Second Generation Stars And Samba Football: Nottingham Forest Reach Play-Off Final

Brennan Johnson and Brice Samba are the heroes as Forest reach Wembley for the first time since 1992
22:42, 17 May 2022

Nottingham Forest will meet Huddersfield in the Championship Play-Off Final. The Tricky Trees lost 2-1 to Sheffield United on the night, taking the aggregate score of the tie to 3-3 over the two legs. Brice Samba was the hero in the shootout, saving three spot kicks to hand his side a 3-2 penalties win. Forest went within one game of a return to the Premier League in front of an atmospheric City Ground.

The Blades looked sharp from the start, playing with urgency of a team who needed a goal. Forest looked shaky in the early going, struggling to clear their lines from set pieces in particular.

Morgan Gibbs-White fashioned a phenomenal chance with a pinpoint pass for Iliman Ndiaye. The French forward fired his close-range shot too near to Brice Samba, who reacted well to beat it away. It was an early shot across the bow for Forest, and one that woke them up.

Against the run of play, the home side struck back. Sam Surridge did brilliantly in receiving a long ball and charging down the left flank. The forward crossed for strike partner Brennan Johnson, who buried the opportunity. The promising youngster became the first player to score in two legs of a Championship play-off semi-final since David Johnson, his father, in 2003. The elder Johnson’s goals came for Forest against none other than Sheffield United. The Blades went through on that occasion, but a 3-1 aggregate lead was enough to quell the feeling this piece of Johnson family history was a bad omen.

Tensions spilled over when Djed Spence and United manager Paul Heckingbottom clashed over how long the full-back was taking over his throw-ins. The majority of players on both sides piled in for a peacocking display of handbags at dawn. The situation was quickly diffused, with just the manager walking away with a yellow card.

Just a minute into the second half, and the game was blown wide open. Sander Berge showed some tidy feet in the Forest box, playing a sharp ball into Gibbs-White, who didn’t need a second invitation. The travelling Blades burst into booming song, as their dream of Wembley and a shot at the big time were revived anew. 

Both teams attacked, with Forest not trying to hold on. With so much at stake, many of the forays forward lacked quality, with the game being more about atmosphere and tempo than end product and incisiveness. But the occasion was carried by the deafening noise of the City Ground crowd.

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The quality in front of goal sharply improved when Sheffield United took the lead on the night, and drew the tie level on aggregate. Sam Baldock sat Jack Colback down and whipped a nice ball in for John Fleck to slot home and send the travelling support into raptures. In such an open game, this is the risk you run, and Forest were punished for not shutting up shop.

The magnificent Gibbs-White nearly turned the tide in the Blades’ favour with a brilliant deep cross for Ndiaye. The striker couldn’t quite direct it home, but it was a testament to the incisive brilliance Gibbs-White had shown all night.

There was to be no dramatic final contribution from any player, and this gripping tie went into extra-time. The action had been chaotically enthralling enough to warrant an extra thirty minutes of play, as these two energetic and hungry sides battled tooth and nail to join Huddersfield in the final.

As is often the case in extra time, there was little in the way of quality in the first half. Plenty of spirit, as there had been throughout the evening, but understandably the energy levels had dropped. Nobody wants to be the one to make a costly mistake at such a crucial stage, and while the Blades had the best of the period, they never quite cut loose and punished Forest.

Johnson battled his way through the massed ranks of United early in the second period, playing in Joe Lolley. The substitute did not get enough on the shot, and agonisingly Wes Foderingham kept it out. The keeper was called upon again a minute later, when a Johnson volley was well held. Forest certainly seemed to have responded to whatever Steve Cooper had told them during the mid-point in extra time.

United had one last stand themselves, with substitute Connor Hourihane flashing a great cross in for Gibbs-White. The magnificent forward could not quite get a boot to it, as the City Ground held its breath. 

As penalties loomed, there was a late shout for one in open play. Jack Robinson went down in the area as Samba raced off his line. The referee gave a goal kick, choosing neither to award a spot kick nor punish a perceived dive. Instead, a penalty shootout would be needed to separate the sides.

The very first penalty was saved, Samba getting across to palm away Oliver Norwood’s opening spot kick. After Johnson stuck his spot kick away, Samba once again pulled off a remarkable stop. Hourihane’s game of chicken failed, as Samba stood rooted to the spot and clotheslined his penalty onto the bar. Cafu powered his home, though Foderingham managed a touch.

Berge made it third time lucky for the Blades, as a Sheffield United player finally got the best of Samba from the spot. Steve Cook kept his side alive with a confident take. Ndiaye tucked his effort into the corner coolly. Lolley fired his effort over the bar, restoring an element of jeopardy to proceedings. Gibbs-White’s tame effort saw Samba make his third save, and cement himself in Forest folklore as a club hero. The crowd spilled onto the field, flares in hand, to celebrate wildly. After 23 years outside of the Premier League, and having never reached a Championship final, their club is now one game away from the top tier of English football. 

For the first time since 1992, Nottingham Forest will play at Wembley. A gentleman by the name of Brian Clough was their manager that day. If you belief in the afterlife, you can be sure Ol’ Big ‘Ead is looking down and smiling after watching the club he led to two European Cup triumphs take another huge step towards the promised land.

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