Steve Cooper’s first notable success as a manager was winning the Under 17 World Cup with England in 2017.
The tournament was in India and not logistically easy, but over a month Cooper steered 21 boys to a highly significant age-group triumph.
Talk now to some of those players — men like Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho — about Cooper and they will speak of his coaching, but first his ability to unite a group, to steer a disparate squad of players uniformly along one path.
Nottingham Forest’s rash spending spree of £150m on 22 players could cost Steve Cooper
Evangelos Marinakis’ response to Premier League promotion has been to buy and keep buying
Many of those players stayed close. Some — such as Conor Gallagher, Rhian Brewster and Marc Guehi — joined Cooper at Swansea City on loan. There’s an enduring bond.
Cooper is now the manager of Nottingham Forest and things are different. The Welshman joined Forest last September with the club bottom of the Championship table and took them to the Premier League and the last eight of the FA Cup. It was a thrilling ride and those who were part of it talk in simple terms of how he did it.
‘It was about unity,’ midfielder Ryan Yates told me back in August. ‘He brought everybody together. None of my managers had done that here before.’
The Welshman (far right) steered England to an Under-17 World Cup victory in India in 2017
At the start, Cooper met with members of Brian Clough’s great teams. It wasn’t a publicity thing. He wanted to know what Forest meant. He wanted to learn a little of how Clough did it. He wanted to steal a little bit of that and, in his own way, he did.
Cooper has not been able to build a cohesive Forest side this season
Of the squad that took Forest up for the first time in 24 years, nine players appeared in more than 38 league games. Cooper’s astonishing success was built around a consistent spine, a group of like-minded men. It had been exactly the same at Swansea.
And now, in the Premier League, things have changed. Forest’s squad had to be overhauled. There were too many loan players. Others were out of contract.
Forest’s response — driven in part by owner Evangelos Marinakis and his son Miltiadis — has been to buy and keep buying. During the summer months, it seemed ambitious. Now it just seems self-defeating.
Forest have signed 22 players at a cost of £150million. The team who face Leicester at the King Power Stadium on Monday night will feature three — maybe four — of the team who won last May’s play-off final. How Cooper is supposed to make that work is hard to fathom.
He has remained publicly supportive of the club’s policy but what alternative does he have? To say otherwise would bring him a heap of publicity a quiet, reserved man does not need.
Only three or four players who helped Forest win promotion could feature against Leicester
But no manager would wish to manage under these circumstances in Europe’s most competitive league.
Coaches — whatever their respective strengths — always need a core group on whom they can rely. Cooper is still trying to find out who should be in his. It is the equivalent of starting pre-season in September rather than July.
The 42-year-old has done what he can to maintain some consistency. Yates, an academy product, is vice-captain. Joe Worrall, a Nottingham boy, is captain. But Forest’s squad looks like it has been put together in a hurry simply because it has. Many of the foundations and principles that took Forest places last season are now under threat.
Cooper has tried to keep some consistency by making Nottingham-born Joe Worrall captain
Cooper’s club skipper last season, for example, was Lewis Grabban, a 33-year-old forward who didn’t always play. But the common purpose then was such that he remained invested and was able to come off the bench and score a goal that beat Arsenal in the FA Cup. These are the little things that help a team tick over and succeed.
Forest — on a run of four successive league defeats — do not look like a cohesive team now. How can they?
And the loudest noise is talk of Cooper’s future. They say they may sack Forest’s miracle man.
How predictable. How reactionary. How very sad.
What Southgate can’t say about Trent
There is no more boring debate than the one about Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold and England.
Gareth Southgate doesn’t pick him because he isn’t as defensively sound as the alternatives. Southgate cannot say this for fear of the headlines that would follow, but it’s the truth.
So in order for the England manager to select the Liverpool player, he would have to tear up a system he believes in and build a new one to accommodate him.
The World Cup is 48 days away, so this won’t happen. Nor should it.
Gareth Southgate won’t pick Trent Alexander-Arnold as he is not defensively strong enough
Arsenal are in the middle of a long-term project
The north London derby was deservedly won by Arsenal and they have one clear advantage over Tottenham.
Under Mikel Arteta, Arsenal are in the early stages of a long-term project. Tottenham? Coach Antonio Conte never stays anywhere longer than two or three seasons, so it’s harder to say the same.
Nations League puts an end to lame friendlies
Were it not for the Nations League, England’s World Cup preparations would have comprised a couple of lame friendlies at Wembley.
The chances are Gareth Southgate’s team would have won them, just as they beat Peru before the 2014 World Cup and Nigeria and Costa Rica prior to the last one.
Those games tell you nothing. Players coast through them trying not to get injured. Last week’s games against Italy and Germany were different. They were competitive and did tell us something, even if we didn’t like it.
Whatever happens in Qatar, the players who featured over the last 10 days will have learned something and be better for the experience. It’s a good competition.
England’s 3-3 draw with Germany was their final game before the Qatar World Cup kicks off