With the retirement this weekend of one of Nottingham Forest’s most dedicated players this century, Jonathan Stevenson pays tribute to our number 8 — Chris Cohen
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Nottingham Forest and Barcelona fans have not shared many of the same emotions in recent times.
Their fortunes since the turn of the millennium (at which stage Forest led the Catalan giants 2-1 in European Cups) could hardly be more contrasting: 31 major trophies dancing to the brilliant beat of Ronaldinho, Messi and co for Barca; relegation to League One and season after season of hapless turmoil at the wretched feet of Danny Sonner, Eugene Dadi and accomplices at the City Ground.
But over the past couple of days, two clubs over 800 miles apart in distance and light years in almost every other way have had to come to terms with a reality neither ever wanted to face.
Saying goodbye to their number 8.
On Friday, the football world wept with one of its greatest as Andres Iniesta, master of space and time with the brain of Xavi and the feet of Messi, announced he would be leaving at the end of the season.
A teary Iniesta, winner of everything the game has to offer having done it all in the most humble fashion imaginable, announced his decision at a Camp Nou press conference beamed worldwide, the story leading sports bulletins as the tributes poured in.
Just 24 hours later, as the rain poured down in Nottingham, manager Aitor Karanka made his final home substitution of the season, sending on club captain Chris Cohen for his first appearance since August, yet another season destroyed by injury, his concluding one as a player.
The 25,000 present rose as one to acclaim Cohen’s last act, the 31-year-old taking the armband from Danny Fox and spending his final few minutes as a professional footballer for Forest as he had the majority of the 11 years prior: leading, cajoling, trying.
If it wasn’t already obvious enough, this is not a comparison of the abilities of two very different footballers.
Iniesta and Cohen have shared many of the qualities needed to make it in sport: a burning desire to work hard every day and be the best they can be; determination; quiet leadership; courage in adversity.
But it’s more than that. They have at times taken on responsibility as guardians of their respective clubs for over a decade each: the constants, the unmoveables, the steadfastly reliables; examples of fair play in the good times, and perhaps far more importantly, light among the darkness in difficult times too.
They behaved how we wanted our clubs to be seen from the outside. And they never hid.
In Spanish football journalist Sid Lowe’s stunning appreciation of Iniesta in The Guardian last week, there was a wonderful line about Lionel Messi:
In good times and bad Messi looks for Iniesta, and in bad times above all. It is in those moments when he seeks security, assurance, that he most wants the Spaniard at his side. “On the pitch I like him to be near me, especially when the game takes a turn for the worse, when things are difficult. That’s when I say to him: ‘Come closer.’ He takes control and responsibility”.
In a funny way, it made me think of Cohen. And on Saturday, it made me think again of what Cohen came to represent since he joined the Reds from Yeovil in the summer of 2007, fresh from dumping his new team out of the League One play-offs on a night few present will ever be able or allowed to forget.
Cohen, like Iniesta, has not always been captain of his club. When he arrived the incumbent was Ian Breckin and it passed on to Wes Morgan and Danny Collins before Cohen took it on in the summer of 2013.
But his leadership didn’t particularly need to be validated by a strip of white at the top of his left arm.
Cohen led in everything he did in a Forest shirt each time he wore the famous Garibaldi. Every tackle he flew into, every header he rose for, every shot he attempted, every run he tried to track was committed to in full, as if the future of the club depended on its outcome.
As Messi and perhaps millions of Barcelona fans looked for Iniesta when things got difficult, for Forest fans and their players, for a decade it was Cohen who represented the last vestiges of hope when all else seemed lost.
In the worst of times, it looked like he was the only one trying, the only one who cared, the only one who seemed to understand the pain fans on the terraces were suffering as their once famous team stumbled from one humiliation to another.
He would be the last one off the pitch after a damaging defeat, refusing to be cowed by boos reverberating around the City Ground, resolutely clapping his way to all parts of the stadium, part grateful thanks, part apology on behalf of his colleagues, part plea not to give up on them.
He would be the first one to front up in the press, always positive but always honest, rarely falling back on platitudes like so many of his peers.
He would acknowledge fans in person whether injured or fit, happy or sad, focused captain of a play-off-chasing team or helpless limping spectator forced to watch another relegation battle unfold.
He was one of us, and in the hardest of times, when hope was all-but gone, he gave us a reason to never quite stop believing.
Last weekend, Iniesta gave his Barcelona career its fitting finale with yet another midfield masterclass, as they swept Sevilla aside 5-0 at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid to win the Spanish Cup.
Dazzling all evening, Iniesta set the seal on the final that will come to bear his name with a goal of simplistic genius, a final sway of those sublime hips for us all to store in the memory for the long retirement ahead.
Cohen has no such silverware to spend his days polishing, though we should never forget the good times on the pitch either: the stunner v Blackpool in the play-off semi-final first leg in 2010, or the fine finish to a sublime team move at West Brom at the start of that year in arguably the best Forest performance of the last 15 years.
But two of his final handful of appearances in a Forest shirt, almost a year apart, will be just as unforgettable as The Iniesta Final for those of us lucky enough to witness them.
A year ago, with hope in short supply at the apocalyptic end of five years of torture at the hands of Fawaz Al-Hasawi and relegation back to League One looming, Cohen — having already somehow battled his way back from THREE cruciate ligament injuries — hauled himself off the physio’s table once more to get fit for the last two months of the season.
Needing to beat Ipswich at home to stave off the drop, Cohen was once more our salvation, digging in and finding something from somewhere, anywhere, to put in a superb performance and crash a 25-yard drive into the top corner to keep Forest up.
Thousands of fans flooded the pitch the moment safety was assured, Al-Hasawi duly completed his sale and left, and Forest, under a new owner and with a conscience again, have spent the last year becoming a football club the city of Nottingham and its people can be proud of once more.
And it makes what happened at the end of last season even more remarkable that Cohen — a Carabao Cup start and 30 minutes as a Championship sub in August apart — has been fighting a losing battle to get his career back on track. Where on Earth did he find those two months at the crucial stage of last season from?
On Saturday, having long given up the ghost, Cohen was named on the bench by Karanka, a marvellous gesture from a manager who buys into the new ethos on the banks of the Trent.
His 302nd appearance, fleeting though it had to be, was brilliantly deserved and spectacularly received, and as his team-mates donned ‘Cohen 8’ shirts for the customary last-home-game-of-the-season lap of honour, he got the tribute his last 11 years had earned.
As a sports journalist, I felt extremely privileged to witness Iniesta in the flesh at the peak of his powers, reaching the pinnacle of the sport by scoring the winner in the 2010 World Cup final and, along with Xavi and Messi, dismantling Man Utd in the Champions League final a year later.
But as a Nottingham boy born into a Forest family, I am equally proud to have witnessed Cohen’s immense contribution to my club.
As Iniesta was to Messi, in the bleakest of times, he was our lifeline.
“I have loved every minute of it,” said Cohen on Saturday. “I have lived the dream and I hope that is the way that it has come across in the way that I have trained, played and been around the place.”
It has. A million times over.
“One Chrissy Cohen, there’s only one Chrissy Cohen.”