In the Old Market Square, beneath overcast skies, plumes of red smoke and the fug of post-Wembley celebrations, those with Nottingham Forest in their hearts gathered to savour the present and embrace the future.
Just a few yards down the road from the statue of Brian Clough in familiar pose, hands clasped above his head in triumph, Steve Cooper and his players stepped on to the balcony of the city’s Council House to salute a sea of jubilant fans.
In the place where they used to parade the European Cup, they hung a banner declaring ‘We are Premier League’ and Cooper’s new generation set their sights beyond promotion, and Sunday’s 1-0 win against Huddersfield in the play-off final.
Nottingham Forest’s players stepped on to the balcony of the city’s Council House to salute a sea of jubilant fans
Those with Nottingham Forest in their hearts gathered to savour the present and embrace the future
‘Now we’ve got to create our own history,’ said midfielder Ryan Yates, less than two years old when the club began its 23-year exile from the top flight. ‘Let’s go for it, let’s attack it and improve.’
Forest captain Joe Worrall, born in the same year as Yates, was equally defiant, hungry for the next challenge.
‘We’re not just play-off winners,’ said Worrall, 24. ‘We’re not just back in the Premier League, we’re Nottingham Forest, we’re a massive club. I want to test myself at the next level. The other boys do as well. They want to see if they can do it at that top level.
‘I don’t mean that to sound arrogant because there’s a lot of humility in our group, but nobody deserves it more than the manager and this bunch of players. We do the right things every day. We eat the right food, we come into training on time, we play attractive football, we score goals.
Steve Cooper’s new generation set their sights beyond promotion after winning the play-off final
‘Put those things together and it equals Premier League football. If you look at the form guide, we’ve been the best team in the league since the manager came in. We’re good value for it. We play decent stuff, easy on the eye. It’s not just hit and hope.’
Forest stunned Premier League visitors Arsenal and Leicester in the FA Cup this season, and fought hard before losing 1-0 to eventual winners Liverpool in the quarter-finals, but they realise these ties will count for nothing next season.
‘We’re not stupid, we know the Championship and the Premier League are worlds apart,’ said Worrall. ‘We watch Match of the Day every week and you take a deep breath because the quality is everywhere.
‘We’ll have to adapt, but we’ve got a month to enjoy this, come down off Cloud Nine and get to work. It’s amazing to think we’ll not just be watching Match of the Day in August, we’ll be on it and the pundits will be picking over our performances.’
There have been inevitable comparisons to Brian Clough (above) for current boss Cooper
Questions linger about the futures of 21-year-old Wales international Brennan Johnson, who is into the final year on his contract, and loan players including wing-back Djed Spence, who excelled after arriving from Middlesbrough and is coveted by Tottenham among others.
‘I’m just going to enjoy this moment and live in the present,’ said 21-year-old Spence, when asked where he expected to be next season.
Greek owner Evangelos Marinakis promised Forest fans he was ambitious for more. ‘As of today we are aiming to rewrite history and win more trophies, this is only the beginning,’ said Marinakis on Instagram.
His son Miltiadis said: ‘We want to invest and buy players to build a team that can compete with everyone in England.’
Former England Under 17 boss Cooper has made a huge impact since his appointment in September when Forest were bottom of the Championship with four points from eight games. ‘He’s taken what looked from the outside to be a misfit team, who were low on confidence and could not score goals,’ said Worrall.
Forest captain Joe Worrall (right) was defiant, hungry for the next challenge in the top flight
‘We were OK defensively but couldn’t score for toffee, and this year we’ve been a breath of fresh air. Everybody has enjoyed watching us.’
There have been inevitable comparisons to Clough and perhaps the most impressive aspect of Cooper’s work has been to harness the glittering history without letting expectancy cripple performances.
It may help that only two of Forest’s players at Wembley — Steve Cook and Jack Colback — were born when Clough stepped down in 1993.
‘Steve Cooper has got the place moving,’ said Dave Bassett, the last man to lead Forest to the Premier League, in 1998. ‘The legacy of Cloughie can be difficult because it’s there, it’s part of the folklore and everyone refers to it, but he’s brought everybody together. They’ve bonded.
‘Nottingham is a great football city with great support, and I’m delighted for some of my old mates like Frank Clark, Ian Storey-Moore and John Robertson, genuine Forest men who get to see their club back in the Premier League.’
In the place where they used to parade the European Cup, they hung a banner declaring ‘We are Premier League’
City Ground legends including John McGovern and Garry Birtles were encouraged to be part of the play-off celebrations.
‘Nottingham has a big smile on its face,’ said Birtles. ‘It wasn’t the best game at Wembley but Brian Clough would have been looking down saying, ‘One-nil, clean sheet, that’s all you need’.
‘Forest did the job. From Mr Marinakis at the top down it has been a fantastic collective effort and the impact of Steve Cooper on the whole city, not just the football club, has been incredible.
‘He will have plans in place for the future but I just want them to relax and enjoy what they’ve done. I’m delighted for the players and for this generation. It’s their time now.’
Greek owner’s son Miltiadis Marinakis said club want to build side that can compete with any side in England