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Nottingham Forest: Two-time European Cup winners banish nightmares to end 23-year Premier League exile

<i>Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Joy is unconfined among Nottingham Forest fans after the club's promotion to the Premier League.
AFP via Getty Images
Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images
Joy is unconfined among Nottingham Forest fans after the club's promotion to the Premier League.

By Jonathan Hawkins, CNN

Bill Clinton was in the White House, Tony Blair was in his second year as UK prime minister and The Backstreet Boys were on top of the UK pop charts with “I Want It That Way.”

The year 1999 was also when two-time European Cup winner Nottingham Forest last played in the English Premier League.

On Sunday, this sleeping giant whose somnambulant 23-year wander through English football’s lower tiers that has been at turns arduous and almost comically humiliating, finally hauled itself back into the Premier League.

Roared on by 40,000 imploring fans at London’s cavernous Wembley Stadium, the former European champion beat Huddersfield Town 1-0 to complete the most unlikely of comebacks, turning the club’s worst start to a season in 108 years into an implausible promotion.

To anyone over the age of 40, Forest is a name associated with one man — the great Brian Clough, who famously guided it to promotion, an improbable English top-flight league win, and then back-to- back European Cups between 1978 and 1980.

The club was a regular challenger for honors throughout the 1980s and early 90s, but was relegated from the Premier League in 1993, its inaugural season.

Clough departed, and although Forest briefly returned to the top flight under his successor, Frank Clark, its stay was short-lived, and the club was relegated again in 1999.

Painful lows

Forest’s generation-long absence from footballing aristocracy had begun to take on an air of hopeless permanence. Two lost Championship playoff semi-finals, to Sheffield United in 2003, and Swansea City in 2011, had been honorable highs amid deep and painful lows.

Surrendering a 3-1 lead with eight minutes left of its 2007 League One playoff semifinal against Yeovil Town, to lose 5-4 in extra time, is a memory that still haunts every Forest fan.

Clough managed Forest for 18 years — in the subsequent 29 years, the club have had no fewer than 35 different men at the helm. Ownership too has been turbulent, the club changing hands four times in the post-Clough era.

Current owner Evangelos Marinakis, a shipping magnate who also owns Greek champion Olympiacos, took over in 2017 and promised promotion within five years.

As recently as January of this year, that looked highly unlikely. Forest had managed only one point from its opening five games, which led to the departure of manager Chris Hughton.

New manager Steve Cooper took the reins in September with the club sitting bottom of the division.

The 42-year-old Welshman, the son of a referee and on the losing side of two previous playoff semifinals, has seemingly transformed every aspect of this once-famous club, leading them on a relentless rise up the table.

This season also included FA Cup victories over Arsenal and Leicester City, and a scare for Liverpool, who escaped a pulsating City Ground with a narrow 1-0 quarterfinal win.

Even Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was struck by the noise at Forest’s venerable stadium.

“It was a massive atmosphere, a massive event. It felt like a European night to be honest. I know it’s a while ago that Nottingham had them, but the crowd is prepared,” said Klopp.

‘Mess things up’

Forest fans were certainly craving success, but they have also learned to expect the worst.

“I’ve been so emotional these past two weeks,” Forest fan Malcolm Cox told CNN Sport before Sunday’s game.

“We’ve been so close before and always messed it up. But this season has just felt different, everything about it. The fans, the togetherness, the sense of something special brewing. I haven’t seen the City Ground rocking like it has been this season before — even the glory days were not like this, something has just fundamentally changed.”

Given their club’s historic propensity to ‘mess things up,’ Forest fans on their way to the game were understandably nervous.

Matthew Beardsley was carrying his five-year-old son, Percie, draped in a Forest scarf, on his shoulders.

“Along with the birth of my son I’d say these are the two most important days of my life,” he said.

“Who are we?” Beardsley asked his son, “Red army!” came the shout back.

Estimates put the bounty for victory in the Championship playoff final at close to $215 million.

The potentially transformative effect of such riches on the winners is clear, but the stakes were particularly high for a Forest side assembled with five loan players, including Manchester United’s James Garner, as well as at least two of its own homegrown young stars — Joe Worrall and Brennan Johnson — whose performances have drawn attention from clubs with deeper pockets.

Had they failed to win on Sunday, retaining any of their big names would have been hard.

Cooper understood just how much pressure had been lifted from the shoulders of the entire club.

‘We’ve been desperate for something like this and I’ve felt it in the last eight or nine months,” Cooper told reporters.

“I’m really proud of everybody connected with the club. It isn’t about individual success. It’s about the club … it’s a magical football club and we’ve just reminded the world of that.”

‘I Just Can’t Get Enough’

Sunday’s playoff final was decided by an own goal — Huddersfield’s Levi Colwill lashing the ball into his own net under pressure from another of Forest’s homegrown young stars, Ryan Yates.

The second half saw two convincing penalty shouts from Huddersfield controversially dismissed by referee Jon Moss, the first with the intervention of VAR. Forest held on and in Wembley’s vast curving stands, the red clad hordes erupted, bouncing to the sound of the club’s recently adopted anthem, Depeche Mode’s “I Just Can’t Get Enough.”

Worrall, who captained the team on Sunday, hailed Cooper’s impact.

“He’s given us that little bit of belief,” he told Sky TV’s pitchside reporters. “It’s like a whipped dog, you treat any dog with kindness and they become a nice dog, if you mistreat one then they’re aggressive.

“We’ve been a mistreated team, and he’s come in and he’s given us that hope, given us that belief. He killed us with kindness.”

For the fans, all that mattered was that their long wait was over.

“This is payback from all those awful nights — losing to Woking and Yeovil — and thinking that the story would never have a happy ending,” said Cox as he walked amid the ecstatic throng of fans away from Wembley.

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