Nottingham Forest have come to terms with Brian Clough’s legacy and pushing for Premier League


Nottingham Forest’s late gallop for automatic promotion back to the Premier League is a remarkable turnaround for a club that was rock bottom of the Championship in September and has been absent from the top flight since 1999.

The Reds are 11 games unbeaten and are comfortably the form team in the second tier, with 27 points from a possible 33, as they travel to top-six rivals Luton on Friday.

Forest’s revival this season began with the appointment of Steve Cooper in the autumn, following the dismissal of Chris Hughton and six defeats in seven matches. Cooper changed the formation, restored some positivity and instantly embraced the club’s illustrious history.

However, close observers of the two-time European Cup winners say this success on the pitch has long been in the making off it, and a rejuvenation of the fan base is a key part of the transformation. 

The current side is built around homegrown academy talent and long-serving players, there is a new unity within the club, a more solid connection to the city than has been the case for years and the fan group Forza Garibaldi has worked tirelessly to create a positive atmosphere in the stadium, which is now bouncing every home game. 

In addition, Forest – the club and fans – finally look at ease with their famous past under Brian Clough. All of which helps to create a solid stage on which the players are free to perform. 

Nottingham Forest striker Keinan Davis celebrates in the Reds 2-0 win over Birmingham City

Forest fans have suffered lean years since relegation from the Premier League but are united

Forest fans have suffered lean years since relegation from the Premier League but are united

Forest's illustrious past, when legendary manager Brian Clough inspired the team to win the European Cup twice, has sometimes felt like a burden on the team, but not any more

Forest’s illustrious past, when legendary manager Brian Clough inspired the team to win the European Cup twice, has sometimes felt like a burden on the team, but not any more

‘I have never seen, in person, Forest play in the Premier League,’ Matt Jones, a member of Forza Garibaldi, told Sportsmail.

‘Personally, I see [past success] as such an amazing story. It is the history of the club and something to aspire to. I don’t see that success as something to live up. We were the underdogs.

‘It is an underdog story and that suits us. we are a city of underdogs, that is what we do.’

The ‘underdog story’ is a useful narrative for any team outside of football’s elite. In Forest’s case, it is far healthier than the alternative of ‘fallen giant’ and in addition it suits Nottingham well.

Nottingham is a self-styled rebel city, which declared for Parliament in the English Civil War, championed women’s suffrage, launched the Luddite movement and was home to the anti-establishment figures DH Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe, and even Brian Clough himself.

New generations of fans again see Forest as underdogs and dream of top-flight promotion

New generations of fans again see Forest as underdogs and dream of top-flight promotion 

The Rebel City display created by fan group Forza Garibaldi at the City Ground in Nottingham

The Rebel City display created by fan group Forza Garibaldi at the City Ground in Nottingham

‘I don’t think players, especially now, see [what was achieved in the past] as an expectation, they see it as an aspiration,’ added Jones. ‘The players have the opportunity to go and write their own history.’

And the Forza movement is doing all it can to encourage them.

The group began in the dark days of 2015, under the chaotic ownership of Fawaz Al-Hasawi. The fledgling movement introduced flags and banners and tried to orchestrate more vocal support in the Lower Bridgford stand.

All of that is still part of the mix, but Forza has developed into one of the most innovative and ambitious fan groups in the country.

Steve Cooper has been instrumental in Forest's charge for a Premier League promotion

Steve Cooper has been instrumental in Forest’s charge for a Premier League promotion

Before Forest played Liverpool in the FA Cup the huge 'Trent Bridge' banner was unfurled

Before Forest played Liverpool in the FA Cup the huge ‘Trent Bridge’ banner was unfurled

With seven games remaining, Forest are six points behind the automatic promotion spots

With seven games remaining, Forest are six points behind the automatic promotion spots

They are now famed for their ‘displays’, which not only celebrate the team but also the club’s and the city’s heritage, including the rebel theme, which appeared in a huge banner across the Trent End of the City Ground in 2019.

COOPER AT WHEEL

Steve Cooper has helped shape a talented and committed team at the City Ground.

His record since taking over speaks for itself – 31 league games, 18 wins, nine draws, just four losses. 63 points and a rise from 24th and last to right in the mix.

Cooper, who led England’s under-17s to World Cup success in 2017, and later became manager at Swansea, is known for his development of young players.

He has supported the emergence of Brennan Johnson, the 20-year-old Forest academy graduate who has scored 15 goals and assisted with a further seven so far this season.

James Garner, the 21-year-old defensive midfielder on loan from Manchester United, and Djed Spence, also 21 and on loan from Middlesbrough, have excelled under Cooper’s guidance.

The average age of Forest’s team this season has been 25.2 years, the sixth-lowest in the Championship and Cooper has helped them thrive.

Forza tries to set the club in the context of its history and heritage and to fix it in its location, deepening the bond with fans, so following the team means more than the next result.

Jones is quick to admit that everything looks great when the team is winning, but Forza have put in the hard yards when there was very little to cheer and that is now surely paying dividends.

The group believe the current owner, Greek shipping magnate Evangelos Marinakis, who took over from Al-Hasawi in 2017, has been important in the process of building support.

‘When you look at the trend, since the new owners came in it has only been positive,’ said Jones, who accepts there has been some ‘missteps’ in terms of executive and managerial appointments and missed opportunities in the transfer window.

‘They have done more for the city, more to establish the reputation of the club and people buy into that,’ added Jones. ‘We all want to be proud of the club.

‘There is pride from a community point of view. People have felt better about the club.

‘Clearly, this season started with a lot to moan about but they have made some brave calls – they made the choice to go with Steve Cooper.

‘That has stirred a unity from the Under-8s all the way through to the first team. It all seems more joined up now.’

In the past, Forest have struggled to develop a first-team identity that has allowed young players to transition easily to the senior side, which is unsurprising when the club was burning through 14 bosses in a single decade.

Perhaps as a result, some of the brightest prospects, like Matty Cash, who went to Aston Villa for around £16million in 2020, have moved on too quickly.

Local boy Joe Worrall congratulates Scott McKenna (left) after scoring against Birmingham

Local boy Joe Worrall congratulates Scott McKenna (left) after scoring against Birmingham

Nottingham Forest have been transformed this season and the City Ground is bouncing

Nottingham Forest have been transformed this season and the City Ground is bouncing

The club has also been guilty of bringing in players on big money in a desperate bid to fast-track success. But now, there is a strong local identity throughout.

It includes three well-established homegrown talents in the first team, in Joe Worrall, Brennan Johnson and Ryan Yates, while the U23s are up to fifth in Premier League Two, Division Two, and the U18s are in the final of the FA Youth Cup, where they will face Manchester United.

At the youth level, such is the representation of local talent, they play locals versus out-of-towners in training, based on Nottingham postcodes.

In addition to those born and bred in and around Nottingham, there are a clutch of senior players, including Joe Lolley, Lewis Grabban and Jack Colback, who have clocked up years of service and for whom Forest feels like home.

All of this helps tie the team and fans together and no one does this better than Worrall. The central defender cut his teeth in the local junior leagues, playing for Hucknall Sports FC, for whom he is still a vocal club ambassador.

Forest U18s knocked Chelsea U18s out of FA Youth Cup to reach the final against Man United

Forest U18s knocked Chelsea U18s out of FA Youth Cup to reach the final against Man United

Worrall won three County Cups with Hucknall and remains a keen advocate of Nottinghamshire youth football. He has spent hours dishing out trophies to local youngsters at the awards ceremonies for the leagues he used to compete in.

‘He was an outstanding midfield player at Hucknall,’ the club chairman, Alan Spray told Sportsmail, with obvious pride.

‘He always had the attributes of a total footballer. He always was an excellent lad, well grounded. To me there is no better role model than Joe.

‘He shows that with his performances. He is a leader and he is leading his childhood club. It is a beautiful story.’

Worrall played in local junior leagues before transferring to the Forest academy aged 14

Worrall played in local junior leagues before transferring to the Forest academy aged 14

Worrall plays with the youthful enthusiasm he displayed on the Papplewick Playing Fields north of Nottingham 10 years ago, before he moved to the Forest academy aged 14.

When the Forest goalkeeper Brice Samba was sent off against Stoke in February, it was Worrall who donned the gloves. And following the 2-2 draw, he quickly tweeted an image of himself in goal for the Reds, alongside another of him as a goalkeeper in his childhood.

And Worrall knows exactly what it means to be a Forest fan, because he is one. The picture on his Twitter profile is a young Joe with Clough.

He feels the new connection with fans keenly. Following Forest’s heroic and narrow 1-0 defeat to Liverpool in the FA Cup quarter-finals, he spoke of his gratitude to supporters.

‘The best atmosphere I have ever witnessed at the City Ground, I had goosebumps all game,’ he tweeted afterwards, with a collection of fan pictures.

‘The support from the fans and the love you have shown us players through tough times this season are hopefully being repaid.’

Worrall thanked supporters for keeping faith with Forest and the players through 'tough times'

Worrall thanked supporters for keeping faith with Forest and the players through ‘tough times’

Since then the defender has led the club’s appeal for support for the people of Ukraine. None of this comes as a surprise to Spray. 

‘I watch him and he is still the same, he is modest and yet full of confidence’ said Spray fondly, who took time out of the soccer schools and youth matches to watch Forest beat Birmingham City 2-0 at the City Ground last weekend.

‘It was absolutely phenomenal. To think he is a local lad leading his team and there he was in front of 29,000 people

‘When you look at where they were right down at the bottom of the league to come to where they are now is absolutely fantastic. It is incredible.

‘It helps to have local lads in the middle of it. Joe has the club at heart. His mum, dad and grandad used to take him down to the City Ground as a young supporter. He will do anything for the club.

‘There is a real connection between the club, manager, players and supporters this season which has not been seen for a very long while, it is fantastic to see and long may it continue.’ 

Forest's win over Birmingham extended their unbeaten run in the Championship to 11 games

Forest’s win over Birmingham extended their unbeaten run in the Championship to 11 games

Spray, 75, went to his first game when he was 12 years old and he remembers the team’s FA Cup triumph in 1959, when the Reds beat today’s opponents, Luton, 2-1 in the final.

He lived through the heady days of winning the First Division title in 1978, the European Cups in 1979 and 1980 and the League Cup wins in 1989 and 1990.

During the 1990s Forest found it increasing hard to hold on in the Premier League and have not graced the top flight since 1999.

And, like all Forest fans, Spray has watched his club struggle in many of the years that followed. However, like his young counterparts at Forza Garibaldi, Spray thinks Forest are ready to write a new chapter.

‘I don’t think people will ever forget what Brian Clough did here,’ Spray reflected.

‘The history that was made. But now new history can be made. If they do get to the Premier League, it will be fantastic. I hope they do it, I really do.’

FORZA GARIBALDI – UP THE REDS

Forza Garibaldi is one of the most innovative fan groups in English football and has helped reinvigorate the Reds support.

It began in 2016 in response to fans’ desire to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the club and it has developed into a ‘campaign to provide a greater level of backing for the team’.

The name is a reference to the Garibaldi red of the strip – Forest are believed to be the first club to have adopted the colour in the 19th century.

As well as arranging meetings and events for fans around matches, the group is behind major displays at home games.

They have included depictions of Nottingham’s ‘rebel’ icons, the celebrated walk across Trent Bridge to the City Ground and the mythical ‘Forest Kingdom’.

‘It is great to be part of that journey,’ Matt Jones, a volunteer from Forza Garibaldi told Sportsmail. ‘For it to be so well received, it is incredibly humbling the responses we get.

‘We are a very proud football club. We take great pride in the experience of the fans in the ground. We wanted to do something different. It is by the fans, for the fans and we love to do it.’

The whole project is funded through donations and the support of local businesses, like Eco Print, which helps to produce the banners. 

‘It is the support of fans and the Forest community that makes this possible,’ added Jones. ‘It brings us to tears when we see fans put in from their own hard-earned.’ 

Forza Garibaldi is a voluntary organisation, visit their website for details of how to support them.





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