When asked what the past year has been like for him, it feels somehow understated when, with a broad smile, Brennan Johnson offers up the word “crazy”.
Johnson is the kind of character who reserves his boldest statements for when he is on the pitch. Off it, he is quietly spoken and modest. But even so, he struggles to play down the drama that has unfolded at Nottingham Forest — and looks ahead at what is to come.
Twelve months ago, the forward was contemplating the task of proving to Chris Hughton that he could play a part in the Championship — and it was a challenge, with Hughton understood to have held doubts, despite Johnson’s successful loan spell at League One Lincoln City.
Fast forward to now and the list of achievements and landmark moments for Johnson since, is lengthy.
The next challenge facing Johnson, still only 21, is to establish that he can cut it in the top flight, years ahead of when he anticipated that opportunity might come. He will do so having signed a new contract — until 2026 — to put an end to speculation about his future.
“It is important for me to have that stability. But for me, in my head, there was never much uncertainty. For me, last January in particular, there was never a thought; never a chance that I was going to leave,” Johnson tells The Athletic. “I could see the direction the club was going in; you could sense that something special was on the horizon.
“Now, in the Premier League, it is just the perfect time for me to sign a new contract and hopefully be here for a good few more years yet. I want to take the next step up again and I am very happy that it will be with Forest.”
Whatever comes next, you sense it will not be dull. Forest have invested £70million ($85m) in 12 new additions and more are on the horizon, with Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis having taken a personal role in trying to reach a deal with Wolves for attacking midfielder Morgan Gibbs-White. Forest have also targeted Willem II forward Jizz Hornkamp and retain an interest in former loanee Aston Villa’s Keinan Davis.
But whoever else arrives, Johnson is likely to remain a key figure, having established himself as a vital part of the charge to promotion via the play-offs, under Steve Cooper.
His performances put him on the radar of Premier League clubs, including Brentford, who pushed the hardest of numerous suitors to sign him in January. Johnson cemented his place in the Wales international squad, trademarked his own Robin Hood goal celebration — and developed a habit of regularly giving it an outing, usually after scoring in the games where it mattered most.
Johnson, who grew up in West Bridgford, a stone’s throw from the City Ground, scored 18 goals and provided 10 assists. He found the net in both games against Derby and, more importantly, in both legs of the play-off semi-final against another old rival, Sheffield United.
Not just a whirlwind of a season, but a hurricane.
“It has been a crazy 12 months. This time last year, I just wanted to cement myself in the first team,” says Johnson. “Now we have a fresh challenge; an even bigger challenge.
“Now it is time to test ourselves against the best players. A year ago, when I looked at what I wanted to achieve, getting into the Premier League was not a realistic goal — I thought it would take at least a couple of seasons to get there.
“I thought I would have another couple of seasons with Forest in the Championship — or even have to go somewhere else on loan. But as soon as I got into the Forest team, we really started really kicking on. How things panned out after that was unbelievable. It still feels surreal to me that we are in the Premier League.”
Johnson more than earned a summer break on the island of Mykonos. But, even in the Greek sunshine, he was doing his best to help Forest achieve their ambitions, as he launched a charm offensive on his friend and Welsh team-mate Neco Williams.
“We were staying in the same hotel, so we saw quite a lot of each other. I did do a lot of persuading… I kept telling him that he needed to come,” says Johnson of Williams, who eventually joined Forest in a £17million move from Liverpool. “He knows the manager pretty well already (having played under Cooper on loan at Swansea), so I think that helped to seal the deal. Everything just felt right for him to come here. Although I did do my best to persuade him.”
Last season, Johnson’s rampaging partnership with Djed Spence down the right flank was one of Forest’s biggest strengths. But, while Spence moved to Tottenham from Middlesbrough this summer, Johnson hopes to forge a similar understanding with Williams, who has shown he is capable of quality delivery into the box, during the summer’s friendly fixtures.
“He and Djed are different players — but they are both really good,” says Johnson. “Djed will go far and I am pleased for him that he has got the move to Spurs. But Neco has already shown his own quality. He has shown what he is about and hopefully I can build on the relationship I have with him. We have played together since we were under-19s with Wales. So he is somebody I already know really well.”
A dozen new signings sounds like a lot — and it is. But there is a reason for it, with five loan signings all having departed in the summer, along with keeper Brice Samba and experienced forward Lewis Grabban. But even amid the tide of changes, Johnson says the mood in the dressing room has remained, reassuringly, similar. And, among the squad, the recruitment — which has included the capture of England international Jesse Lingard — is seen as a sign of the club’s ambition.
“The investment shows where the club want to be. We do not just want to take part or just try to stay up,” says Johnson. “Signing the players we have has only shown that we want to be in the Premier League for years. We are not just here to make up the numbers.
“The new arrivals have not changed the mood or the dynamic. Even the lads who have come from abroad seem to have settled in. On the pitch, it is going to be tough in some senses — in that you have to get used to new players’ playing styles. But you could see against Valencia that we were starting to understand each other.”
Johnson, along with Jack Colback, Ryan Yates, Joe Worrall and Scott McKenna form a group of players who know what the club is about — and what has led them to this point.
“There is still a core of players who were part of things last season and that is vital. It is important for the new lads, so they know where we have come from and what we achieved,” says Johnson. “We have to make it known to the new boys how we did things; how hard we worked. The boys who have come in have to have the same attitude. We must try to maintain everything that helped us to be successful.”
At the centre of it all has been Cooper, a man who arrived in late September last year with Forest stranded at the foot of the table — and who has already secured hero status in these parts.
“He actually does not say or do too much, but he has such a big impact on the team,” says Johnson. “He is somebody who always gives you little individual bits; little bits of advice or challenges. But the main thing for me is that he just wanted me to play my game. There was always tactical guidance, advice and instruction — but the main thing he always said to me more than anything else was, ‘Don’t be boring’. Hopefully, I managed not to be. But through the whole team, he has made everyone better.”
There was a feeling early in Cooper’s tenure that something special could be building and it was only enhanced when they defeated Arsenal and Leicester in the FA Cup, before pushing Liverpool hard in the quarter-final, when Forest were narrowly beaten 1-0.
“There were a few moments when you thought, ‘Hang on, we could do something here’,” says Johnson. “Even when the manager first came in, we started not just to beat teams, but to beat them well. It felt like we were superior to most teams. We got more and more confidence; a belief that we could play against anyone and compete. In January, when we had a few more lads come in — Keinan (Davis), Sam (Surridge) and Steve Cook — it just finished the squad off.
“We all got on; everyone just fitted in so nicely. There were never any negative vibes in the dressing room. The FA Cup run was a real help. We have looked back at those clips again recently. We have used them again to remind ourselves of what it is going to be about again this season. We did not sit back against any of those sides. We need to maintain that attitude; we need to keep going toe-to-toe with people.
“You can only set simple targets. When we get chances, we have to take them. We have to produce our best and, if we can do that, it should be more than enough to keep us in the Premier League. Teams will definitely be surprised about the atmosphere at the City Ground; they might not be prepared. I wonder if people might underestimate us generally — they might look at us coming up through the play-offs and believe that we are lucky to be here.
“We want to prove people wrong.”
Johnson was too young to watch his dad, David, in action for Forest very often. But he did go to matches when he was growing up. Now it is his father who travels to every game to watch him.
“When the team was not doing so well, there would not always be so many fans in the stadium. But last season it was a sell-out every single game,” says Johnson. “It made it clear to us how much people wanted to see us do well; it made you understand how important it was. We always tried to use that.
“I wasn’t alive when Forest were last in the Premier League. All I have known is the Championship or even League One. Forest are such a big club, genuinely one of the biggest in England. I think you will see that now. But we have to prove that we belong at this level.
“I always wanted to play in the Premier League and for it to be with Forest. Now it is actually happening.”
(Photo: Jon Hobley/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)