As it was on Friday at QPR, Steve Cooper’s side fought valiantly in an entertaining game and having gone a goal down — against the run of play — they equalised late on. And, as it was on Friday, the Reds were denied two penalty appeals.
The winning streak may have ended, and while some of Forest’s existing problems may have reared their heads, this remains a side transformed. There is still work to do — we all knew this, Cooper knew this — but watching a team determined to attack, giving it everything and trying to win matches is still a novelty we can all get behind.
With Max Lowe unable to play against parent club, Jack Colback was deployed in his position and James Garner started alongside Ryan Yates in midfield. Lyle Taylor started up front in place of Lewis Grabban.
Sheffield United haven’t quite taken to the Championship like their relegated rivals Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, and Slaviša Jokanović’s 4-2-3-1 formation was not the familiar 3-5-2 of Chris Wilder’s reign.
It was a lively first 10 minutes, particularly for the visitors who enjoyed spells with the ball down their left with Enda Stevens, Ben Osborne and Oliver Norwood in possession. Djed Spence, as usual, coped well with what was perhaps a strategy to pin him back
Joe Lolley broke from halfway line after 12 minutes and shot just wide — which was pretty much the best chance for either side in the first half an hour. Lolley and Spence linked well on 15 minutes but the eventual cross to Taylor from Yates came to nothing.
And with almost 70% possession in the first 20 minutes for the Blades, moving the ball well in midfield, they were making it difficult for Forest to get a foot in the game — the front three particularly struggling to be involved.
But as the half went on, the home side began to up the ante. Lolley, working hard across the pitch, combined with Spence again to win a corner and Taylor almost scored on the volley from Garner’s delivery.
Brennan Johnson raced down the left wing after 32 minutes, outrunning everyone but was knocked over and ball went for a goal kick — the first real chance for him.
At this stage Forest were clearly missing Grabban up front — his ability to hold the ball up and bring other players into attack is simply not a role Taylor plays.
There were chances for Jayden Bogle and Rhian Brewster before half-time, with the game still end to end. And Joe Worrall’s flicked header across goal from Garner’s corner in added time was another close chance.
Forest were growing into the game, and the second-half continued in the same vein. It was apparent at this point that the referee Leigh Doughty was having a poor game — Sheffield United players were dropping to the ground at the slightest touch, which saw an early yellow card for Yates. Less controversial was a booking for Tobias Figueiredo, who held back Lys Mousset as he tried to break from the halfway line.
Philip Zinckernagel came on for Lolley on 57 minutes, the latter’s influence on the game had declined. And possession followed for the Reds as they played high in the visitors’ half, upping the game plan — the quite evident difference with this Cooper side.
Grabban finally replaced Taylor just after the hour mark, and his fresh legs were to make the difference — holding the line and laying the ball off as he does so well.
Johnson went down in the area on 69 minutes, tripped by Chris Basham, having already beaten John Fleck — and instead of the obvious penalty he was awarded a yellow card for simulation. The first-half penalty call might have been borderline, but this — like the QPR game — was difficult to fathom.
Billy Sharp came on for Osborne — who received a round of applause from the home crowd — and within minutes the former Forest loan striker had crossed from the left for Morgan Gibbs-White to turn the ball home. Against the run of play, the Reds found themselves a goal down with 12 minutes left.
Garner’s ball into the box on 80 minutes would’ve been the equaliser if Grabban could’ve got a touch at the near post. And then the moment came a few minutes later. Spence to Colback to Johnson to Grabban — two touches in the six-yard box and the number 7 made it 1-1.
It was exhilarating stuff from then on, with Forest seeking to win the game in the dying minutes at an absolute breathless pace.
Garner received the man of the match award, although after Colback’s performance against QPR it felt like we missed his presence in midfield. However, Spence continues to impress in every game — dedicated, committed, attacking — and has quickly become an integral part of the side.
Cooper said: “It was a tactical game. I quite like them games because you have to have your thinking cap on in terms of how you approach it and it proved to be that type of game.
“First half, we let them have too much of the ball. We still had moments and turnovers particularly, but we didn’t make the right decision with the final passes and action. Second half, I thought it was fairly even and as the game was going on I thought we looked the stronger team and we just needed to turn the screw a little bit. We looked stronger than them and looked fitter than them and when that’s the case you need to smell that and go for it.
“We tried to go for it. The changes helped and gave us good impetus because the guys who were on worked really, really hard. I thought if any team was going to win it, it was going to be us. But I also have to recognise that it was a tough game with two good teams having it out.”