By David Williams
Steve Cooper will allow himself just a short time to catch his breath before plotting further progress in the Premier League for Nottingham Forest.
The only Welsh manager in the top flight guaranteed he will be there again next season after Forest beat Arsenal 1-0 to end the Gunners’ title hopes.
Cooper has gone from academy coaching at Wrexham and Liverpool, to England age groups, to Swansea City, to taking Forest out of the Championship, to keeping them there with a game to spare.
“This was always going to be my toughest coaching challenge,” he said, referring the club signing 30 new players across the season, following promotion a year ago.
“I feel pride and a great sense of belonging at being part of something really special. My family and I will be in debt to these supporters forever.
“A brilliant day for the players and supporters, and one we deserved. Let’s get to work. We can take this club to the next step now and that’s what we want to do.
“I knew coming into the season we would experience everything, wins, losses, good runs and poor runs. I knew we had to be consistent.
“It was really difficult for the players, a new group put together and to have the spirit we have tells you the characters we have in that dressing room. You can’t compare it to anything else.
“Staying the league, signing as many players we did and the injuries, which we didn’t shout about. For us to end up feeling like we have done alright this year is good because you can hear the noise, it is really good.”
Arsenal, four points behind City ahead of kick-off, needed to win to keep the title race alive, but could not recover after Taiwo Awoniyi struck his fifth goal in three games in the 19th minute.
Forest defended superbly from then on, limiting the listless Gunners to a handful of half-chances and clinching a deserved win which takes them to 37 points, putting them out of reach of Everton and Leicester as well as already-relegated Southampton.
Cooper appeared to be vulnerable to being sacked at least twice during the campaign, but his faith in himself and his players never wavered.
Forest now head to Crystal Palace on Sunday in their last outing of the campaign with their status assured and Cooper already looking towards improvement next season.
“This allows us to continue to build and that is what I am focused on.
“This club is so special and everything needs to be at a really high level. This allows us to continue to grow and to be the club we want to be.
“I am proud to work here. There is something unique about this club that captures the imagination with the history and the atmosphere.
“The supporters have been incredible and I and my family are indebted to them. In an era when it is easy to give up on people our supporters have done the opposite.’
“Never once did I lack belief,’ said Cooper. ‘At times it was difficult, pure Premier League harshness. We had two and a half months without winning a game but we were always in the mix.
“I knew this year I would have to experience losing more than I would like for the first time, and I told myself I had to be at my best after defeats.
“I have needed to suffer and go through difficult periods, because in the previous years I had the opposite.
“To become a proper manager you have to deal with the tough times. I told myself I had to show I could do it in difficult moments, too. That is what the club deserves and I have always tried to do that.”
Forest’s victory secures their status in the Premier League for next season and it’s only the fourth campaign in which all three promoted sides have stayed up, after 2001/02, 2011/12 and 2017/18.
Forest had just 18 per cent possession against Arsenal, the lowest tally on record (since 2003/04) for a winning team in a Premier League match.