Steve Cooper and Nottingham Forest have taken a big step towards making history, but it wouldn’t be the championship playoffs without a bit of drama. Even the most optimistic Sheffield United fans would admit that a two-goal delay in Tuesday’s return leg at the City Ground was a fair result, considering how they have been vastly overplayed here.
Which makes what happened in the final seconds even more exciting for the balance of this halfway draw. Make no mistake, Sheffield United are still underdogs in the second leg, but who knows how important Sander berge’s goal could be in extra time. It was undoubtedly the unluckiest goal berge would score in his career, but it could also prove to be the most important if Paul Heckingbottom’s team could get to Wembley from here.
Before that, it was an almost perfect sunny day for Cooper and Forest, and most importantly, they complained that they failed to win in the tie after goals from Jack Kolbeck and Brennan Johnson, which allowed them to lead 2-0. Their front three of Sam Serridge, Johnson and Philip Zincernagel terrorised Sheffield United all day and, in what was supposed to be a tense phase of the season, Forest played with the fervour and freedom of strike that got them to this stage.
Berge’s after title, however, makes the situation exciting. ”It’s a playoff fluke,” Cooper said afterward. “It could and should have been a clean sheet, but that’s football. We wanted to win and I understand that an away draw would have been a good result, but we handled everything that was ahead of us, front to front and now we will not change. Our mentality is in very good condition. We didn’t want to give in, but we didn’t want to be disappointed.”
Sheffield United could not complain about the result, but perhaps should have been unhappy with the way they missed two goals, because they were both scored thanks to the individual mistakes of the defenders. Ben Osborne’s foul allowed Zincernagel to shoot on goal and, although Wes foderingham saved the ball, Kolbek made a penalty, bringing the visitors forward. How they did not get further ahead of the break, one can only guess.
You could argue that the tie should have ended at the break. Foderingham twice denied On Goal, Johnson made a brilliant save from the home keeper and Ryan Yates hit the header when he failed to hit the target with six yards.
At this point the hosts held on, but after the break they came back with more determination. However, despite the improvement, United were not able to properly test Bryce Samba and when the match entered the last quarter, they were punished.
John Egan lingered in possession midway through, allowing Joe lolly to intercept the ball and shoot for goal. His shot was blocked by John Fleck, but only in the path of Johnson, who ran the ball in cold blood past Foderingham and doubled Forest’s advantage. Egan’s incredible block then denied Johnson a second and it was hard not to feel like the draw was nearing an untimely end.
Some home fans were heading for the exit as the game went on in normal time, perhaps even resigned to their fate in a draw. But then, out of nowhere, the Corner was served by berge, who sent the ball into the goal and changed the result of the draw. “You could see all the body language changing,” Heckingbottom said.
“It definitely changed the mood in both camps when it happened. I hope this will be a turning point. We will accept a draw, but the game continues.”On Tuesday night we will know how important this moment will be. That bond, despite everything Forest has done here, is still very much alive.