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Brutally unfair as it would be, Steve Cooper looks set for Forest sack as most expensive relegation ever looms

Richard Jolly


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Nottingham Forest manager Steve Cooper looks dejcted during the Premier League match at King Power Stadium, Leicester. Picture date: Monday October 3, 2022.

Nottingham Forest manager Steve Cooper looks dejcted during the Premier League match at King Power Stadium, Leicester. Picture date: Monday October 3, 2022.

Nottingham Forest manager Steve Cooper looks dejcted during the Premier League match at King Power Stadium, Leicester. Picture date: Monday October 3, 2022.

It transpired that Steve Cooper could not even win the sack race in the Midlands. Leicester City against Nottingham Forest had the air of El Sackico, the shootout to avoid the firing squad, but with the stealth of a man who often went unnoticed, Bruno Lage contrived to collect his P45 before either Brendan Rodgers or Cooper could.

A reprieve for Rodgers, courtesy of a 4-0 rout, may assume terminal proportions for Cooper, more because of the climate around Forest than the crime of propping up the top flight.

Cooper’s downcast reaction gave the impression he fears the worst. Taking Forest from the foot of the Championship to the foot of the Premier League is still a feat of alchemy, which supporters recognised by chorusing his name, but his employer’s interpretation may be that he lost his golden touch in a run of five straight defeats.

Forest’s trigger-happy owner Evangelos Marinakis could have the dubious distinction of firing both managers from last season’s play-off final within a few weeks; he dismissed Carlos Corberan following a mere 11 games at Olympiakos.

The revolving doors in the Marinakis empire are not confined to the offices of his respective managers, and after 22 signings for around £150m, Forest might be headed for the most expensive relegation ever.

But playing Football Manager in real life feels problematic for actual football managers. Cooper doesn’t know his strongest side; then again, neither does anyone else.

Cooper’s decision-making feels faulty of late but, realistically, who could imagine and assemble a compelling team from this collection of strangers? Initially, it seemed he would. Forest showed genuine promise in the win over West Ham, albeit when their goal seemed to lead a charmed life, and the draw at Everton. They have regressed alarmingly since then.

A surfeit of signings has made continuity harder. Cooper strayed from a formula that had been successful. At Leicester, for the first time this season, an advocate of 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-2-1 began with a back four.

Forest duly conceded two goals in as many first-half minutes and three in 11; after letting in three in six minutes against Fulham and two in 12 to Bournemouth, it points to a fragility.

Maybe, however, it is unrealistic to expect newcomers to have the organisation and spirit to cope with setbacks.

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Letting in three long-range goals reflected badly on Dean Henderson, but in the broader picture, the goalkeeper is not the main reason Forest have a soft underbelly.

The middle of defence is the weakest department of this team; perhaps one of those 22 recruits is a top-class centre-back, but if so, he is the injured Moussa Niakhate.

In his absence, Championship-calibre players have been found wanting. Joe Worrall can wonder why he was dropped while Steve Cook and Scott McKenna are preferred. Given his multiple, and often spectacular, handballs, the temptation is to think Cook is a better goalkeeper than defender.

Some of the spending was not targeted appropriately. Sometimes the multiple additions pointed to club and manager each compiling their shopping list. There is scant evidence Cooper wanted or rates Giulian Biancone, Serge Aurier or Emmanuel Dennis and perhaps not Remo Freuler, despite his considerable pedigree. Aurier, Freuler and Dennis all came on at Leicester, but only after the damage had been done.

Forest have over-complicated matters with the congestion for places and a fourth starting central-midfield combination in as many games felt a sign of confusion.

Neither Cheikhou Kouyate nor Lewis O’Brien survived into the second half. Each was overworked; the most attacking team Cooper has named this season felt a product more of desperation than inspiration.

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Soccer Football - Premier League - Leicester City v Nottingham Forest - King Power Stadium, Leicester, Britain - October 3, 2022 Nottingham Forest's Jesse Lingard reacts REUTERS/Craig Brough

Soccer Football - Premier League - Leicester City v Nottingham Forest - King Power Stadium, Leicester, Britain - October 3, 2022 Nottingham Forest's Jesse Lingard reacts REUTERS/Craig Brough

Soccer Football - Premier League - Leicester City v Nottingham Forest - King Power Stadium, Leicester, Britain - October 3, 2022 Nottingham Forest's Jesse Lingard reacts REUTERS/Craig Brough

It was the first time he started the quartet of Jesse Lingard, Morgan Gibbs-White, Brennan Johnson and Taiwo Awoniyi together. While Awoniyi hit the post from a move involving Lingard and Gibbs-White, it seemed as though he was gambling, going against his beliefs by overloading with forward-thinking players.

Attack did not prove the best form of defence: Lingard has been a major disappointment this season and his half-hearted clearance led to James Maddison’s opener. Gibbs-White was part of the five-man inquest into the third goal. That several of them were pointing in different directions looked sadly symbolic.

Forest’s 23-year wait to return to the top flight and their glorious past added romance and significance to promotion; their spending ensured the spotlight lingered on them.

Perhaps signings such as Renan Lodi, Freuler and Lingard were sold a dream of a top-half finish. The reality, however, is that the play-off winners always enter the division as officially its worst side, having garnered fewer points than the other two promoted teams.

Pick a combined side from the East Midlands rivals and, apart from Henderson, Forest may not be represented. In that sense, defeat at Leicester, albeit winless Leicester, was only to be expected.

It was more damning actually to lose leads to Bournemouth and Fulham in what, on paper, were their easiest games of the season. The seeds of Cooper’s probable demise may have been sown then.

The easy joke is to suggest Forest can make another 22 signings in January. The greater probability is that the next change will remove the manager who ended their long exile in the lower leagues. Brutally unfair as it would be, Cooper’s race could be run.


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