The Sleeping Giant Finally Learning From Its Mistakes
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The Nottingham Forest fans had been warned not to go on to the pitch, but after 120 minutes and penalties the emotion was too much, it happened.

Stands at the City Ground emptied as joyous supporters rushed onto the field to celebrate moving within one game of the Premier League.

Unfortunately, unsavory clashes with some Sheffield United players during that melee have somewhat overshadowed the post-match analysis about what has been a remarkable achievement from manager Steve Cooper.

When the former Swansea boss took over Forest it languished in last position in the table. He is the sixth different coach the club has had in five seasons and expectations were not high when he was appointed.

But Cooper not only brushed aside relegation concerns, he came close to bringing automatic promotion to the East Midlanders.

And, having reached the Play-Off final against Huddersfield Town, he has no intention of stopping there.

“I promise you I will work even harder than I have already worked to get this,” he told the media after the victory against Sheffield United, “I will be the first one at the training ground. We will be ready.”

In an era of ‘project clubs’ where the savviest and most data-driven plot their path to the Premier League by mapping the long-term trends, Forest’s mad dash to English soccer’s top-flight feels like something of a throwback.

Cooper has overseen a rapid transformation, he’s turned a team struggling to establish a clear identity and little sense of direction into a cohesive unit with powerful momentum.

Stories like this used to be commonplace in English soccer, apparently meandering clubs suddenly finding their mojo under the right manager and rising to the top.

From Newcastle United to Derby County, a coach with momentum could alter a trajectory for decades.

How the game changed

Forest themselves were arguably the perfect case study, rising from mid-table second division side to European champions within a few years.

Their ascent to the top-table was guided by the managerial genius of Brian Clough and, except for Leicester City’s title win in 2015-16, represents the last time a true outsider was successful in their ascent to the very top.

But relegation from the top-flight in the 1998-99 season has led to over two decades in the wilderness, including four seasons in the third tier of English soccer.

During that time there has never been any question of the club’s potential, but the opportunity to ascend back to the top, in the way it did previously has become more and more distant.

The gap between the revenue in the top division at the leagues below it has become so large even clubs with reputations far less storied than Forest have earnings that put them way ahead of the Reds.

Any advantage historical prestige gave a club has been eroded too, innovation and strategy are far more important.

As I pointed out in May last year, when Brentford made it to the Premier League, having a better plan than your opponents is what provides the edge.

Teams like Brentford and Brighton and Hove Albion have managed to ascend to the top-flight by leveraging the power of data and pioneering new ideas.

The old-fashioned way of doing things; bringing in the players and managers with the biggest reputations you can find and expecting it will come together just doesn’t cut it anymore.

But for a long while it’s seemed as if Forest’s approach has been based on this method.

In the five years before Cooper arrived, it made 69 transfers and cycled through five different managers. The turnover was so great at one stage it had a full 11 of Championship level talent ostracised from the first team.

Club record $18 million signing João Carvalho, acquired from Champions League club Benfica, barely played before being sent out on loan and in many ways embodied the ‘buy big’ philosophy.

It should be said, there were moments when it nearly came off, where it looked like the club might challenge for promotion. But equal in their number were catastrophic seasons where relegation was a real threat.

Borrowing from Barnsley

This year Forest did seem to have realized that a change of direction was needed. They saw that, if it was to compete with clubs like Barnsley, who before its relegation this season consistently achieved a lot more than their Championship rivals with a fraction of the budget, they would have to think more like them.

A clear indication of this was when the Reds brought in Dane Murphy, a young American CEO known for taking a ‘Moneyball’ data-based approach, from the Yorkshire side.

Discussing transfers, it’s clear that Murphy comes from the school of thought that prioritizes long-term vision.

“Those who have a philosophy, an end goal and a product that they want to place on a field, those are the ones that generally have a higher percentage of success with their recruitment,” he pointed out when discussing transfers on his YouTube channel.

That mentality should work well with Cooper, who is not a manager that insists on transfers and is willing to work with what he’s got.

“I was happy with the group when I walked in. I think if you’re not, then you’re already off to a loser,” he said about first taking the role.

But the truth is that both men are still working with a squad shaped by many years where the approach has been different.

While it’s tempting to be caught up in the rapid success the pair have built, more important will be their ability to remain focused on long-term targets and a cohesive strategy.

The challenge maintaining that will be even greater should the bright lights of the Premier League come into view.

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