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They may have lost the battle but they still won the war. Nottingham Forest, defeated at home for only the second time this year, booked their first visit to Wembley since 1992 after Brice Samba saved three penalties in the shootout to secure a Championship play-off final date with Huddersfield Town on 29 May.
Sheffield United may have joined Liverpool as the only other team to have beaten Steve Cooper’s side in a game at the City Ground in 2022 but ultimately Forest’s remarkable rise from the foot of the Championship to the cusp of promotion to the Premier League is still on.
Samba, the mercurial French goalkeeper, saved from Oliver Norwood, Conor Hourihane and Morgan Gibbs‑White to extend United’s hoodoo in the play-offs. Nine times now they have failed to gain promotion from the end‑of‑season jamboree.
Forest had extended the lead they brought back with them from Bramall Lane on Saturday when Brennan Johnson scored his 19th goal of the season but United, bidding for an immediate return to the elite, staged a ferocious comeback with the intensity of their play matched by goals from Gibbs-White and, in the 75th minute, John Fleck.
Fleck, a key member of the side that went from League One to the top flight under Chris Wilder, turned in George Baldock’s cross from the right wing to turn this tie on its head. Forest, who had won 12 of their 14 home games, faced a new challenge.
United had knocked them out of their rhythm and looked the stronger side. Even with five minutes of extra time remaining, Samba made a brilliant save as he turned aside Iliman Ndiaye’s effort from about three yards out after a typically combustible battle for the ball following a corner.
But Forest held their nerve in the shootout as the majority of another 29,000 sell-out crowd spilled on to the pitch to celebrate in a mist of red flares. It appeared that Billy Sharp, the injured United captain, was struck to the ground by a fan running on to the pitch.
To think Forest were bottom of the table when Cooper arrived here in September. Some of their football since has been exhilarating and this was the case in the first half here. Johnson, whose father scored in Forest’s 2003 5-4 defeat by these opponents in 2003, has been brilliant, and the loanees Djed Spence, Philip Zinckernagel, James Garner and Keinan Davis have been classy, zesty contributors to Forest’s rise as well.
The pitch eventually cleared after 11pm for Cooper to enjoy his lap of honour before he was joined by the players, with the chant for Samba particularly loud.
The atmosphere at kick-off had been red hot but that only intensified as United spurned an ideal chance to level the aggregate scores, Samba saving from Ndiaye, before going behind to Johnson’s opener when the striker stretched to scythe Sam Surridge’s cross high into the net.
United, though, are made of doughty stuff and, having adapted to playing with no recognised striker over the past five games, they took the game to the side with the immense home form.
When Paul Heckingbottom shoved the ball into Spence’s stomach as the Forest full-back went to reclaim in order to take a throw-in, there was a furious coming-together of the majority of the players and staff. The City Ground responded by telling the United manager he is “just a shit Neil Warnock”. That would have made the former Notts County manager laugh.
The Blades came out for the second half even sharper. Within two minutes they were level on the night. Joe Worrall produced a perfectly timed tackle to deny Ndiaye as he threatened to get in behind for a clean shot on goal but the ball broke for Sander Berge to cross for Gibbs-White to turn in his 12th goal of an impressive season on loan from Wolves.
The rain was lashing down by now but the game showing no sign of cooling down, and when Fleck made it level overall the momentum was with the visitors. But Samba had a different script in mind.