Joe Worrall can’t wait to watch Match of the Day next season – because instead of marvelling at the cast of talents, he’ll be on it.
Nottingham Forest’s inspirational captain was a two-year-old toddler when the Tricky Trees last graced the Premier League in 1999. That campaign was an unrelenting bad dream, with Ron Atkinson beginning his final mission as a manager by sitting in the wrong dugout at the City Ground and rebel striker Pierre van Hooijdonk embarking on a play-when-you-feel-like-it regime.
But only the most militant lumberjacks would have denied Forest the end of their 23-year exile from the penthouse after a thrilling charge which just fell short of automatic promotion. And Sunday’s tense play-off final win against Huddersfield in the £180million promotion shoot-out at Wembley left Worrall – born eight miles up the road in Hucknall – relishing the challenge of taking on the big guns.
He said: “We need to soak it up – Nottingham Forest are back in the Premier League, and it feels fantastic. We’re not stupid: We know the Championship and the Premier League are worlds apart. You watch Match of the Day every week and you take a deep breath because the quality is everywhere. It’s something we’ll have to adapt to, but we’ve got a month to enjoy this, come back down off cloud nine and get to work.
“It’s amazing to think we will not just be watching Match of the Day in August – we’ll be on it. The pundits will be picking over our performances and it’s fantastic. We’re not just play-off winners, we’re not just back in the Premier League: We’re Nottingham Forest, we’re a massive club, and with the right people around us, the right players, we’ll see how we go. I want to test myself at the next level, and some of the other boys do as well. They want to see if they can do it at that top level.”
The prospect of Forest having their performances picked apart by Alan Shearer, Danny Murphy and Ian Wright on MOTD next season seemed as remote as the South Pole when they put only a solitary point on the board in their first seven games. But Worrall, 25, commended manager Steve Cooper’s “kindness” to his players – on the basis they respond like dogs to sympathetic owners – and they responded with verve. Cooper, an Under-17 World Cup-winning coach with England, will have his methods tested to the limit next season, but Forest’s performances against Arsenal, Leicester and Liverpool in the FA Cup suggest they may be equipped to cope.
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Worrall said: “I’ve got to hand it to the manager – he deserves every plaudit that comes his way. He’s come in and taken what looked, from the outside, a misfit team who were low on confidence and couldn’t score goals last season. We were OK defensively, but we could not score for toffee, and this year we’ve been a breath of fresh air. Everybody has enjoyed watching us and there’s a lot of belief in what we do. We play decent stuff, easy on the eye, it’s not just hit and hope.
“The supporters who watch us every week know we deserve to go up, and I don’t mean that to sound arrogant because there’s a lot of humility in our group. But there’s nobody who 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 in to training on time, we play attractive football, we score goals… put those things together and it equals Premier League football. It’s been a long time coming and it didn’t just happen overnight. If you look at the form guide, we’ve been the best team in the League since the manager came in and we’re good value for it.”
One of Cooper’s first tasks will be to establish whether loan stars Djed Spence, Philip Zinckernagel, Keinan Davis and James Garner can be prised from their parent clubs at affordable cost and turned into permanent transfers. Forest will need strengthening in all departments, but Worrall acknowledged promotion was built on a formidable team ethic – and he wants the City Ground to become a “hostile” environment for opponents in the big time.
He said: “It’s not just about Brennan Johnson, Zinckernagel and Davis – the quality runs through the spine of the team, all the way from (goalkeeper) Brice Samba. Brice – what a guy, He’s cost us at times over the years, but he’s come up trumps for us in massive, massive games this season. He fits us like a hand in glove, literally. Everywhere you look, across the pitch, they have stepped up. Look at Djed Spence – I’ve played against him a couple of times and thought, ‘Yeah, he’s good’ – but he is very, very good. We’ve got to find a way to keep hold of him, mind you.
“We want to make the City Ground hostile for opponents. Did you hear our fans at Wembley? They were absolutely fantastic and they understand the connection between players and fans is essential. It had grown miles apart in seasons gone by but now it’s very tightly-knit. Football is won in strange places, and the supporters’ contribution is a major reason why we’re back. It would have absolutely killed me if we hadn’t beaten Huddersfield.”