By David Williams
Steve Cooper insists he and his Nottingham Forest side will not be burdened by the weight of history as they prepare to face Sheffield United in the first leg of their Sky Bet Championship play-off semi-final at Bramall Lane on Saturday.
The Welshman will lead a club that has not featured in the Premier League this century, an absence keenly felt in a city steeped in the traditions of Brian Clough and his all-conquering sides that swept to back-to-back European Cup wins in 1979 and 1980.
Expectations have been raised again by the club’s extraordinary rise since former Swansea City boss Cooper’s arrival at the City Ground in September, but the Pontypridd native is adamant that history must only be seen as a positive as they look to take the first steps towards a return to the game’s elite.
“It’s not a weight – it depends on your mindset and how you look at things, but I think it’s a pride and it’s about being a part of something massive,” said Cooper, who led Swansea into the play-offs in each of the last two seasons.
“What we’re trying to do is really embrace that amazing era of the club, and create positive futures as well. I like coming to the City Ground and seeing all the stuff on the walls – there’s nothing negative whatsoever about it.”
Cooper will bring back his main men after making seven changes for his side’s final game of the regular season at Hull, with Ryan Yates and Jack Colback shrugging off recent injuries, and the likes of Brennan Johnson and Sam Surridge expected to return to the starting line-up.
Cooper will instil his young squad with the need to ignore external distractions and turn the inevitable pressure that comes with being a part of such a big occasion into something positive.
🗣 “We were bottom of the league but we still had 25,000 people turn up”
Steve Cooper discusses taking Nottingham Forest from the wrong end of the table to the brink of promotion as they face Sheffield United this afternoon 👇 pic.twitter.com/GQbtceCts0
— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) May 14, 2022
“The most important thing is being absolutely ready to go to Bramall Lane,” he added.
“We’ve got to thrive on it and not be fearful of it. If you want to succeed in life these are the sorts of things you have to embrace and go for.
“Nerves and anxiety are normal and we shouldn’t be scared of that. We shouldn’t dismiss it, we need a good self-awareness about what’s going on.
“If you feel nervous and anxious it shows you care. But you’ve also got to get the confidence and the motivation.”
Hoping to deny Cooper will be Sheffield United midfielder Conor Hourihane, who played under Cooper for the Swans last season when they reached the play-off final, only to lose out to Brentford.
Hourihane has played in four play-off semi-finals for three different clubs to date and has reached the final on each occasion. He also got to Wembley for the Carabao Cup final with Aston Villa and he is in no doubt where the most pressure lies.
“You have to enjoy it as much as you can, but the whole thing’s just a pressure cooker,” said Hourihane.
“You’ve got two legs, home and away, and they are always bouncing.
— Conor Hourihane (@ConorHourihane) August 30, 2021
“I got to the Carabao Cup final with Villa, but that was no comparison to a play-off final or a semi-final because there’s so much on the line, on that one given day.
“I know the Carabao Cup is a major trophy, but you’ve got players in the Championship, or when I was in League One and got promoted, you’re trying to get to that next level that you may never have got to before.
“Money-wise, for your career, for your club, everything. There’s just always so much riding on it.”
The Yorkshire side have been involved in the play-offs on eight previous occasions and never been successful.