Soccer

Championship: Nottingham Forest beat Sheffield United on penalties to reach playoff final


One more win to end 23 years of pain. That is the equation for Nottingham Forest, who will return to the Premier League for the first time this century if they can beat Huddersfield Town at Wembley on May 29. 

Brice Samba was the hero in the penalty shoot-out, saving three of Sheffield United’s efforts, after an evening of agonising tension on the banks of the Trent. 

After Samba had kept out the final kick from Morgan Gibbs-White, fans spilled on to the pitch and chants of ‘Que Sera, Sera’ filled the night air. What a job performed by Steve Cooper, who took charge last autumn with the club bottom of the table. 

Nottingham Forest pitch invade the pitch after their side reached Championship play-off final

Nottingham Forest pitch invade the pitch after their side reached Championship play-off final

Brice Samba (left) was the hero as Nottingham Forest beat Sheffield United on penalties

Brice Samba (left) was the hero as Nottingham Forest beat Sheffield United on penalties

Sheffield United's Morgan Gibbs-White is dejected after losing in penalty shootout on Tuesday

Sheffield United’s Morgan Gibbs-White is dejected after losing in penalty shootout on Tuesday

It was tough on the Blades, who had performed brilliantly on the night. But the football romantics who remember the days of Brian Clough and the European Cup wins of 1979 and 1980 will enjoy Forest’s progress.

Leading 2-1 from the first leg, Forest looked to have sealed their spot in the Championship play-off Final when Brennan Johnson put them in front against the run of play just before the 20-minute mark – emulating his father David by scoring in both legs of a play-off semi-final.

But after their manager Paul Heckingbottom was booked for inciting a brawl late in the first half, Gibbs-White equalised for United soon after the interval and John Fleck brought the tie level on aggregate with 15 minutes left.

Brennan Johnson gave Forest the lead on the night and moved them 3-1 ahead on aggregate

Brennan Johnson gave Forest the lead on the night and moved them 3-1 ahead on aggregate

Johnson's strike was the perfect start for the hosts, who had one foot in the playoff final

Johnson’s strike was the perfect start for the hosts, who had one foot in the playoff final 

MATCH FACTS AND PLAYER RATINGS 

Nottingham Forest (3-4-1-2): Samba 8; Worrall 6, Cook 6.5, McKenna 6.5; Spence 5.5, Yates 6, Garner 5.5, Colback 6; Zinckernagel 5.5 (Lolley 70, 6); Johnson 6.5, Surridge 6 (Davis 75, 6). Subs not used: Horvath, Figueiredo, Laryea, Mighten, Cafu.

Scorers: Johnson 19

Booked: Worrall

Manager: Steve Cooper 6

Sheffield United (3-4-1-2): Foderingham 6; Basham 6.5, Egan 6, Robinson 6.5; Baldock 6.5 (Osborn 108, 6), Norwood 7.5, Fleck 7 (Hourihane 109, 6), Norrington-Davies 7; Berge 6.5; Gibbs-White 7.5, Ndiaye 6. Subs not used: A Davies, B Davies, Uremovic, Osula, Jebbison.

Scorers: Gibbs-White 47, Fleck 75

Booked: Heckingbottom, Robinson

Manager: Paul Heckingbottom 6.5

Referee: Michael Oliver 5.5

Attendance: 29,015

 

This was only the second time in 2022 Forest had been beaten inside 90 minutes at home, after their FA Cup defeat by Liverpool earlier in the campaign.

There were fireworks outside the ground an hour before kick-off and as the sides walked out, Forest fans unfurled two huge banners paying tribute to their glorious past and forecasting a similar present.

Yet Sander Berge’s stoppage-time goal in the first leg had changed the feel of the tie and Forest looked nervous in the early stages, particularly when Jack Robinson launched huge throw-ins into their six-yard box.

From one in the 10th minute, John Egan was left unmarked in the centre of the box and let Forest off the hook when he guided his header wide. The visitors wasted an even better chances moments later when, after Joe Worrall had given the ball away, Morgan Gibbs-White raced away down the left on to a ball from Rhys Norrington-Davies.

His low cross was perfect for strike partner Iliman Ndiaye who seemed pull Blades level on aggregate, only for Brice Samba to charge from his line to make a fine save.

Its importance was apparent six minutes later when Forest, who had been second-best, seized the lead. Scott McKenna sent Sam Surridge into space behind the United back three, and the forward was smart enough to play a first-time ball into the path of Johnson, who slid in to produce a thumping finish.

The roar could be heard across the River Trent and beyond as Forest sensed their moment. United were rattled and needed a block from John Fleck to stop Surridge’s effort testing Wes Foderingham, after a clever move involving Philip Zinckernagel.

With Blades’ dream of an immediate return to the top flight hanging by a thread, boss Paul Heckingbottom shoved the ball into the stomach of Djed Spence before a Forest throw. Johnson immediately squared up to Heckingbottom and players from both teams brawled by the touchline, with Heckingbottom lucky only to receive a yellow card. 

But Morgan Gibbs-White pulled one back for United two minutes after the half-time break

But Morgan Gibbs-White pulled one back for United two minutes after the half-time break

John Fleck's goal edged visitors ahead in the second leg and sent the semi-final to extra-time

John Fleck’s goal edged visitors ahead in the second leg and sent the semi-final to extra-time

Shortly before half-time, the Forest bench were furious when referee Michael Oliver did not punish a clear bodycheck off the ball by Fleck on Johnson.

Forest kept United waiting at the start of the second half and if this was a ploy, it backfired as they conceded inside two minutes of the restart.

McKenna held up Ndiaye but the ball broke to Berge and when he turned it back into the danger zone, Gibbs-White guided it expertly beyond Samba.

That signalled the start of a period of sustained United pressure. They forced a series of corners and throw-ins, with Berge going desperately close with a header from Fleck’s delivery.

Forest were struggling to gain any control of the game, with Johnson and Surridge unable to hold the ball up, and Oliver Norwood able to dictate the tempo in midfield for Sheffield United. It was no surprise to see Cooper take off Zinckernagel, who had had little impact, and bring on Joe Lolley with 20 minutes remaining.

The semi-final was decided by penalties, and Samba then proved the hero for Forest

The semi-final was decided by penalties, and Samba then proved the hero for Forest

Samba saved three United spot-kicks in the shootout to send Steve Cooper's men to Wembley

Samba saved three United spot-kicks in the shootout to send Steve Cooper’s men to Wembley

The club are now just one win away from reaching the top flight for the first time in 23 years

The club are now just one win away from reaching the top flight for the first time in 23 years

The moment Forest had been dreading arrived with 15 minutes remaining when George Baldock charged down the right and drilled across the face of goal, where Fleck had made up ground brilliantly to tap the ball. 

Forest’s nerves were frayed and under little pressure, McKenna overhit a backpass alarmingly and was relieved only to concede a corner.

In extra-time, Lolley slipped with the goal at his mercy and Johnson volleyed straight at Foderingham, who needed treatment early in the second half of the extra 30 minutes. Then his opposite number made an astonishing stop from Ndiaye’s close-range volley.

When the shoot-out began, Samba saved United’s first two kicks from Oliver Norwood and substitute Conor Hourihane, with Johnson and sub Cafu scoring for Forest. Berge and Steve Cook then did the same, leaving Ndiaye needing to follow suit to keep United in it. He did so, giving Lolley the chance to send Forest to Wembley. 

The tension rose to an unbearable level when he fired well over. But Samba saved from Gibbs-White and Forest were one step from glory.



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