‘Anyone but Sheffield United,’ was the feeling of many Forest fans, with flashbacks to the heartbreak at Bramall Lane in 2003 still looming large. But it was the Blades who Forest would have to overcome to visit the new Wembley for the first time.
Over 3,000 hopeful Reds travelled up South Yorkshire for the first leg, rewarded with a rampant display from their boys. Steve Cooper restored his team to what is widely regarded as the ‘best XI’ — after the changes against Hull City — with Keinan Davis making a surprise return on the bench.
Sheffield United started strong but it only took Forest 10 minutes to breach the Blades’ defence. Sam Surridge was played in by Joe Worrall, sending a ball in from the right wing which Philip Zinckernagel couldn’t convert. From goalkeeper Wes Foderingham’s parry, Jack Colback pounced at the back post and slotted home to give Forest the advantage.
Surridge made an impact again after 18 minutes, this time in his own six-yard box, as he was able to clear a John Egan header off the line. As half-time approached, Forest had numerous chances to extend their lead but Foderingham was able to keep out close range efforts from the likes of Surridge and Johnson.
Six shots on target but only one goal to show for it at the break. That was until 71 minutes when substitute Joe Lolley nicked the ball off a dithering Egan and sprinted towards goal on the left wing. He was forced wide but his deflected cross found Brennan Johnson who clinically smashed the ball high into the top corner and deservedly doubled Forest’s lead.
Two-nil was probably a fair reflection of the 90 minutes, but United left a sour taste in Forest mouths as Jack Robinson broke free from Worrall and headed in from a corner in second-half stoppage time.
And so, for one final time in this historic season, Nottingham welcomed its heroes in red with a noise you’d never heard before.
The second 90 minutes began like a match from the 1980s. Long balls and neither team really being able to string four passes together. Typical then that the first chance came from a Robinson long throw, with Egan unable to find the target with his head.
Forest are capable of making something out of nothing and on 18 minutes they did exactly that. Scott McKenna had the ball deep inside his own half, looked up and saw Surridge making a run down the left wing. The Scot picked the January signing out perfectly with a wonderful through-ball down the channel. Surridge, being converged by two Blades defenders, played a lovely left-footed cross across the penalty area to pick out a free Johnson, who firmly blasted home from 10 yards.
A volcano of sound erupted around Trentside as Forest edged closer to Wembley.
For the second time in the tie, Forest’s centre-backs had crafted a move for Surridge down the wing that resulted in a goal. And a moment of history for the Johnson family as Brennan joined David in being the only two Forest players to score in both legs of a play-off semi-final.
The Blades boss Paul Heckingbottom epitomised the visitors’ frustration, as he appeared to hit out at Djed Spence on the touchline as he prepared to take a throw. Only a yellow card was shown for Heckingbottom from referee Michael Oliver and, after a few robust challenges from the team in black, half time couldn’t come soon enough.
The second half came about and United were on top. From kick off they were on Forest and they grabbed a goal after just three minutes. Illman Ndiaye was played in over the top and was one-on-one with Brice Samba, rescued by an incredible sliding challenge from Worrall inside his own penalty area. The visitors were able to recycle the move and Sander Berge played a ball across goal from the byline on the right wing. His cross fell to the feet of Morgan Gibbs-White who was able to steer a shot past Samba from six yards out.
3-2 on aggregate. The tie was still in Forest’s hands but nerves certainly crept in around the City Ground.
With 15 minutes left in the second half, the seemingly inevitable outcome transpired. George Baldock sprung down the right wing and after skipping away from Colback, dispatched a low cross towards goal. It was met by Blades’ long-serving midfielder John Fleck on the goaline who could hardly miss.
And that would be how it stayed. From then on, neither team took any real risks with the thought of losing too much to bear. The hosts did seem the most threatening over the course of the last 15 minutes of normal time and 30 minutes of extra time, but it was Samba who stepped up when it mattered most to ensure the Reds made it to a shoot-out.
From a corner, the ball dropped to Ndiaye who stabbed an effort goalwards. Samba though was anticipating the shot and leapt forward to block a certain winning goal. Outstanding stuff from the ‘keeper who was just getting started at his heroics.
Penalty shoot-outs. Great to watch as a neutral, sickening if you’re involved. Having just experienced half an hour of tense pain, 29,000 supporters prepared for agony.
To the Bridgford End we went and up stepped Oliver Norwood. Set-piece taker for the Blades. However, he found an inspired Samba who dived to his right to push Norwood’s penalty away and wide.
An early advantage to Forest which Johnson cemented, slotting home into the bottom-right corner.
The left foot of Conor Hourihane was next to fall victim to Samba. The Congolese shot-stopper stood his ground and was able to push the Irishman’s effort onto the bar and clear. Two out of two saved. Substitute Cafú directed Forest’s next penalty goalwards even if there was a nervy deflection off Foderingham.
Sander Berge and Steve Cook then took almost identical penalties — both scoring into the roof of the net to keep the nerves ticking over. Ndiaye then slipped his penalty low into the bottom corner.
To win. To send Forest to Wembley. Joe Lolley. Up stepped the winger and the ball went over the crossbar. That feeling of doubt came flooding back.
Gibbs-White had to score the next penalty to make it go down to the wire. He stepped up but yet again, so did Samba. He cradled the ball into his grasp as Gibbs-White aimed for the bottom-left corner.
Madness. Scenes. Limbs.
The stewards’ lame attempt to keep back the fans was breached as the pitch was flooded with delighted and drained Reds fans. A season that will never be forgotten will conclude with a stroll down Wembley Way. Who would have thought that in mid-September?