Less than 24 hours after Nottingham Forest’s cruel defeat to Swansea City in the Championship playoff semi-finals you’d think I’d be used to it. Our fourth semi-final defeat in eight years is hard to stomach but I feel immensely proud of the second half performance from those wearing the Garibaldi. 2-0 down to a Swansea side so dominant at home it looked to be all over but after half-time the Reds put in an outstanding performance which deserved so much more than it got. Forest hit the woodwork three times and had good penalty claims ignored – had something gone our way things could have been different.
So soon after such a defeat it’s far from easy to take a rational look on things as I reflect on events and still smart from seeing my team lose as they did. I’ll be the first to congratulate Swansea on their success and praise them for the fine footballing side they are. Following Neil Taylor’s red card a minute into the first leg at the City Ground they kept the ball and frustrated Forest with a well-executed rearguard display. In the second game they again showed their attacking flair and during a 10 minute spell in the first half pulled two goals clear. One of the best sides in the division, they’ll be a welcome addition to the Premier League should they be victorious in the final.
Prior to the tie against Swansea, Billy Davies reiterated on several occasions that these sort of games come down to lady luck and refereeing decisions. It is often said you make your own luck in this game however upon examining Forest’s playoff history (as painful as it may be) it becomes clear that they have rarely had the crucial breaks when it mattered most….
In 2003 Paul Hart’s young, entertaining Forest team finished 6th in Division One and qualified for the end of season finale. Sheffield United were the opponents and it was Forest’s first foray into the playoffs. The mood was buoyant and Forest followers felt confident they could overcome the Blades and reach the Millenium Stadium final.
The first game at the City Ground was a tight affair with Forest’s lead given to them by Johnson being cancelled out through Michael Brown’s penalty in the second half. Then came the major talking point. Michael Dawson, Forest’s young centre-back who’d broken into the team and put in some commanding performances during his first season, went in for a tackle on the halfway line with Steve Kabba and fouled the United frontman. The tackle was late but by no means malicious or capable of causing serious injury yet card-happy referee Mark Clattenburg pulled out the red card and sent off the 19-year-old Dawson. A poor decision which robbed Forest of arguably their best defender for the rematch at Bramall Lane five days later.
Michael Dawson gets his marching orders in 2003
Up until the last half-hour of the game Forest were in dreamland as David Johnson and Andy Reid gave them what seemed to be an unassailable 2-0 lead on the night and with 30 minutes to go the Reds looked to have one foot in the final. Then Sheffield United won a free-kick 20 yards from goal.
Michael Brown stepped up, the ball took a huge deflection off the wall and rolled over the line with goalkeeper Darren Ward beaten. With their tails now up after a slice of good fortune the Blades stormed back into the game, Steve Kabba given far too much time to volley an equaliser before Paul Peschisolido’s daisy-cutter and the unfortunate Des Walker own goal spelled the end of Forest’s promotion dream in dramatic circumstances.
Forest boss Paul Hart consoles a distraught Des Walker after Forest's 5-4 aggregate defeat to Sheffield United in 2003
Fast-forward four years and Forest are back in the playoffs, albeit a division lower in League One. Following a seventh-placed finish in 2006 Colin Calderwood’s side finished 4th and would face Yeovil Town who’d only been a football league club for four seasons. The first leg at Huish Park went to plan for Forest as they ran out 2-0 winners thanks to penalties from Kris Commons and James Perch. Ahead of the second-leg at the City Ground Forest just had to remain professional, do their jobs and look forward to a trip to Wembley.
What followed was one of the most incredible football matches I have ever seen and reliving it now I still cannot believe what happened. Forest conceded 5 at home to be knocked out 5-4 on aggregate. However with 81 minutes on the clock they were 3-1 up on aggregate and looked to be seeing out the game, after Arron Davies’ first half strike was cancelled out on the night by Scott Dobie.
Yeovil pushed forward and after a curling 25 yard shot from Kalala came back out off the post, it bounced up, hit Forest defender Alan Wright on the head ten yards from goal and agonisingly rolled into the far corner of the net with Paul Smith scrambling in vain across the goal line. Bad luck for Forest – the goal gave Yeovil a lift and minutes later they levelled the tie through Marcus Stewart’s header. A shell-shocked Forest collapsed in extra time, Lee Morris and Davies again either side of Gary Holt’s volley knocking Forest out in front of a stunned home crowd. By now the play-offs were Forest’s worst nightmare.
Yeovil salute the fans after their second-leg victory at the City Ground, 2007
Forest did get their promotion a year later automatically and in 2010 were back in the play-offs, this time in the Championship with Billy Davies as manager. The good times were back at the City Ground, Forest exceeding all expectations as they finished third behind Newcastle and West Brom playing some exciting football throughout the season. Davies’ team faced 6th placed Blackpool, written off as underdogs by many but capable themselves of playing open, attractive football and the tie was to be memorable for many reasons.
In the first leg Keith Southern and Charlie Adam’s penalty gave Blackpool a 2-1 win after Chris Cohen’s outstanding volley had put Forest 1-0 up. For the return on Trentside the atmosphere was electric and the home crowd expectant. Forest had not lost on home turf since Blackpool’s fortuitous 1-0 victory over them in September and were fancied to overturn the goal deficit and reach a play-off final at the third time of asking.
Robert Earnshaw’s sixth minute strike levelled the tie as Forest fans exploded into delirium believing the dream was on. Blackpool’s players kept calm to their credit and Forest could not find a quick-fire second goal, however with minutes to go until halftime the ball was played to Dexter Blackstock just past the halfway line as Blackpool’s defence pushed up and the Forest man was flagged offside. The decision was clearly the wrong one and denied the striker a clean run at goal with just the goalkeeper to beat. Had Forest netted there then things could have been different.
Forest players mob Robert Earnshaw after his goal levelled the tie against Blackpool, 2010
They did score after the break though, Robert Earnshaw putting the ball in but frustratingly it was chalked off – this time the correct decision for offside but after the Blackstock one earlier Reds players and fans had every reason to feel aggrieved.
Blackpool continued to threaten and were playing good football, remaining composed in possession and DJ Campbell’s lofted effort over the on-rushing Lee Camp put them back ahead in the tie ten minutes after the restart. On 66 minutes though Forest levelled again, Robert Earnshaw clinically firing a loose ball into the roof of the net in front of a joyous Trent End and now Forest had the momentum and an opportunity to push on.
But six minutes later disaster struck in the form of Stephen Dobbie. The substitute, on loan from Swansea, hit a shot from 25 yards out which would have gone straight to goalkeeper Camp. However the ball ricocheted off a Forest defender, spun the wrong side of the post and into the net with the ‘keeper wrongfooted. Dobbie sprinted away celebrating exuberantly and the lucky goal seemed to knock the stuffing out of Forest. Blackpool ran rings around the Reds’ defence as DJ Campbell completed a hat-trick to send his side to Wembley. Ian Holloway’s men deserved great credit for the performances they gave across those two legs but Forest could feel hard done by in some respects.
Blackpool celebrate reaching the Wembley play-off final in 2010
And now we come to Forest’s fourth attempt at play-off glory. During the 2010/11 season they flirted with the top two and despite a horrible run of form between February and April, five wins from six games propelled them into 6th place and a semi-final showdown against Swansea City. Both sides prevailed at home when they met in the normal league season but that would all go out of the window – it was 180 minutes of football to decide who would progress to the final.
The first-leg at the City Ground began badly for Swansea as left-back Neil Taylor saw red for an awful studs-up challenge on Lewis McGugan after a minute. The Forest fans sensed an opportunity to gain an advantage for the second leg but it did not happen, Swansea in the first half particularly, kept the ball with some composed passing and threatened on the breakaway. It was hard to tell they were down to ten men.
After half-time though Forest stepped up their game and went at Swansea, whilst maybe not at their very best The Reds fashioned chances and felt they should have had a penalty when Chris Cohen’s goalbound shot was blocked by Alan Tate with his arm raised in the box. The referee and linesman did not see the incident and from the resulting corner Forest scored, although Earnshaw’s header was rightly disallowed as the Welshman was offside. A frustrating 0-0 draw was celebrated by the travelling support but the tie was not over and it would come down to the second leg in South Wales.
Chris Cohen appeals for a penalty in the first leg of the semi-final
Within five minutes of the return Forest hit the bar after Nathan Tyson’s bursting run upfield. He squared the ball to David McGoldrick whose first-time effort shook the frame of the goal and bounced away to safety. Forest contained their hosts well but Leon Britton’s excellent 25-yard drive put them ahead and soon after, Stephen Dobbie would come back to haunt Forest yet again, his piercing run finished off with a clinical left-foot finish into the bottom corner. Forest battled on and referee Andre Marriner failed to take action against Alan Tate as he tugged away at Nathan Tyson’s shirt in the penalty area, but decided to book Chris Gunter for that very offence minutes later even though it looked as the Forest man did not have much of a hold on Nathan Dyer’s jersey.
2-0 at half-time and it all seemed over, Swansea with the best home record in the division and a team so adept at keeping the ball now just 45 minutes from a place in the final, it was do or die for Nottingham Forest.
In the second half they looked a different team, taking the game to their opponents. Marcus Tudgay wasted a golden opportunity as he skied his shot into the Forest faithful behind the goal after being set up by McGoldrick. Forest did earn themselves a free-kick which Lewis McGugan smashed off the crossbar, inches away from getting back into the tie.
Billy Davies threw on Robert Earnshaw and the decision paid off as on 80 minutes, the striker set up a grandstand finish with his first touch, firing Radoslaw Majewski’s pass beyond Dorus De Vries for 2-1. Game on. Throughout the second half Forest looked a much better team and were playing football as good as what Swansea had offered.
A frantic last ten minutes saw both teams fashion opportunities as Swansea threatened on the counter-attack but as the match entered injury-time it was Forest who went close again. Earnshaw collected the ball after some neat interplay and from inside the penalty area struck a low shot which hit the post and rolled away to safety. For a third time the woodwork denied Forest and on another night that ball may have rolled over the line or gone to the waiting Kris Boyd for an easy tap-in.
Still Forest piled on the pressure knowing an equaliser would change the complexion of the game entirely. A minute after hitting the post Earnshaw volleyed a shot at goal which was blocked by Swansea defender Ashley Williams with both hands in the air away from his body. As blatant a handball as you’re likely to see yet the referee nor linesman, with a clear-cut view, gave a penalty. A critical decision and after that, along with what had gone before, it just seemed it would not be Forest’s night.
Robert Earnshaw's shot strikes the hand of Ashley Williams
That belief was emphatically rammed home from the resulting corner, Lee Camp was up field as the set-piece was cleared, Lewis McGugan slipped at a crucial moment and the ball broke to Darren Pratley. The man heavily linked with a move to Forest in pre-season carried the ball forward and hit a shot from inside his own half which bounced into the unguarded net to confirm Swansea’s place at Wembley. It’s very rare you see goals scored after the ‘keeper goes up for a corner-kick but it had to happen to Forest just to rub salt into the wounds.
Three times Forest hit the woodwork, twice they had good penalty claims waved away and saw a combination of bad luck and poor officiating deny them an equaliser and maybe more. While Swansea played well across the two legs Forest are left to wonder what might have been.
In the past Forest’s playoff defeats have been far from glorious – on many occasions the Reds have capitulated in the most unbelievable of circumstances. Despite that they have not had those little breaks, that rub of the green which can be so critical in playoff football. Regardless of how well you play sometimes you need that good fortune at crucial moments but sadly it has eluded the team from the banks of the River Trent.
We can take pride from the way Forest played in the Liberty Stadium last night and can take many positives into next season where we hope another promotion push will be forged.
The hope now is that Nottingham Forest build a side capable of going for the top two as no Forest fan ever wants to endure those dreaded playoffs again. However, if we do end up in them one more time and are helped out by a deflected strike, some generous refereeing or a goal which goes in off the arse of an opposition player then I for one will not be complaining. We’re due a bit of luck like that.