They may have lost the action, but they still won the war. Nottingham Forest, who lost at home for only the second time this year, booked their first visit to Wembley since 1992 after Bryce Samba deflected three penalties in a penalty shootout to secure a championship play-off final with Huddersfield Town on May 29.
Sheffield United may have joined Liverpool as the only other team to beat Steve Cooper’s side in a match at the City Ground in 2022, but, ultimately, Forest’s remarkable rise from the championship podium to the brink of promotion to the Premier League is still ongoing.
Samba, the mercurial Congolese goalkeeper, saved Oliver Norwood, Conor Hourihan and Morgan Gibbs‑White to extend United’s playoff tie. Nine times they have failed to get a promotion to the Jamboree at the end of the season.
Forest increased the lead they snatched from Bramall Lane on Saturday when Brennan Johnson scored his 19th goal of the season, but United, eager to immediately return to the top division, staged a fierce comeback, the intensity of their game equaled the number of Gibbs-White goals and, in the end, the number of heads. John Fleck scored in the 75th minute.
Fleck, a key player in the team that rose from League One to first place under Chris Wilder, flipped center George Baldock from the right flank to cancel out this tie. Forest, who have won 12 of their 14 home games, are facing a new challenge.
United knocked them out of the rut and looked at the stronger side. Even though there were five minutes of extra time remaining, Samba made a brilliant save, deflecting a shot by Iliman Ndiaye by about three meters after, as a rule, a fierce struggle for the ball after a corner.
But Forest held out during the shootout as most of the 29,000 sold-out spectators poured onto the field to celebrate in a haze of red flashes. It looks like Billy Sharp, the health-issue United captain, was knocked down by a fan running across the pitch.
To think we were at the bottom of the table when Cooper came here in September. Since then, part of their football has been exciting, and that was the matter here in the first half. Johnson, whose father scored a goal in Forest’s 5-4 defeat to these rivals in 2003, performed brilliantly, and the loanees Jed Spence, Philip Zink Kernagel, James Garner and Keynan Davis also made their cool and piquant contributions to Forest’s ascent.
The field finally cleared after 23 hours so Cooper could enjoy his lap of honor before the players joined him, the samba singing was especially loud.
The atmosphere at the start was tense, but it only intensified when United missed a great opportunity to equalize, Samba saved Ndiaye before leaving after Johnson opened the scoring when the striker stretched to deceive center Sam Surridge.high into the net.
United, however, are made of soft materials and, having adapted to playing without a recognised striker in the last five games, they have stepped aside with huge home form.
When Paul Hocking Bottom pushed the ball into Spence’s stomach when the Forest defender was about to recover to make a discount, most of the players and staff gathered in a rage. In response, City Ground told the United manager that he was “just shit, Neil Warnock.” That would have made the former Notts County director laugh.
The blades came out even sharper in the second half. Two minutes after they were at night level. Joe Worrall made a perfectly timed selection of the ball to deprive Ndiaye of the right to serve when he browbeated to break away for an accurate goal kick, but the ball broke so that Sander was in the center of the field, and Gibbs-White scored his impressive 12th goal of the season, borrowed from Wolves.
It was raining now, but there were no signs of cooling in the match, and when Fleck equalized the score overall, the momentum was with the visitors. But Samba had a different scenario in mind.