If you walk through Leeds city centre, you’ll see lasting evidence of Marcelo Bielsa’s impact on the club. There is a street named after him and a mural in his honour. His relationship with the supporters, having made the area his home for three and a half years, was immortalised. It transcended football in many ways; Bielsa understood and assimilated with Leeds, the city and the people.
The sentiment, if not the gestures, is the same for Steve Cooper at Nottingham Forest. Sacked this week with the team hovering just above the relegation zone in the Premier League. In truth, it had been a decision waiting to be made for over a year by owner Evangelios Marinakis, not because Cooper deserved to go, but because the narrative had been set in motion.
The manner in which the news filtered out to the media was nothing short of disrespectful to Cooper, who had done a stunning job taking the club from the Championship doldrums all the way to promotion for the first time since 1998 the season before last. It also happened during the last campaign, before a stunning turn of events that saw Cooper sign a new contract at the City Ground.
But his down to earth persona jarred with Marinakis’ volatility, and there always felt like a time would come for them to part ways. Cooper was also a coach, not a manager, preferring to work with a small group of players on the training pitch. The fact he had to gel together an ever-changing set up at Forest, with so many new players at every turn, summed up why the job stopped suiting Cooper.
It is rare, though, that a sacked manager will leave with well wishes from the supporters. In a 5-0 defeat at Fulham earlier this month, the travelling hoards greeted Cooper like a hero at full time, even after booing some of the players. There was a mutual acceptance at that point; it was a goodbye. Drawing at Wolves prolonged the inevitable, but then came the defeat to Tottenham and then, ultimately, the end.
Anger and sadness still met the announcement, though. For a generation of Forest fans, Cooper gave them their greatest time. He was wholly likeable, too; humble and never too quick to take credit for anything. His outlook on the job was refreshing, too; not panicking when things got tough or getting too carried away when things went well. If Forest’s aim is to emulate the likes of Brighton and Brentford in building themselves a strong foundation in the top flight, Cooper was exactly the kind of man they should have built the club around, at least for this first phase. But signing so many players and spending as much as they have, a certain level of instant gratification is to be expected.
So what next for Forest? The Nuno Espírito Santo era has already begun. He was in almost as quickly as Cooper was out. It can’t be coincidence that super agent Jorge Mendes is beginning to have a greater influence at Forest, just as he did when Nuno took over at Wolves in 2017. But the Portuguese coach is a smooth operator, he has experience of establishing a team in the Premier League and he left Wolves serenaded by the supporters.
Even Nuno has alluded to the issue he inherits from Cooper, namely the size of Forest’s squad. But he first wants to judge them before deciding on further changes in January.
“The only ones who can and should improve things are already here – then we will think about anything else.
“I’m focused on tomorrow – we are training to prepare for a tough game. I’m happy with the things we have. I have never managed a squad of 30 players – it is a challenge.”
Nuno will face the same issues as Cooper. His appointment will not be a quick fix. He will be supported by the fans, but there is a bitter taste that comes with this change suggest a lot needs to be done to make it the right one.