ she relates in the clip, demonstrating her facepaint and balloon in Stockport colours.
‘We went on the pitch on the end because they won. It was the best thing ever.’
A fragment of testimony to the elation the sport can bring and to the joy restored to a community by Stockport owner Mark Stott, who courts no publicity but has run that club with drive and vision.
Stockport County’s play-off victory is a fragment of testimony to the elation football can bring
Rafa is better than a first week attraction
There’s a sadness, of course, in Rafael Nadal announcing that next year will probably be his last, but we must hope that his farewell tour will not be as benign as it sounds.
We will remember him for all of his wonderful competitive intensity. Better for him to walk away now, with that memory intact, than to spend a year processing through the majors as a first week attraction.
Rafael Nadal is not a first week attraction – it is better he walks away now than declines rapidly