The 10 games that defined Nottingham Forest’s path to Wembley

After 48 league games and six cup games, it’s no easy task to pick the moments that have defined Nottingham Forest’s season… but these 10 matches all have good reason to be included in any discussion of the path to Wembley

8 August 2021
Coventry City 2-1 Nottingham Forest

It seems like eons ago… We lost 2-1 — as we did against Bournemouth, Blackburn and Cardiff in the weeks to come — playing Chris Hughton’s favourite 4-2-3-1 formation, with a starting line-up including Jordan Gabriel, Gaëtan Bong, Loïc Mbe Soh, Lyle Taylor, Alex Mighten and Joe Lolley. As a match, it was no indicator of the season to come. But a starting spot for Brennan Johnson did give us a flavour of what was to be — starting inside his own half, the then 20-year-old showed a clean pair of heels to his tracking defender before squaring the ball to Taylor in the box for an ecstatic start to the season.

18 September 2021
Huddersfield 0-2 Nottingham Forest

Hughton had gone, Steve Cooper was yet to start. But Steven Reid proved what everyone knew by this stage — this team could do a lot more if the shackles were taken off. And by playing three at the back — with a much familiar looking line-up — nobody, fans nor Huddersfield, knew how to cope. The statistics don’t tell half the story (29% possession?) as we appeared to be camped out in the opposition half at times. Johnson, again, showed his pace on the wing to create the first goal for Lewis Grabban. And the now iconic third kit made its debut — three’s a charm.

19 October 2021
Bristol City 1-2 Nottingham Forest

A goal down at half-time. It could’ve been two in the second half, despite dominating possession and shots on goal. Having beaten Barnsley, Birmingham City and Blackpool under Cooper, how does this team cope at 0-1 in added time? The most casual penalty you’ll ever see from Taylor levelled the score. But the follow-up was, perhaps, a real turning point in this season. The former Charlton striker reacted quickly to Lolley’s saved shot, and the scenes of celebration showed the togetherness on and off the pitch — Brice Samba running the entire length of the field to join in. Mayhem. And that fluoro strip again.

9 January 2022
Nottingham Forest 1-0 Arsenal

Drawing Arsenal or Chelsea in the cup seems to have been more common than not in the past decade. And despite beating the North Londoners 4-2 in 2018 in the third round of the FA Cup, our last game at the Emirates was a humbling 5-0 in 2019 in the League Cup. Still, we get to be live on national TV and it’s a good test of where we are… which is the start of an unbeaten run at the City Ground in 2022 until we meet the eventual winners of the FA Cup — Liverpool. Cooper’s team smelt blood and the Gunners simply didn’t know what to do. Impressive debuts for Steve Cook and Keinan Davis too.

6 February 2022
Nottingham Forest 4-1 Leicester City

A month later, the cup run continues as the nation watches… and the Reds run rampant against the FA Cup holders. If the sense of momentum had evaded anyone, here it was on full display. In one of the most exhilarating 20-minute periods of football at the City Ground this century, Forest absolutely destroyed Leicester City. The three first-half goals could easily have been four or five — and a fourth followed in the second half. Sensational stuff, and the feeling that something was happening this season was very, very evident. This group of players fear nobody, and some sides just can’t cope with them.

12 February 2022
Nottingham Forest 2-2 Stoke City

A goal up, courtesy of Johnson. A sloppy equaliser, courtesy of Josh Maja — linked with Forest last summer. And then a rush-of-blood-to-the-head by Samba, as he saw red with minutes left. A late winning penalty for Stoke? Nope. Ryan Yates reacted quickly with his head as James Garner’s free-kick came back off the bar. Rescuing a point in the dying seconds felt like a win, instead of dropping two points, and the reaction in the City Ground showed what it meant. The result saw the Reds remain unbeaten in the league throughout February, March and into April.

2 April 2022
Blackpool 1-4 Nottingham Forest

By this stage of the season, it’s increasingly difficult to earmark particular games or moments, although it’s important to remember we’re still not in the top six yet. Away against another side chasing the play-off positions, a side that had only conceded nine goals in 12 games in 2022, the Reds put on one of their best performances of the season. The game was wrapped up by half-time, courtesy of a brace from Johnson, in a dominating display that showed how clinical Cooper’s side can be — and again demonstrated Sam Surridge’s finishing prowess.

26 April 2022
Fulham 0-1 Nottingham Forest

From bottom of the table after seven games to chasing down Bournemouth in second place, Mission Impossible seemed to be… possible? That is, if we beat the yet-to-be-crowned champions at Craven Cottage — after being spanked 4-0 at the City Ground back in October, in Cooper’s first loss. The lucky third kit had one of its final outings, and Philip Zinckernagel’s goal was enough to come away from the capital with three points. As a backs-against-the-wall game, with the occasional break, it wasn’t pretty but sometimes effective football and a result is all you need.

30 April 2022
Nottingham Forest 5-1 Swansea City

With a play-off position already confirmed, the final home game of the regular season was a celebration of what had been achieved so far — and what was still to come. Five goals against Cooper’s former team, and hattrick for Surridge, set it up nicely for the next game against Bournemouth — which sadly wasn’t to be. But everything was on display here, as a rampant Forest dominated the South Wales side, managing 17 shots on target — the most of any English side in any professional division this season. This kind of relentless, breathless performance is exactly what the City Ground now thrives on.

14 & 17 May 2022
Nottingham Forest 3-3 Sheffield United

Battering the Blades away in the first leg, before being penned back and eventually winning on penalties in the second leg… nobody will be forgetting this tie any time soon. And while the result could’ve been wrapped up at Bramall Lane, it wouldn’t be Nottingham Forest if they weren’t making life difficult for themselves in a play-off semi-final. We all bear the scars of 2003, 2007, 2010 and 2011, and this was new ground — not only getting through to the final, but winning a penalty shoot-out of this magnitude. There is still everything to do on Sunday, but the belief, resilience, determination and passion that has been evident since September is why this season has been so incredible.

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