Forest questions over Cooper are a battle between football’s id and ego

·6-min read
Nottingham Forest manager Steve Cooper Credit: PA Images
Nottingham Forest manager Steve Cooper Credit: PA Images

Nottingham Forest face an international break of speculation, but for now Steve Cooper continues to make both logical and emotional sense.

 

By the time the full-time whistle blew on Friday night, an increasingly familiar feeling of deflation had descended over The City Ground. Nottingham Forest had just lost to Fulham, their fourth consecutive defeat and second in a row against a club promoted with them last season, which left them one place off the bottom of the Premier League.

But the circulating rumours since then have been contradictory. Speculation has been growing that manager Steve Cooper might not long be for the job. But it has also been reported that Forest are keen to get Cooper to renew his contract. Not for the first time this season, the Premier League’s id and ego seem to be coming into direct contact with each other.

It seems almost a constitutional requirement in today’s Premier League that a manager should come under immediate investigation once their team has lost three successive games. The argument for this is pretty clear. Nottingham Forest invested heavily during the summer, and this has brought an element of financial jeopardy to their season that might not have existed had they just replaced last season’s loanees on the cheap and tried to carry on regardless.

Relegation after one season, it follows, is too much of a risk to continue with a manager who is ‘out of his depth’ at this level. Heads must roll and quickly in order to ‘protect the asset’. From the outside, though, this can look like something rather different. Something more akin to rolling the dice and keeping your fingers crossed for a double six.

There’s no question that Forest’s recent run has been grim. Four straight defeats, the last two of which began with taking the lead and ended with conceding three goals. These tell a potential narrative of a bold experiment sliding from view. But how easy or difficult is it to integrate 21 new players into one Premier League squad? Well, no-one’s ever tried before so it’s difficult to say, but “really bloody difficult” seems a reasonable assumption and the early results of this season’s experiment have hardly been encouraging.

Forest’s previous defeats against Spurs and Liverpool might have been more predictable than losing to Bournemouth and Fulham (and they were a little unfortunate against Spurs), but at this point and with the international break offering more time for club owner Angelos Marinakis to be alone with his thoughts, speculation about the manager is hardly surprising.

But what does ‘out of his depth’ even mean? And how can managers ever acclimatise to this depth if the bar for sacking them is set as low as three or four games? Defeat is a fundamental part of football. The number of clubs to have gone a whole season unbeaten in all four of the top divisions in England in the last hundred years can be counted on the fingers of one finger. Our growing intolerance of losing, when for every winner of a game there has to be a loser and when for every champion there has to be, well, everybody else who isn’t one, can look utterly perplexing when viewed from any reasonable distance.

 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

In the case of Steve Cooper, Forest may have pressing issues influencing their thinking. Football’s food chain may be at it again, and with Brighton having been defenestrated by Chelsea the Seagulls may have an interest in swooping for Cooper. It has been suggested that Forest are keen to get him to sign a new contract because his current one is not particularly binding, with just a year to run and likely a low compensation payment due.

It would be naive to assume that signing a new contract even guarantees a manager staying anywhere. There is a logic to the argument that if Forest felt that interest from Brighton (or elsewhere – Leicester City could easily soon be looking for someone, too) was real, they could agree to allow him to speak to other clubs if they were due a considerably higher compensation fee. This may infuriate supporters who want Cooper to stay, but football’s usual response to this sort of decision is usually ‘that’s business’.

Under the bright glare of turbo-capitalism, sentiment counts for little. Two historic European Cups count for something when they can be commoditised, but otherwise Brighton’s relatively settled first team squad, excellent start to this season (regardless of the events of the last couple of weeks), and five consecutive years of Premier League football may be worth more. From this perspective, getting Cooper to agree a new contract is ‘protecting the asset’, regardless of the eventual outcome of Forest’s current woes.

But none of this is to say that Steve Cooper doesn’t stay with Nottingham Forest. It’s now been exactly a year since Chris Hughton departed The City Ground, and the fact that feels like such a long time tells a story in itself. And if ever there were a situation in which it might take time for team to gel together properly, then surely it’s when the club has brought in a record-breakingly large number of new players in one summer.

If that is the issue, then what would sacking him and bringing in a new manager even achieve? If team selections look unusual at times, well, that seems rather burnt into the project. Cooper has little alternative but to experiment with his team and formation because he only has the training ground and a handful of matches to assess how this particular unit best holds together. Assuming that they will ‘just click’ is setting a bar so high as to seem almost absurd.

It may well be the case that 21 is too high a number of players to attempt to integrate at the same time, but equally it can hardy be said that we know this definitively. So for how long is Mr Marinakis prepared to be patient? For how long is it possible to retain the required rictus grin when results aren’t going your way?

For now, there remains both logical and emotional sense in keeping Steve Cooper. He’s already proved what he’s capable of and there doesn’t seem to be anybody who wouldn’t be even more colossally expensive. Getting rid of him now remains the greater gamble, and it remains entirely possible that by the new year everybody will be looking back on this whole episode with a wry smile on their faces.

But a clock is ticking, and it’s impossible to say how long it will be before a bell goes off inside Angelos Marinakis’ head, or whether Cooper might be tempted to jump, whether before he’s pushed or not. With no games left now to turn things around for a couple of weeks, it’s likely to be a long international break for the club’s supporters.

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