Advantage Nottingham Forest in the first leg of the Championship play-off semi-final with Sheffield United, as the Reds beat the Blades 2-1 at Bramall Lane. Here’s what the national newspapers had to say
It had been almost a perfect afternoon in the sunshine for Cooper and Forest prior to that, with their biggest gripe how they weren’t further ahead in the tie after goals from Jack Colback and Brennan Johnson gave them a 2-0 lead. Their front three of Sam Surridge, Johnson and Philip Zinckernagel terrorised Sheffield United all afternoon and for a stage of the season which is supposed to be riddled with tension, Forest played with the kind of effervescence and attacking freedom which has got them to this point.
[Nottingham Forest’s] chances in the first half almost ran into double figures — and a handful of them were gilt-edged — but they managed to convert only one, in the 10th minute through Jack Colback. Joe Worrall’s lofted pass put pressure on John Egan who let Sam Surridge cross the ball from the dead ball line. Crucially Ben Osborn then slipped as he was about to clear the ball and while Wes Foderingham beat away Philip Zinckernagel’s effort, Colback was following up the guide the ball into the net.
Egan attempted to make amends a few minutes later but his header from John Fleck’s corner was cleared off the line by Surridge.
United continued to throw bodies forward looking for an equaliser, but they were disjointed and second to most tackles, which gave Forest plenty of opportunities on the break. Every time Forest worked the ball into the United half, they had acres of space and time to pick out teammates in the box, who should have helped themselves to a glut of goals. Instead, there were a series of misses and some good saves from Foderingham.
Neither side fell victim of taking a stereotypical cautious approach to a two-legged play-off tie.
Frustration began to grow around Bramall Lane and the visitors came close to a second when some neat link-up play found Zinckernagel with the ball at his feet before picking out Surridge, in acres of space just 10 yards out, but he could only direct his shot at Foderingham.
Reds boss Steve Cooper must have been wondering how his side were only a goal to the good after Manchester United loanee James Garner picked out an unmarked Ryan Yates, who glanced narrowly wide of the far post from eight yards.
Forest’s own history in this end of season scramble has proved forgettable in the past, losing their four previous semi-finals which included one against United in 2003.
In truth this could have been more comfortable, with at least four good chances wasted in the first-half.
Cooper said: “We came here to win and have tackled all the challenges in front of us head-on, nothing is going to change because it’s the play-offs.
“It’s a really positive dressing room and to come to a big stadium like this and do what we did tells you we’re in a good place with our mentality.
“We could and should have scored more goals and it’s disappointing to concede at the end but that’s the tension and randomness of the play-offs.”
At times it was Cooper’s vision in high definition, with his team displaying their attacking qualities in a dominant first-half performance while their defensive resilience was evident in the second-half when United mounted pressure.
Brennan Johnson dazzled for the visitors, just as many predicted he would. The attacker has long been mooted to star in the Premier League and this result moves his beloved Forest one step closer to a return to the promised land.
Johnson was busy all game and he was right on the money on 71 minutes to provide a classy finish to double the lead. Elsewhere, Sam Surridge and Phillip Zinckernagel also played their part, particularly in the build-up to the opening goal.
Three of this Forest side were voted into the EFL Championship team of the year but it was none of the aforementioned trio – showing the depth of quality that Forest have in their ranks. Playing at a hostile ground Forest’s squad put in a superb, almost perfect, performance to ensure it is they who hold the advantage ahead of the rematch in 72 hours.