Sheffield United hate the word ‘hoodoo’, knowing that it refers to the fact that they hold the worst play-off record in English football, having failed in eight attempts to gain promotion this way.
Their ninth isn’t off to the best start, but they’ll take that score. A stoppage-time header from Sander Berge gave United a lifeline as all seemed lost in this Championship play-off semi-final.
They still have everything to do if they want to end this “curse”. The smart money says Steve Cooper’s Nottingham Forest will take part in this final at Wembley Stadium on May 29.
Jack Colback celebrates with Brennan Johnson after scoring Nottingham Forest’s opener
Colback was on hand to smash the ball after Ben Osborn slipped at the crucial moment
Brennan Johnson celebrates with teammates after scoring Forest’s second goal
Sander Berge returned home a crucial answer for Sheffield United in stoppage time
Although they won, Cooper’s team left somewhat disappointed. They could have scored five goals in the first half alone, and a few more in the second half as well.
They had to settle for one per half instead, giving them a slim lead to protect at home on Tuesday.
Jack Colback scored his first goal, taking advantage of a costly slip into Ben Osborn’s penalty area. It seemed appropriate for Brennan Johnson to score Forest’s second goal, given his family history.
These two teams met in the semi-finals of the Premier League play-offs in 2003. David Johnson lined up in both legs for Forest – and scored. He had a one-year-old son at the time named Brennan, so it was that toddler who went 2-0 here.
Berge’s late header then gave United hope that maybe, just maybe, they could produce a comeback.
Brennan Johnson regrets one of the many good opportunities Forest failed to take
They led in the 10th minute when Colback fended off a Sam Surridge cross from the right
Johnson, one of the outstanding players in the Championship this season, hides the second
Match facts and standings
Sheffield United (3-4-1-2): Foderingham 5.5; Basham 5.5, Egan 5, Robinson 5.5; Osborn 5.5 (Jebbison 82), Norwood 5.5 (Baldock 69, 6), Fleck 5.5, Stevens 5.5 (Norrington-Davies 89); Bergé 6.5; Gibbs-Blanc 6, Ndiaye 5.5
Substitutes (not used): Davies, Davies, Hourihane, Osula
Scorer: Bergé (90+1)
Reserve: Robinson, Norwood, Baldock, Fleck
Manager: Paul Heckingbottom 6
Nottingham Forest (3-4-1-2): Samba 5.5; Worrall 6.5, Cook 6.5, McKenna 6.5; Spence 7, Yates 6.5, Garner 6.5, Colback 7; Zinckernagel 6.5 (Lolley 69.6); Johnson 7.5 (Mighten 90), Surridge 7 (Davis 77)
Substitutes (not used): Horvath, Figueiredo, Laryea, Cafu
Scorers: Colback (10), Johnson (71)
Reserve: Worrall, Spence, Zinckernagel
Manager: Steve Cooper 7
Arbitrator: Andre Marriner 6
Presence: 30 225
The streets of Sheffield were draped in red and white stripes and fans went through their pre-match rituals, hoping to see another home win.
There were fathers and sons having their usual lunch of fries at Man Friday. Chaps paying the £3.50 for their match day programme. Little girls sitting on dads shoulders with ‘Sharp’ on their backs.
They wouldn’t see Billy Sharp on this occasion, those morning prayers for his calf health not having worked. The club’s top scorer wasn’t fit enough to make the squad here and how they missed him.
Forest didn’t have to wait long to take the lead, celebrating the opener after 10 minutes.
Sam Surridge crossed and just then United’s Osborn lost his footing. Liverpool fans will never forget that Steven Gerrard slipped up against Chelsea.
It might be a while before a few United fans forget the image of Osborn on their back as well.
This shift proved costly. This allowed Philip Zinckernagel a free shot on goal from close range and although goalkeeper Wes Foderingham’s save was superb, Colback fired in the rebound.
United responded almost immediately. John Egan thought he had scored an equalizer from Berge’s corner after 18 minutes, only for Surridge to clear the line.
Forest nearly doubled their advantage when a counter attack ended with Surridge trying to find the bottom corner. He was tamed and safely recovered by Foderingham.
After half an hour John Fleck was shown yellow for a foul on Zinckernagel, although Forest were furious he was not red.
VAR will be used for the Championship play-off final at Wembley, but not for those semi-finals. If he was available, he would have taken a close look at Fleck’s two-legged challenge.
Forest should have scored when Ryan Yates was all alone and six yards from goal. He sent his head free wide. So did Johnson trying to sweep his shot into the corner moments later.
The home support reaction said it all. They were frustrated and knew that tie could have been made and dusted if Forest could only finish those opportunities.
Jack Robinson celebrates Berge’s late goal which keeps Sheffield United in the semi-finals
Berge sees a shot blocked by Joe Worrall at the edge of the Nottingham Forest penalty area
More chances followed before the break, with Foderingham forced into a fantastic double save to deny Surridge’s snap shot and then Johnson’s header.
“Attack, attack, attack,” sang a handful of home fans, pleading with their players, as there were boos at Bramall Lane as Andre Marriner huffed during half-time.
It could have been five for Forest, but there was only one left and so the tie was still alive.
United came out strong with Berge having a good chance. Their willingness to attack was welcomed by home support and they were in good spirits.
Tempers are boiling as Jack Robinson and Djed Spence clash in the second half
John Fleck slipped and knocked out Philip Zinckernagel – but only received a yellow card
Until Forest made it 2-0, that is. United did it to themselves too. Egan lost the ball in front of his box with Joe Lolley charging forward. The opportunity fell to Johnson, who made no mistake in beating Foderingham.
The mood at Bramall Lane was low as a fight broke out in the crowd near the press box. Meanwhile, those outside chanted “ee-i-ee i-ee-i-oh, we’re going to the Premier League”.
Yet, just as stoppage time was announced, a corner kick came for the hosts. Berge took the lead and the ball bounced. A lifeline for United, who have their hands full in Nottingham on Tuesday.
ADAM SHERGOLD COVERED THE GAME LIVE – FOLLOW HOW IT WAS OUT BELOW