How, you wonder, did the chat between Chelsea’s directors go after their 1-0 defeat by Nottingham Forest at Stamford Bridge on 2 September? Perhaps there had been some thought that by signing 28 players over the past three transfer windows they had destabilised the club, made the life of their manager harder. Could that be possible?
Then maybe somebody asked how many Forest had signed in the same period. “You’re not going to believe this,” some lackey perhaps replied. “They signed 43.” To which the only possible conclusion for Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali is that they should have signed more players.
The most common defence of Mauricio Pochettino’s record at Chelsea – and it is an entirely reasonable one – is that nobody can be expected to thrive in an environment in which the great disruptors have been so greatly disruptive. Although you do wonder whether Steve Cooper might be able to give it a shot. Learning the names of all the new players at Forest over the past 18 months would have been an achievement; moulding them into an effective team is remarkable.
The struggles of the promoted sides this season have generated an understandable sense of gloom. The gulf between Premier League and Championship is growing. It has become common to hear fans of Championship clubs suggest they would rather not go up: better to win a few, lose a few and have fun than risk dispiriting batterings and enormous expenditure just for a chance of staying up. But Forest’s game against Brentford on Sunday afternoon is evidence of what teams who go up through the playoffs can achieve.
And that, perhaps, can offer some succour to Luton, who started the season with four straight league defeats, a draw against opponents who played two-thirds of the game with 10 men and a League Cup exit against Exeter. Perhaps a club of Brentford’s stature can never entirely feel part of the Premier League furniture, but finishing 13th and ninth shows what can be achieved with sensible planning and recruitment.
It will, similarly, be some time before Forest, for all their European heritage, feel comfortable in the Premier League but the sense as they secured survival by beating Arsenal in their final home game of last season was of a club looking up.
Neither case is directly comparable. Luton have not had the years of planning and the near misses of Brentford, nor the spending splurges of Forest. But they do share with Forest the sense of being promoted, if not by mistake, then certainly before anybody really considered it likely. And Forest are proof that a poor start does not have to be terminal: last season they had only four points after nine matches but recovered to finish on 38.
Seven points after six games so far this season may not sound much better than that, but context is important. Last season, Forest took just eight points away from home; this season they have already played at Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City. They won at Stamford Bridge, could easily have got something out of the games at the Emirates and Old Trafford and weren’t embarrassed at the Etihad. It’s true they were 2-0 down after 14 minutes and that Rodri was sent off in the first minute of the second half but, still, it was a lot better than the 6-0 defeat of last season.
Being able to compete with better sides (and Chelsea) doesn’t necessarily translate to improved results against those lower down the table, and the games against Brentford and Crystal Palace next Saturday will give a clearer indication of where Forest stand, but it would be hard to deny progress has been made. And for that, Cooper deserves immense credit.
Absurd as signing 43 players in a little over a year is, the situation is not quite the same as that at Chelsea. This wasn’t a case of a perfectly decent team being torn down to attempt to erect something new. Given the number of loan players in the side that beat Huddersfield in the playoff final, there was barely a team at Forest at all.
From where they are now, it seems scarcely credible that when Cooper took the job, two years ago this week, Forest had taken just four points from eight games in the Championship and the only reason they weren’t bottom was that Derby had been deducted 12 points. Chelsea, at that point, were the reigning European champions.
None of the 13 Forest managers between Billy Davies’s first stint and Cooper had lasted 18 months in the job, which perhaps explains why Forest fans were so protective of him when, after the defeat at Leicester in October and then again after the defeat at Leeds in April, it seemed his position might be under threat.
The stereotype may be that fans are fickle, but most can see that the manager who took them up is rarely the problem when a promoted side battle relegation. Sackings have become a grim ritual, just what a doomed club do in March or April to try to trigger a response.
Part of the reason for Cooper’s popularity is that, quite aside from constructing a coherent team, he so palpably gets it. He understands Forest’s role in the community, grasps what a traditional football club is: to take just one example, he welcomed the family of the murder victim Ian Coates to the training ground.
Yet at the same time, he has to deal with an owner whose ambitions seem unchecked by reality. It’s a very fine line to tread and it is extraordinary that Cooper has accomplished it so adroitly, particularly given he has completed only four seasons as a frontline manager.
He will probably be undone in the end by financial reality and/or the ego of the owner because that’s how football is. But for now it is testament to what a manager can achieve that, two years after Cooper was appointed, Forest were two points above Chelsea in the Premier League table before the weekend fixtures. No matter what other nonsense is going on, an inspirational manager can still make a difference.