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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 at Wembley on May 29.
Brice Samba was the hero in the penalty shootout, 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 beat Sheffield United on penalties to reach the Championship playoff final
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.
This was only the second time in 2022 Forest had been beaten inside 90 minutes at home — the other their FA Cup defeat by Liverpool.
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
There were fireworks outside the ground 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 near future.
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 and the visitors wasted a great chance when Samba denied Iliman Ndiaye, who had seemed certain to pull the Blades level on aggregate, with 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 played 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 Fleck to stop Surridge’s effort testing Wes Foderingham, after a clever move involving Philip Zinckernagel.
With the Blades’ dream of an immediate return to the top flight hanging by a thread, boss Heckingbottom shoved the ball into the stomach of Djed Spence before a Forest throw.
But Morgan Gibbs-White pulled one back for United two minutes after the half-time break
John Fleck then bundled home another 15 minutes from time to draw them level on aggregate
Fleck’s goal edged the visitors ahead in the second leg and sent the semi-final to extra-time
Johnson immediately squared up to Heckingbottom and players from both teams brawled by the touchline, with Heckingbottom lucky only to receive a yellow card.
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. Forest were struggling to gain any control of the game, with Johnson and Surridge unable to hold the ball up and Oliver Norwood dictating the tempo in midfield for United.
It was no surprise to see Steve Cooper take off Zinckernagel, who had had little impact, for Joe Lolley with 20 minutes remaining.
The moment Forest had been dreading arrived on 75 minutes 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 home.
The semi-final was decided by penalties, and Brice Samba then proved the hero for Forest
Samba saved three United spot-kicks in the shootout to send Steve Cooper’s men to Wembley
By now Forest’s nerves were frayed and under little pressure, McKenna overhit a backpass alarmingly and was relieved to concede only a corner.
In extra time, Lolley slipped with the goal at his mercy and Johnson volleyed straight at Foderingham. Then his opposite number Samba made an astonishing stop from Ndiaye’s close-range volley.
Samba saved United’s first two spot-kicks from Norwood and substitute Conor Hourihane, with Johnson and sub Cafu scoring for Forest. Berge and Steve Cook then did the same, meaning Ndiaye needed to follow suit to keep United in it. He did so, leaving Lolley the chance to send Forest to Wembley.
The tension rose to unbearable level when he fired miles over. But Samba saved from Gibbs-White and Forest are now just one step from glory.