Sheffield United at home. Where it all began. Well, where the hope and reality of Premier League football really sunk in. Just 15 months after that savoured City Ground play-off semi-final, Nottingham Forest and the Blades matched up again; this time in England’s finest league.
And the first home game of the 2023/24 season at the City Ground was lit up by the floodlights, under which the Reds really seem to thrive.
Fresh from their away defeat at the Emirates, Steve Cooper’s side saw two changes, with Neco Williams coming in for Ola Aina who has sustained a slight knock, and a firing Taiwo Awoniyi came in from the start in place of Ryan Yates. Four former Reds lined up for the visitors as Ben Osborn, Max Lowe, Jack Robinson and Anel Ahmedhodzic looked to recover from their opening day defeat at home to Crystal Palace.
Sheffield United kicked off proceedings but didn’t have the ball for very long. Forest were lively and up for it from the off; the intent was clear to see. They were patient with the ball but were looking to get forward and their first chance came in the third minute.
Following a dart forward by Brennan Johnson, the Welshman turned back and found Serge Aurier on the corner of the box, right side. His first-time ball was perfect, arcing over the Blades’ centre-halves and landing perfectly on the head of talisman Awoniyi. Forest’s goal-scoring man of the moment, in the right place to rise and nod into the top corner; the sixth running Premier League game that the Nigerian has netted in.
Just the start they wanted. On a night where winning was a realistic expectation, Forest had the edge. A choir that never needs much conducting, the City Ground crowd was as vocal as ever and further roared into life by the goal.
As darkness dawned, Forest’s dominance remained. There was a fluidity in the attacking play that only comes from time on the training pitch. This was shown by a counter-attack on 15 minutes when Awoniyi was found by Morgan Gibbs-White who got it straight back, but the latter’s shot was taken easily by Wes Foderingham in the Blades’ goal. A half-chance really but the positive and almost telepathic relationship between the pair on show at its finest.
Their positive start deserved another goal, however they were the only two shots on target by Forest in a first half they dominated. They exploited the gaps left in United’s midfield and never really looked out of control.
Only one shot was registered in the first period by the visitors and it came on 34 minutes. They attacked down the right when a Danilo clearance fell straight to midfielder Vinicius Souza, whose 25-yard strike was going into the corner but had little pace, allowing Matt Turner to claim with relative ease on his home debut.
The Reds wouldn’t find the goal they wanted for security as the opening 45 drew to a close, with Gibbs-White getting closest after getting to the ball first and nutmegging Foderingham, but the ‘keeper was lucky his defenders backed him up.
Paul Heckingbottom’s side would be content to only be one goal down at the break, and they did have something to build on given the fact they had more possession in the first half, although they still failed to make an impression on the game. How that would change in the second period…
Three minutes into the game: 1-0. Three minutes into the second half: 1-1.
Much like Forest did from the off, Sheffield United came out all guns blazing and forced a corner almost straight away. The corner was initially cleared but only as far as debutant Gustavo Hamer on the left corner of the penalty area. He took one touch before magically curling a wonderful strike into the top right corner with seeming ease—a classy goal from a player who tore up the Championship for Coventry City last campaign.
A stunned Forest were made to pay for not capitalising on their first-half advantage, giving the travelling Blades their first Premier League goal to celebrate in a couple of years.
This goal didn’t seem to wake Forest up from their daze, and two minutes later the visitors almost had a second. Lazy and lacklustre defending from Scott McKenna allowed William Osula to maraud down the right wing, the Dane eventually stopped in the box. However, yet another poor clearance allowed the ball to fall for Souza who had another strike from range, this time flying just wide of the right-hand post.
Against the run of play, Forest had the ball in the back of the net on 54 minutes when Johnson’s neat footwork allowed him to slide Awoniyi through on goal. His finish was gorgeous, a delicate chip into the far corner, but the flag was up in an instant and the goal was ruled offside.
This bit of optimism was a false dawn though as Forest continued to search for their first-half rhythm. Aurier and Willy Boly came close following a corner on 65 minutes but Foderingham denied their close-range efforts.
Substitutes were made in the quest for a winner—a positive showing from Cooper who clearly saw this to be a game his side could and should win. Ryan Yates and Anthony Elanga were introduced; the pair brought the fight and passion that was missing in their teammates for the closing stages of the match.
However, more calamitous defending was nearly their downfall again on 76 minutes as McKenna and Joe Worrall both went up for the ball, with it falling favourably to attacker Bénie Traore. Worrall did well to close the angle and as he unleashed the shot from the right of the box, Turner got down low to prevent the Ivorian scoring across him.
That was the last the Blades would threaten, as they just looked to hold out for their point. That wasn’t enough for Forest though. The players, management and fans came here to win, and boy did they let that show. Spine-tingling noise once again engulfed the City Ground like a hurricane as Forest’s faithful showed their full support of their team in red.
And this team always seem to find a way when they have to. Whether it be the pretty way or not, it just happens. Once again, they came up trumps.
In the last minute of regulation time, Worrall beat substitute Hackford to the ball and found Aurier on the right wing. He took two touches before getting his head up and whipping a class ball into the box. Substitute Chris Wood hasn’t had the rough of the green in a Forest shirt to date, but he found himself on the end of Aurier’s cross and did so well to loft his first-time header over everyone and into the far corner.
Late winners just feel that bit better. Jubilation across the city of Nottingham as their number one side took a giant step towards picking up their first three points of the season.
Wood was rewarded for his brilliant movement to get into space and nod home and a second assist of the night for attacking full-back Aurier. So, just the eight minutes of stoppage time to hold out for.
It’s well known that supporting Forest is never easy, and neither were the closing stages. But while Forest hadn’t been particularly good in the second half, neither had United and the quality difference was shown in both the result and the manner in which the sides went about their business.
Peter Banks blew his whistle in the hundredth minute of the game, bringing the smiles, dances, and oh so famous fist bumps back to Trentside like they’d never been away. A game in which you felt Forest should have won and which ultimately went that way. Hopefully a confidence boost as the Reds’ attention turns to Manchester United and Chelsea away before the international break.