Nottingham Forest beat Sheffield United 3-2 on penalties to seal their passage to Wembley for the Sky Bet Championship play-off final.
Steve Cooper’s side did it the hard way at the City Ground. Leading 2-1 from the first leg and then having extended that lead through Brennan Johnson, they allowed United back into the tie as goals from Morgan Gibbs-White and John Fleck took the game to extra-time and penalties.
But they secured their spot at the national stadium on May 29 where they will face Huddersfield after Brice Samba saved three penalties in the shootout. Ending a 23-year wait for top-flight football is one step closer for Forest.
For Sheffield United, the dream of an immediate Premier League return is over. They face another year in the Championship.
Blades fight back, but Forest prevail
United were largely outplayed in the first leg and were fairly fortunate to head to the City Ground only trailing by a goal. But they immediately looked brighter in the early exchanges and should have levelled the tie on 13 minutes when a brilliant Gibbs-White pass found Iliman Ndiaye unmarked in the middle, but he couldn’t beat the onrushing Samba.
And they would pay for that spurned opportunity six minutes later as Forest took the lead on the night, and extended their aggregate advantage, with virtually their first chance of the game. A quick attack saw Sam Surridge run in behind, before his perfect ball across goal found Johnson, who slid in to fire a brilliant finish past Wes Foderingham.
It was a goal that struck a blow to United’s momentum and started to impact the mentality of their players and manager Paul Heckingbottom – who sparked a melee towards the end of the half when he thrust a ball into the midriff of Djed Spence as he believed the Forest man was taking too long with his throw-ins.
But Heckingbottom and the Blades must have cooled down at the break because within two minutes of the restart they had found their way back into the tie as Sander Berge crossed from the right and Gibbs-White bundled in from close range.
And the turnaround continued in the 75th minute as United took the lead on the night and levelled the tie on aggregate. George Baldock created it as he twisted past a befuddled Jack Colback, before finding a ball into the middle that was so inviting Fleck simply couldn’t miss.
The game headed into extra time and on 115 minutes Ndiaye had a glorious chance to win the tie for United as the ball dropped to him from a corner, but once again Samba was there to deny him with a fantastic save.
Samba was the hero again in the shoot-out, as he denied Oliver Norwood, Conor Hourihane and Morgan Gibbs-White to take Forest to Wembley.
Cooper’s ‘joy’ at sealing spot at Wembley
Nottingham Forest’s Steve Cooper on Sky Sports Football:
“My feeling at the moment is one of joy. I’m really pleased for the club and players to get to the next step, but obviously nothing is completed. You need a lot to get through these semi-finals. You need to play well, suffer and have a bit of luck. At times we haven’t played so good, but I’ve never seen teams be outstanding over two legs in the play-offs so I’m not ashamed of that one bit. The most important thing is that we’re through.
“We’ve been brilliant this season. We gave automatics a real push. We were outstanding at the weekend and that’s helped us get over the line. But these play-offs are a little bit different and you have to do a bit of everything to get through, and that’s what we’ve done.
“The support was incredible. We went 2-1 down and the crowd got better and louder. This is a magical place anyway, but it was particularly good tonight and I’m very grateful for them getting behind us and sticking with us. It’s a special club and we’ve got to keep going and keep believing. Credit to Sheffield United who have been brilliant over the two legs, now we’ve got a tough game to come against Huddersfield.”
Heckingbottom: The feeling is pride
Sheffield United’s Paul Heckingbottom on Sky Sports Football:
“The result and the fact I know we’re out, I don’t think that’s sunk in yet. The overriding feeling is one of pride. The performance today epitomises all the work we’ve put in. I think the fans will be proud.
“I wanted us to show fight and be proud. We never wanted to go out with a whimper, and we did that. All the way throughout the game it was end to end. It must have been fantastic viewing. But now we have to go again. It’s a big congratulations to Steve and Forest, they’ll go into the game we wanted to be in, and unfortunately we can’t be there.
“I honestly thought we’d win and go through. Everything on the pitch showed me the same. Even at two down at half-time, I knew we should go through. The boys showed that, we just didn’t quite get it over the line.”
‘One more game to go for Forest’
Former Nottingham Forest defender Michael Dawson on Sky Sports Football:
“The emotions are incredible. Brice Samba – take a bow! His saves in extra time forced penalties. He’s a goalkeeper who likes to perform. He’s been made a hero.
“They’ve got a massive chance. I played for this club and followed them. There has been so much heartbreak. The size of this football club it’s needed in the Premier League. 23 years – that’s what it means to this city. One more big game. Steve Cooper, you can be a genius.
“It’s incredible. There have been so many years of disappointment. They have to enjoy it because these moments don’t happen too often. They’ll be so excited, there won’t be a spare seat at Wembley.
“They have to enjoy tonight. But there is one more big game and Cooper will be focused on that already. Huddersfield in the final.”
Man of the Match – Brice Samba
Even without the penalty heroics, Samba did almost enough over the 120 minutes to earn man of the match, he made two incredible saves at the start at the end of the game to keep Sheffield United at bay. Then he stepped up in the shootout. What a performance.
Nottingham Forest will head to the Sky Bet Championship play-off final to face Huddersfield at Wembley on Sunday, May 29 – live on Sky Sports Football.