Last year, on September 12th, I did something I’d never done as a season ticket holder.
I gave up.
We’d just lost 2-1 to Cardiff City. Not that there’s nothing unusual about that — I’ve witnessed 243 Forest defeats in person, and roughly half of them have been to Cardiff.
But the thing was, they were dreadful. This wasn’t the normal Cardiff, not the towering, lab-built super soldiers of yore. No. This was just Kieffer Moore, some hired goons, and a handful of kids.
They were appalling. But somehow, Forest were even worse. The team that day was Samba, Spence, Worrall, McKenna, Lowe, Zinckernagel, Yates, Garner, Johnson, Grabban and Taylor, and I remember the exact words of the guy sitting next to me: this just isn’t a Championship-standard team.
Forgetting what we now know about (ten of) those names, I completely agreed with him.
It’s a horrible thing when you realise in the first games of a season that your team’s dogshit. That’s when the months that are still to come coalesce into a prison sentence; when you find yourself staring into the writhing joy of the lower Bridgford and thinking it’s shit now, it’ll be shit through the autumn, it’ll be shit over Christmas, and it’ll still be shit when the sun comes back.
Tell me I’m exaggerating. Tell me you thought any differently, back then.
Chris Hughton was doing what he’d done for fifty-one games before that: chewing, folding and unfolding his arms, and subbing full-backs for full-backs. I couldn’t understand what that team was built for, or what it was meant to be good at. I couldn’t see what the plan was. Give it to a winger and cross your fingers seemed to be basic the gist of it.
I don’t know what it was about that game, that particular day, but something inside me snapped.
Afterwards, on the way home, I said I was done. There was no ranting and raving. I was calm, but I was emphatic. I’m out. My dad and my wife and everyone else rolled their eyes a bit, because they’d heard this sort of thing from me before, but I meant it this time. I really did.
I meant it on the Sunday, and the Monday, and then the Tuesday, which was the day of the Middlesbrough game. I gave my ticket to my dad: he said he knew someone who’d go, an American who wanted to sample the atmosphere of an English football game. He did, and then he never went back again.
I stayed at home that night and tried to read a book. Whatever point I was making, I made it to precisely no one. The world kept turning, Forest still lost, and I spent most of the evening checking the score instead of reading. At least I got to bed at a reasonable time.
That was the first match I’d ever missed (by choice) as a season ticket holder. It felt like a big deal. I live close enough to the City Ground to hear and see it. There’s this watery floodlit arc that hangs above the trees at the end of my garden on night games; the crowd noise carries cleanly and clearly on the air. So I shut the curtains, and I turned up the telly.
It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing, and it wasn’t about the defeats. It was only down to the staggering lack of joy in our football, the listlessness of it. It was getting worse and worse, cagier and more anaemic with each passing game. This was football hewn from a pathologically conservative fear of the opposition — Fulham, Reading, Hull, whoever. And if you dared to complain about it, you’d just be slapped down by every pundit in the world, who all agreed that Chris Hughton was a Good Man, and probably Too Good for a Club Like Forest. It was gaslighting on an industrial scale. Every time I went online, there’d be a Brighton fan popping up to remind me just how lucky we were to have him.
A club like Forest. How many times have you heard that, over the years? The big red joke. The playground of chaos, with its mad owners, and its entitled fans who all still think it’s 1979. You know what people think of us.
“No one can succeed there,” they said, when Hughton was sacked the day after the Boro game. “This just proves it.” Over on Quest, Ian Holloway was apoplectic.
I shed precisely no tears for Hughton. He was a nice man — they were right on that — but he’d left us a richer one for his failures. In the end, he wasn’t any different to a Davies or a Megson or a Kinnear, the ones who’d never concerned themselves with being nice. He was just another one for the pile.
But the critics, with all their sneers and their dismissive waves, their contention that Forest truly were an irredeemable mess — I’d come to think that they were probably right. It was hard to put a finger on why, but it felt true enough. Maybe we were just cursed? Maybe this was some karmic retribution for the glory days? We’d tried every sort of manager by then: shitkickers and ball-busters, disciplinarians and kindly uncles, the enshrined heroes, the big names and left-fielders, the somebodies and the nobodies, the continentals and the British bulldogs, even a cheese freak. None of them worked. And all the time, I’d be watching these little miracles blooming everywhere else, at clubs like Brentford, Swansea and Hull, and thinking ‘how did they do that, then?’
All of that was boiling up in September of 2021. At that point, the Premier League was an abstract, impossible thing to me; even getting there was a mystery. Promotion required a unity, an alignment of talent, skill, personality, guts, decisiveness, and raw bloody luck, and that all seemed a million miles beyond Nottingham Forest, where management felt like sewing on a speedboat.
What did it mean to be a Forest fan? What did I want out of it?
That’s what I’d found myself wondering more and more in recent years. I’m in my forties now. I’ve reached a point where it no longer feels enough to do things just because they’re there, because it’s what you do and what you’ve always done. It was never predicated on success, but shit me, there had to be something, right? Something to aim for and get excited about? You can’t just bob along playing Preston until the end of time. Supporting Forest is an obligation for all of us, yes, but is that really enough of a reason? You’re obliged to go to work and pay your council tax and not eat too much bacon. Where was the actual and joy and reward in it?
I’d been distracting myself from just how much of a sagging, expensive chore Forest had become, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
I’d stopped writing about football three years earlier — that was a sign. I’d got all my stories and memories down, and then realised there was nothing left to write about. Or at least nothing I wanted to write about: just more weariness, more frustration. And that might be cathartic to put on the page, but it’s boring to read. As boring as the crap football in its own way; a few thousand more words chucked into the general chorus of despair.
There’d been a glimmer of promise once, a hint at something more wholesome and coherent. That was back in 2015 and 2016, when I Believe in Miracles came out, and Bandy & Shinty was created, and Forza Garibaldi got together. A brief flutter of pride and vitality. But obdurately, the football club — the thing we were all actually there for — seemed to refuse that positive energy. It denied joy in any kind of useful or sustained way. You could chuck all the love and texture and romance you wanted at Forest, all the artwork and tifo displays, but they’d just slap you in the face with a winding-up order, or the Stoke game, or another decrepit holding midfielder, or some other act of self-immolation. Slapping down the fans, feeding up the critics.
It was the pandemic that shone the hardest light on these feelings. I paid for my iFollow access, and I kept my season ticket money in the club. I watched every game in that meandering shitshow of 2020/21; I watched the UK’s #1 Antony Knockaert tribute act and the ghost of Luke Freeman; I watched the loans flow in and out like swamp water; I watched Forest fumble their way through dead, empty games up and down the country; and I watched the pointlessness of it all laid truly bare. There was nothing — nothing — to enjoy.
(I tell a lie, we beat Wycombe on my birthday. Woot.)
What was the point of all this? When we all finally came back together, that feeling was still fresh in my mind, and I couldn’t seem to shift it. It was like a make-or-break holiday in a doomed marriage. I’d had a good old look behind the curtain, and I’d asked myself some difficult questions. It wasn’t just me, either — a lot of other people felt that way. And obligingly, just to add an extra level of credence to all these troublesome feelings, Forest shat the bed against ten-man Bournemouth. Welcome home, lover.
On September 21st, I was walking along the Embankment with my wife when my phone pinged, and I saw a message saying we’d appointed Steve Cooper.
“Is he any good?” she asked.
“Does it matter?” I replied.
I put my phone away. I didn’t want to spoil the walk.
But all of that was then.
Stop, breathe, and think.
Then imagine doing what he’s done.
Imagine all of that apathy and lethargy, writ large across tens of thousands of people, and facing it down on your own. Imagine setting the example of how things could be.
Imagine grabbing your nuts, brushing your shoulders, and taking a defibrillator to a football club. To an entire city.
When I first started writing this, my plan was to pick out individual goals, moments, games. But that would be doing the difference Steve Cooper’s made a disservice. That’d be looking at it in too small and clinical a way. His change was bigger than that, more significant and soulful.
Much has been made of ‘the journey’ this year — bottom after eight games, worst start since time began etc etc. — but a lot of people who are talking about it don’t quite get it. All they’re looking at is the numbers, which are impressive enough, but it’s still miles off the full story.
They don’t know what it was like before, how tedious and stagnant it’d become. The ill-will, the bickering, the factionalism, and not just under Chris Hughton, but for the years and years before him. They don’t understand the extent of the damage, or the scale of the healing we needed. When Joe Worrall made his “whipped dog” comparison, they don’t know just how far that dog had retreated into its kennel.
My stayaway protest lasted all of one game. I was back for Millwall, where we were still basically shite. Max Lowe shanked in a cross for Forest’s equaliser. That was something, at least; a silly, funny accident of a goal. But what I’d noticed was something bigger than that, and it happened before a ball had been kicked. As ‘Mull of Kintyre’ struck up, Steve Cooper was standing still, taking it all in. And when we were done, he applauded. Just a little clap, followed by an affirming nod.
“That’s nice,” I said to my dad. “He looks happy to be here.”
After the game, it was all Cooper could talk about. The atmosphere. The vibe. “It’s whetted my appetite,” he smiled.
What came next — at Barnsley, Birmingham, and Bristol — defied explanation. Forest were suddenly thrilling, sinewy, bold. There was Colback’s equaliser at QPR, and then Philip Zinckernagel going full Ronaldo at Reading. Set against what’d come before, it all defied logic. And naturally, I began to wonder if giving up after Cardiff had kickstarted all of this. We all take these things very personally after all, from the socks we wear to the turnstiles we use. Maybe there was some kind of Buddhist principle in effect, something about surrendering control? I’d met my wife under similar circumstances, when I’d grumpily written off all women. Admit your powerlessness to the universe, and it’ll reward you.
But whatever was happening, and however it was happening, it continued.
The day I first dared to wonder if we were actually decent, if this was anything more substantial than a bit of a bounce, I was in the Peak District. We were visiting friends who were a few weeks away from the arrival of their first child, and we met them at Chatsworth. Forest were away at Swansea, and my mate James — a season ticket holder at United who’s really taken Forest to heart across the years — was full of questions about Cooper. Even then, even in the face of all that mounting evidence, that invitation to start getting excited, I told him to leave the footy alone. We were there for a day out.
When we were walking back to the car, I saw him buried in his phone. I could tell what he was checking for, and I didn’t want to know. He looked at me, smirking, with his eyebrows raised. “Go on,” I said. “Get it over with.”
“You’re winning. Three-nil.”
By the time we got back to their house, it was 4-1. Ribeiro Dias. I didn’t even know that was Cafu’s proper name.
I return to the whipped dog analogy. Time and time again, I kept waiting for it to go wrong. I thought the wheels would come off with Lewis Grabban’s injury (JUST FUCK OFF, CARDIFF), and then I thought we’d shot it be replacing him with someone who’d managed five goals in 73 games. I couldn’t see the point in signing Sam Surridge, either. When Worrall got injured, and then McKenna, I figured that was that. Jack Colback wouldn’t hack it as a wing-back. I thought Derby would come back after their penalty. We never win at Blackburn. Against QPR, getting nowhere on a borderline unplayable pitch, I knew in my heart we were cooked. West Brom had been threatening to come good all season, and I assumed April 18th would be the night they’d do it. Fulham would steamroller us, of course.
As recently as the second half of the second leg of the Sheffield United tie, when we were on the ropes and taking all those overhand rights, I thought this is it, this is where we turn back into Forest, the real Forest, the ones shrinking into their kennel.
And they’re just ten of the times I’ve been wrong this season.
I soon came to love the sound of Steve Cooper’s voice, the impact of his words, the way he’d hop-scotch between Prozac buoyancy and basic, unflustered common sense. Game by game, week by week, he’d turn that tap a little further, running more and more colour back into the club. For the first time in living memory, Forest became something to believe in, and not just something to guard yourself against — a new light to cut through all the sticky pessimism that’d coagulated through the years. That’s what Steve Cooper was really up against: me and thousands of others like me, losers by proxy, miserabilists forged from seasons and seasons of Forest doing Forest things.
When we played Liverpool, I found myself standing in the Nav before the game, saying with a little smile: “You never know.”
As the turnaround gathered pace, it became more than just a sporting achievement — it turned into an existential one. People began gathering, singing, hugging. Conversations started at games between strangers who’d sat together in silence for years. I opened my mind to the possibility of good things coming along out of nowhere. I began looking more positively at life itself.
I just couldn’t get enough.
Twenty-three years, and it’s over. Whatever comes next, it’s over. The clock’s reset. We are no longer defined by that clawing hunger, that frustration, that need.
I don’t know who thought to play ‘Freed from Desire’ at Wembley, but it was a metaphorical masterstroke. Call it what you want — an exorcism, an expunging — but we’ve been freed from always wanting, wanting, wanting; freed from that maniacal fetish for promotion, that thirst for ‘getting back there’ that’s contaminated everything for years and years. The longest wait for a return to the Premier League in English football is at an end. And now, as Evangelos Marinakis said on the balcony of the Council House, the chance is there to draw a line underneath the past — under all its bizarre successes and weird failures — and create something new, for us. Right here, right now, in the 21st Century.
I actually felt a bit sorry for Huddersfield on Sunday, because they’ve had a good season. But in the end, they were just a bit-part character in a story that demanded Forest go up. With my new-found faith and confidence, I knew we’d do it, and walking around Wembley beforehand I think a lot of them knew it too. They were only there because we needed someone to beat.
The day passed as a dream. It’s hazy, looking back, and I can only see it in snatches now: the drive down, bits and pieces of conversations, emerging from the train into a soaring world of glass and steel, and then a game that was begging to be put out of its misery from the first whistle. A vital game that I couldn’t seem to engage with, however hard I tried.
But I remember the final whistle, and I’m glad of that. I remember a Huddersfield cross going out for a goal-kick, and knowing then that we’d done it. I remember standing perfectly still and tearing up when the whistle went, rooted in place, stunned. I remember the ground pulsing under my feet. I remember thinking that this was the best that football could ever be: the realisation of a long, painful, frequently humiliating mission that’s swallowed up two decades of my adult life. I was 18 years old in the summer of 1999; I was heading off to university, and I was still just a boy. I’m 41 now, older and greyer, and in all those intervening years I’d learned to expect nothing from Forest but failure. Then Sunday happened, and it lanced the whole rotten thing. I felt it pop. All that bile flew up into the London sky — Warnock and Woking and Chester and Megson, Billy’s unfinished business, all of Yeovil’s goals, Darren Pratley looking up from the halfway line, being serious about promotion, Blackpool, coffee cups, the court summons, Alex McLeish, Hildeberto Pereira’s parade of red cards, the embargo, Chris O’Grady up front on his own. Those moments and many, many more, they were all just something to laugh about. Suddenly, they didn’t matter. Suddenly, I felt lighter.
I don’t know what comes next. We’ll be favourites for the drop next season: people are looking at the second leg and the final and assuming that’s what we are, this clumsy thing fuelled by adrenaline and love and luck. We know better, of course. We’re so much more than that.
If you’d asked me in September whether Forest could hack it in the Premier League, I’d have laughed at you. But who am I to say that this Forest can’t stomach the challenge? That they’ll just roll over and die? It’s not who we are anymore.
Maybe we’ll be straight back down; maybe we’ll scrape survival; maybe we’ll surprise everyone and get ourselves bedded properly in there. I don’t know, but I’m fascinated to see what comes next. Maybe, in a few years’ time, Forest will be an established Premier League club, and the anthology of shite that spanned 1999–2021 will be remembered with a wry smile, as a collection of stories that newer, younger Forest fans can scarcely believe.
What I do know is that something altogether more important happened on Sunday: Forest proved they’re normal. Normal in the sense than they’re not cursed, not doomed. For too long, we’ve characterised ourselves with this monopoly on pain, like it was the only thing we had left as an identity. But that’s a bullshit way to live. If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s how deceptively simple success is. It’s not some obscure secret kept under lock and key.
We’re normal in that sense. But we’re abnormal, too, and we always will be — beautifully, weirdly so. What Sunday and Monday proved is that Forest are special. And not just because of some dusty old stories, but because of what we’ve shown we still are, today.
When Steve Cooper’s moved on, when these players have all gone — and they will, one way or another; that’s how football works — they should leave knowing that they were the ones who finally turned the tide. For that, they deserve more than medals. They gave tens of thousands of Forest fans like me — people reared on inaccessible memories of another era — a day of their own. A season of their own. And even if the club kicks on now, if it moves to even bigger and better things, that moment when the engines fired finally back into life must be cherished and honoured forever.
A week before the end of the season, my wife and I were watching an interview with Steve Cooper on TV, and she asked that question again.
“So, is he any good?”
Even after all these words, he’s answered that better than I ever could.