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Nottingham Forest: How the Reds went from 'fearful' to 'phenomenal' to reach Wembley

Nottingham Forest' players celebrate getting to the play-off final
Nottingham Forest are just one win away from returning to the Premier League after a 23-year absence

From rock bottom of the table, having endured their worst start to a season for 108 years, to the cusp of the the most seemingly unlikely Premier League promotion tilt in history – Nottingham Forest have added to the definition of ‘a football miracle’.

The Reds spent 46 of the first 52 days of the Championship campaign in the relegation places.

Chris Hughton – a manager with proven promotion pedigree, having led Newcastle, Norwich and Brighton to the top flight – paid for the woeful start with his job.

Enter head coach Steve Cooper in mid-September. From that moment on, Forest were a club transformed.

No team in the second tier picked up more points than the Reds after that, as they sensationally surged up the table to claim a play-off spot.

Even the most ardent Forest fan would have struggled to entertain the notion their side would head to Wembley for the first time in 30 years and be just 90 minutes away from a Premier League return after a 23-year absence.

But then again, those on the banks of the River Trent are well versed when it comes to miraculous rises – having gone from the old Second Division in 1977 to claim the English title 12 months later, before going on to win back-to-back European Cups under the late, great Brian Clough.

Ahead of Forest’s Championship play-off final against Huddersfield on Sunday, BBC Sport takes a look back at the club’s latest remarkable season.

Forest’s ‘sorry’ start to season

Brennan Johnson in action for Nottingham Forest against Coventry on the opening day of the season
Nottingham Forest lost their opening game of the season to Coventry City
Morgan Gibbs-White of Wolverhampton Wanderers scores his team's fourth against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup
Nottingham Forest were knocked out of the Carabao Cup by Premier League side Wolves in August
Tom Lawrence of Derby County scores against Nottingham Forest
A goal from Tom Lawrence put Forest’s fierce rivals Derby County ahead in the first East Midlands derby of the season
Brennan Johnson and his Nottingham Forest team-mates celebrate his equaliser against Derby County
A late Brennan Johnson goal salvaged a draw against Derby and earned Forest their first point of the season

“Oh dear, here we go again.”

It was only day one of the 2021-22 season, but former Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Steve Sutton spoke of a “static” and “tired” Reds side that were “out of energy and ideas” as they were beaten by Coventry City.

Under Hughton, Forest had struggled for goals the previous season – hitting the back of the net less than the three sides that were relegated that term.

The tone of disappointment heard in the Forest great’s voice on BBC Radio Nottingham on 8 August was to be repeated for much of the next two months.

The only point they collected in the first seven league games was from a draw in their East Midlands derby with Wayne Rooney’s Derby County. Even then it was a late smash-and-grab effort.

Middlesbrough's James Lea Siliki chases the ball against Nottingham Forest
Nottingham Forest lost their first four home league games of the season, going down to Bournemouth, Blackburn, Cardiff and Middlesbrough
Chris Hughton in his final game in charge of Nottingham Forest against Middlesbrough
Chris Hughton with his head in his hands during the defeat against Boro, which proved to be his final match in charge of Forest

A 2-0 defeat by Middlesbrough on 15 September – Forest’s fourth straight league loss of the season at the City Ground – was described as a “sorry night” by BBC Radio Nottingham commentator Colin Fray.

Thousands of fans had abandoned their seats before the full-time whistle, but one supporter made his voice heard after the match as he yelled his disapproval at Forest’s directors’ box.

Former Forest and England midfielder Steve Hodge said his former side looked “fearful”, offered “zero attacking threat”, lacked “trust” in one another and were “vulnerable”.

Hodge predicted Hughton would not survive the defeat – and a day later he was proved right.

Forest were bottom of the Championship, without a manager and just about bereft of hope.

No team in history that had been in such a position before, having collected just one point from seven games, had managed to finish higher than 14th spot.

Cooper would change all of that.

Cooper transforms Forest

Forest paid compensation to Swansea to bring Cooper in, despite the Welsh tactician leaving the club in July after their Championship play-off final defeat by Brentford last season.

It has proved to be the shrewdest bit of business done by the East Midlands club in the 21st century.

He oversaw four wins in his first five games in charge. The only defeat in his first 15 matches was a heavy 4-0 home loss to eventual title winners Fulham on 24 October.

Lewis Grabban
Caretaker manager Steven Reid guided Nottingham Forest to their first Championship win of the season against Huddersfield Town before Steve Cooper was appointed
Nottingham Forest boss Steve Cooper celebrates after Barnsley win
Nottingham Forest’s first win under Steve Cooper was at Barnsley on 29 September, which took the Reds out of the relegation places
Lyle Taylor celebrates scoring twice against Bristol City for Nottingham Forest
Two goals after the 90th minute from Lyle Taylor – who would eventually go out on loan to Birmingham City – earned Forest a stunning comeback victory at Bristol City

When Forest conjured a dramatic three points against Bristol City at Ashton Gate in late October, thanks to 91st and 92nd-minute goals from Lyle Taylor, former defender Brian Laws saw a “massive change in attitude”.

“How many times have we spoken about Forest when they’ve equalised and they thank their lucky stars to take the point?” Laws added. “They didn’t stop, they wanted to win the game.”

The “never-say-die attitude” was to become a theme, as an injury-time Jack Colback goal at QPR later that month and late Lewis Grabban strike against Sheffield United rescued points.

Another late show at Peterborough, with goals from Ryan Yates and on-loan Manchester United midfielder James Garner, earned valuable three points at the start of December after their form appeared to stall with a run of five draws in six games.

Cooper’s triumphant return to south Wales as Forest beat his former side Swansea 4-1 a week later catapulted them into the top half of the table for the first time.

Lewis Grabban celebrates his goal for Nottingham Forest against Swansea City
When Forest beat Cooper’s former side Swansea in December, striker Lewis Grabban scored his ninth goal of the season – he would only find the back of the net four more times in an campaign curtailed by injury
Nottingham Forest boss Steve Cooper celebrates with his trademark punch to the air
Steve Cooper’s air punches at the end of each victory have become a trademark part of the season
Nottingham Forest Djed Spence in action against Derby County
Djed Spence, on loan from Middlesbrough, has been one of the side’s most industrious and influential figures
Nottingham Forest boss Steve Cooper looks at the Brian Clough trophy
Nottingham Forest’s win against Derby in January means they will keep hold of Brian Clough Trophy for a while after the financially-troubled Rams were relegated to League One

Liverpool’s ‘European night’ in Nottingham

Forest ended 2021 with back-to-back defeats, but started the new year in sensational fashion – bundling record 14-time FA Cup winners Arsenal out of the competition in the third round.

Holders Leicester City – in the first meeting between the East Midlands rivals for almost eight years – were next to be sensationally eliminated by a roaring Reds side. Foxes boss Rodgers labelled the 4-1 loss “embarrassing”.

Former England captain Alan Shearer, speaking on BBC One at the time, said “it feels like they [Forest] have got something good going on”.

That “something” saw them reach the FA Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 1996, getting past Sunday’s opponents Huddersfield to take on Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

In a tie Forest felt they could have won, the hosts were edged 1-0 by the eventual cup winners. Klopp was left mesmerised by the atmosphere.

“Each challenge they won, the crowd celebrated like they scored a goal – which I love,” the German said. “It’s a massive atmosphere here and massive event. It felt like a European night.”

Lewis Grabban scores for Nottingham Forest against Arsenal in the FA Cup
Nottingham Forest started 2022 by beating Arsenal 1-0 in the FA Cup, with the only goal of the game coming from Lewis Grabban
Joe Worrall
Captain Joe Worrall, who scored Nottingham Forest’s third goal against Leicester, was playing for the first time after missing three matches with a broken rib
Nottingham Forest v Huddersfield in the fifth round of the FA Cup
Forest beat Huddersfield – who they face in the Championship play-off final – in the fifth round of the FA Cup
Jota celebrates Liverpool's winner against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup quarter-finals
Diogo Jota scored the winner for Liverpool in their FA Cup quarter-final against Forest
Nottingham Forest fans watch on during the FA Cup game against Liverpool
Forest supporters drew praise from Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp

‘Phenomenal’ Forest challenge for automatic promotion

In the league, Laws said teams “couldn’t live” with Cooper’s side as their revival picked up pace during that cup run.

The former full-back, who twice won the League Cup with the club, said the 3-1 “mauling” of QPR in March was “phenomenal”, the display “electric” and “unlike anything seen from Forest for a long time”.

Apart from one week spent in the top six in February, the Reds did not move into the play-off places for a prolonged period until April.

Brennan Johnson does his 'Robin Hood' goal celebration after scoring against Blackpool
Brennan Johnson’s Robin Hood-style bow and arrow pose has became a signature goal celebration since he first did it against Blackpool in April
Forest's Jack Colback scores a sensational goal against West Brom
Jack Colback made a claim for Forest’s goal of the season, and possibly the best ever seen at the City Ground, when he scored against West Brom with an outrageous dipping volley from a tight angle outside the box
Fulham's Aleksandar Mitrovic shrugs after missing a chance against Nottingham Forest
Forest beat Fulham 1-0 at Craven Cottage in April to put themselves in contention for automatic promotion, as Bournemouth drew with Swansea on the same night

Nine wins in 10 league games in that time, which included beating champions-elect Fulham, saw the Reds gatecrash the automatic promotion race.

That once seemingly ridiculous idea that Forest could go straight up was only ended in their penultimate game, as Bournemouth won a high-stakes showdown at home to seal their Premier League return.

Watching on as the Cherries fans streamed onto the pitch at the Vitality Stadium, Laws said: “Forest are getting a taste of what Bournemouth have tonight. The difference now is that they have to do it at Wembley.”

It took a penalty shootout – and the goalkeeping heroics of Brice Samba – to get to the national stadium after their action-packed play-off semi-final with Sheffield United finished 3-3 on aggregate.

The journey from a miserable beginning, to unexpected and mesmerising heights has earned Cooper great acclaim as Forest boss.

And no praise has been higher than comparisons with Clough – a manager whose exploits on the banks of the River Trent is the stuff of sporting legend.

Garry Birtles, a two-time European Cup winner with Forest, says Cooper has shown throughout that he shares a similar football philosophy with his former boss.

“Brian used to say, ‘I don’t care what you can’t do, only what you can do’,” he told BBC East Midlands Today.

“Steve has put that mantra into the players now because the transformation in the players that were there with one point to now is just incredible. He has given them a release, it looks like, to express themselves and do what they do well.”

Nottingham Forest's Sam Surridge scoring against Swansea
Forward Sam Surridge, a January arrival from Stoke, has contributed a number of crucial goals – including a hat-trick against Swansea
Nottingham Forest's Steve Cook with a bloodied head against Bournemouth
Steve Cook left Bournemouth during the January transfer window and has brought great experience to Forest’s backline
Brennan Johnson scores against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane
Brennan Johnson emulated his father, David, when he scored against Sheffield United in their play-off semi-final first leg at Bramall Lane
Brennan Johnson celebrates scoring in the second leg against Sheffield United
And just as David Johnson did in 2003, Brennan also scored in the second leg – the difference was that Forest progressed to the final this time
Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Brice Samba saves a penalty kick from Oliver Norwood
Brice Samba produced goalkeeping heroics in the penalty shootout against Sheffield United to send Forest to Wembley after the semi-final tie finished 3-3 on aggregate
Pitch invasion at the City Ground
Forest fans celebrated getting to Wembley by flooding onto the City Ground pitch after the penalty shootout win against Sheffield United

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