On the left breast of Ryan Yates’ blue Nottingham Forest training top is a club crest and, above it, two little stars. One for each of the European Cups won by the club.
Outside the room in which we sit at the club’s training ground is a wall on which hang two large photographs. One is of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. The other shows, among others, Martin O’Neill, Frank Clark, Kenny Burns, John McGovern and Peter Shilton. The European Cup features on both.
So when Yates — the club’s vice-captain and an academy graduate — is asked whether Steve Cooper’s current Forest team are inspired or daunted by this great history, the answer is forthright.
‘Those two European Cups get spoken about a lot here and that’s only right,’ says Yates. ‘We see the guys from that era knocking about the place. It’s incredible what they did and we have to embrace that.
‘We spoke about this a lot last season. But we also spoke about the importance of creating our own history. Forest is a massive club. If you aren’t going to be inspired by what people have done in the past then it’s going to be a massive loss to you. First and foremost, it shows what is achievable, doesn’t it?’
Forest midfielder Ryan Yates says the players want to create their own history at the club
Yates spoke exclusively to Sportsmail from the club’s training ground ahead of their home clash with West Ham on Sunday
When Cooper arrived as manager at the City Ground with the club bottom of the Championship last September, one of the first things he did was invite some of the Forest old boys out for a drink at the Waterside Bar, a pub 200 yards from the City Ground. He then invited them to watch training. The Welshman’s decision was not to ignore the spirit of Forest’s past but to attempt to recreate it.
‘It was fantastic,’ Garry Birtles, part of the 1979 and 1980 European Cup-winning teams, tells Sportsmail. ‘John McGovern and I went for a couple of pints with Steve. He wanted to know how we used to do things under Brian. We told him a few stories and had a laugh, though I am not sure he will be recreating our drinking culture! But he was really listening and that was impressive.
‘It made such a change from managers wanting to block us out and taking old pictures down. None of us want to harp on about the past. But the history is there. Why ignore it? Steve has been a breath of fresh air, right through the club.’
Forest won back-to-back European Cups in 1979 and 1980 in a golden era for the club
Cooper is the 20th full-time Forest manager since they last played a home Premier League game at the City Ground more than 23 years ago. On Sunday his team host West Ham in what promises to be quite an occasion. Cooper described a home game at Forest as a ‘city coming together’ and Yates does not disagree.
‘When you get the fans on your side, it can be incredible,’ says the 24-year-old midfielder. ‘Did you see the FA Cup games last season? It was amazing. Teams didn’t want to come here.
‘Leicester, for example. They weren’t up for it and we blew them away. So it’s another thing we have spoken about. We need to make the City Ground a really tough place to come and that’s up to us.’
Nottingham’s Market Square is currently home to an artificial beach and a giant inflatable water slide. The Town Hall that sits on one side has recently been covered with a giant flag of St George to celebrate the success of the England women’s football team.
Back at the end of May, however, it was different. Thousands of Forest supporters thronged the square to greet Cooper’s players who had won promotion in a Wembley play-off the day before.
Yates, 24, has been at Forest since the age of seven or eight having been born in Lincoln
The midfielder (centre) was a key part of the side that earned Premier League promotion
Yates, born down the road in Lincoln, was the first to stand on the balcony and address the crowd. ‘I have been at this club since I was seven or eight,’ he smiles. ‘I was one-and-a-half the last time they were in the Premier League.
‘But, even so, until I stood on that balcony I am still not sure that even I really knew quite what it meant. I looked out at all those people and I was like, ‘Bloomin’ heck’ and I still feel a little like that now. Until the first home game it’s still all new to us, isn’t it? It’s pure excitement.’
Forest’s surge up the table under Cooper last season was extraordinary. They lost just six of his 39 league games in charge and knocked Arsenal and Leicester out of the FA Cup. In the last eight, they were unfortunate to lose 1-0 at home against Liverpool.
Forest boss Steve Cooper guided the team into the top flight after an extraordinary season
But one of Yates’ most prominent memories of the season is about none of that. The day before Cooper’s predecessor Chris Hughton was sacked, Forest were beaten 2-0 by Middlesbrough at home on a Wednesday night.
‘The mentality and feeling around the club was negative,’ recalls Yates. ‘We were losing every week. But that night against Middlesbrough the place was packed. We lost, we were bottom and there were almost 25,000 in.
‘I remember being in the stands when I was an academy player and we only had 14,000. Yet here we were and there were all those people turning out. I will never forget that.
‘To come out of the other side is incredible. Luckily for us, Steve came in and there was a complete transformation.’
It is never easy to put a finger on what a manager does to change a team’s fortunes. If it was, they would be selling books about it. Certainly, part of Cooper’s work has been done inside his players’ heads. After his first home game in charge — a 1-1 draw with Millwall — the Forest manager didn’t sleep ‘for days’, so struck had he been by the nature of the football club.
Detecting a disconnect between the club and its supporters, he set about trying to rectify that. In a bid to re-establish his players’ sense of esteem, he asked family members to write notes to be left in their lockers. Defender Joe Worrall, from nearby Hucknall, was reduced to tears.
A 2-0 defeat at home to Middlesbrough last season remains a prominent memory for Yates
‘If we named everything the manager had done to help us we’d be here a long time,’ says Yates. ‘We had the worst start in 100 years last season. There was so much negativity. He gave us a positive outlook and galvanised us all.
‘Straight away he tried to establish a connection between the team and the supporters and himself. I don’t think a manager had done that during my time. It also helped that we started to play quite exciting football. He worked to our players’ strengths.
‘He expects the highest standards. Completely friendly in and around the place but when you’re on the grass or in the gym, he wants those standards. You can tell by the players the club have brought in this summer. Young and hungry and desperate to play. That will only drive the players with the shirt to improve and live better off the pitch and train harder.
‘Never settling for less than our best is something that Steve works towards. It’s just as well as we are in the Premier League now.’
A pensioner sits nursing a beer in the sun outside the BeerHeadz micropub at Nottingham station and talks about his football team. A Forest season ticket holder for decades, he has seen plenty.
‘I am excited,’ he says. ‘We all are. But what makes me really happy is that we have kept our local lads. Ryan Yates and Joe Worrall. They are the heartbeat of that team.’
Yates talked up the role of Cooper in transforming Forest into a Premier League side
The very next day Cooper named the pair vice-captain and captain for the Premier League season. At a time when the manager is trying to merge new players with those remaining from last season, it feels like a deliberate act.
Few squads have experienced the churn of outgoings and incomings like Forest have this summer. Half of the promotion team has gone, simply because the likes of Djed Spence — now at Tottenham — James Garner — back at Manchester United — and Philip Zinckernagel were all on loan or out of contract.
The club has spent heavily on a raft of players to replace them and it feels very much as though things could go either way from here.
Cooper is more relaxed than most by all this simply because he knew it would happen. It would have been the same even if the club had not been promoted.
At its core, though, Cooper wants his team to have a local identity. That is hard in the modern era but in Yates and Worrall he has a pair who bleed Garibaldi red.
‘For the likes of me and Joe and the local lads, you feel that sense of guilt when things don’t go well and, yeah, that’s tough,’ says Yates, who is said to a big doubt Sunday with a minor knee injury. ‘You feel that pressure but you also feel that immense pride. You feel the emotions of the crowd. Joe is Nottingham born and bred. He takes his friends’ emotions on to that field with him. I know he does.’
Yates says he feels a sense of guilt when things don’t go well as he is a local lad
Worrall and Yates shared club digs together behind the City Ground when they were in their mid-teens. They were the same rooms once occupied by the likes of Roy Keane. These days the pair still holiday together with their girlfriends.
Yates, by his own admission, was a slower developer. Loans across the Trent at Notts County, Scunthorpe and, before all of that, non-League Barrow were needed to ready him for a team for whom he played 43 league games last season.
‘Barrow is a long way in your Vauxhall Corsa with 100,000 miles on the clock,’ smiles Yates. ‘It was tough but I knew I was going to have to prove myself there if I was ever going to prove myself here.
‘I was 17 or 18 and it feels so long ago as so much has happened. It’s incredible. Those six months shaped the way I was going forward. I never take anything for granted.’
As a football club, Forest are finding their way and it is not always easy. They have no shirt sponsor, for example. Their Greek owner Evangelos Marinakis said this summer the supporters should be ‘ready for trophies’, while in reality a 17th place Premier League finish would be an achievement.
Owner Evangelos Marinakis has boldly declared that Forest fans should be ‘ready for trophies’
This summer has already seen improvements to the City Ground’s floodlights, dressing rooms and boardroom. Planning permission was also granted ahead of a rebuild of the Main Stand which will take capacity to 35,000. The academy, run by the respected Gary Brazil, now has Category One status.
‘We have been trying to catch up 23 years in just a few weeks,’ Forest chairman Nicholas Randall QC said to the BBC.
On Sunday, on the field the important stuff starts in Nottingham. Last season Cooper believed his team’s spirit was its strength and the chances are Forest will need a fair bit of that.
‘I knew they’d bring new players in so for me everything has to go up a level,’ says Yates. ‘That’s how our academy makes us. Keep improving. You need to play in the Premier League. Then you need to establish yourself in the Premier League. So that’s what I think about. I need to keep this shirt. That’s the attitude.’
There are two stars on that shirt. Only three other clubs in the country can lay claim to that.