Nottingham Forest beat Sheffield United on penalties to set up a Championship play-off final meeting with Huddersfield Town despite losing a drama-packed semi-final second leg at the City Ground.
Brice Samba produced goalkeeping heroics for the hosts at the end of a pulsating tie, saving spot-kicks from Ollie Norwood, Conor Hourihane and Morgan Gibbs-White.
Thousands of joyous Forest fans spilled onto the pitch when Samba saved Gibbs-White’s weak penalty after the two legs finished 3-3 on aggregate.
However, the scenes of celebration were marred by one fan charging into Sheffield United striker Billy Sharp, knocking him to the ground.
After the game, Blades manager Paul Heckingbottom said Sharp was “shook up and bleeding”.
Brennan Johnson had added to Forest’s 2-1 aggregate lead from the first leg with a sliding first-half finish, but second-half goals from Gibbs-White and John Fleck sent the game to extra time.
It took a fine reflex save from Samba to keep Iliman Ndiaye out in the 115th minute and force the game to a shootout.
The Congolese goalkeeper immediately gave Forest the advantage by saving United’s first two attempts.
Johnson, Cafu and Steve Cook scored their efforts for Forest before Joe Lolley sent his over the bar, which set Samba up to make the save from Gibbs-White that sent Forest to Wembley for the first time in 30 years.
The showdown with the Terriers on Sunday, 29 May will be Forest’s first ever play-off final at any level.
Victory in what is often cited as the richest game in football would end Forest’s 23-year Premier League absence.
Sheffield United’s shootout defeat extends the club’s woeful play-off record to nine failed attempts from nine campaigns, and denies them a chance of making an immediate top-flight return.
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Samba Forest’s hero
From the outset, Samba was instrumental in getting Forest through.
He made a crucial early save to deny Ndiaye before Johnson’s composed finish at the end of a ruthlessly quick counter-attack gave the hosts a two-goal aggregate lead.
After almost 20 minutes of Blades dominance, Scott McKenna launched the ball forward on the left for Sam Surridge, who teed up 20-year-old Johnson in the centre of the box.
The Wales international’s 19th goal of the season saw him emulate his father David, who scored in both home and away legs of Forest’s play-off semi-final in 2003. The difference on this occasion, is that Johnson’s goals at Bramall Lane and the City Ground have put them into the final.
A tense first half in front of a raucous crowd of 29,015 got heated when United manager Heckingbottom shoved the ball into the stomach of defender Djed Spence as he went to claim it for a throw in.
Heckingbottom appeared fortunate to only be cautioned by Michael Oliver for the incident which sparked a melee, allowing him to watch from the dugout as Gibbs-White made it 1-1 immediately after the break.
United relentlessly pressed a for tie-levelling goal, which was prodded home by Fleck from close range with 15 minutes remaining.
Both sides tried to find a winner inside the 90 minutes, but James Garner’s deflected injury-time shot which went wide for Forest was as close as either side came.
Chances were limited in extra time, with Lolley slipping in the penalty box as he tried to connect with a low cross before Johnson volleyed into the arms of Wes Foderingham.
Samba’s stunning extra-time save from Ndiaye, and his shootout heroics, helped put Forest just one win away from reaching the Premier League for the first time since relegation in 1999.
Forest’s remarkable rise
While it has been three decades since the Reds were last at Wembley, the national stadium was like home away from home to Forest between 1989 and 1992 as the club featured in six finals, winning four – which included the League Cup twice under Brian Clough.
Forest’s bid to return there this season under Cooper has been an extraordinary one.
The club’s worst start to a league campaign for more than a century – having taken just one point from their first seven games – did not suggest that the Reds would be capable of going on to establish themselves as promotion candidates. As it turned out, their hopes of going up automatically were only ended in the penultimate game of the regular season.
Forest were bottom of the table when Welshman Cooper moved from Swansea to take over from Chris Hughton.
The appointment of the 42-year-old transformed Forest’s fortunes, with the Reds picking up more points than any other side in England’s second division from that point on to book a play-off spot with a fourth-place finish.
United’s rise, while not as dramatically stark, has mirrored that of Forest’s following Heckingbottom’s appointment as Slavisa Jokanovic’s replacement in November.
Under the Serb, the Blades won just three of 19 league games.
By the time Heckingbottom was appointed, Forest had already moved above them in the table.
An upturn in form, which included just one defeat in the 44-year-old’s first 13 league games in charge, saw the Blades clinch a fifth-place finish with a 4-0 victory against title winners Fulham on the final day of the regular season.
They pushed Forest to the limit for 210 minutes over two semi-final legs, but were ultimately denied by Forest’s inspired goalkeeper Samba.
Nottingham Forest boss Steve Cooper told BBC Radio Nottingham:
“We are hopefully going to give so many people a day to remember.
“I can’t sum it up at the moment, the reality is that we have another step to go.
“To get through two legs of a semi-final play-off you have to do a bit of everything, you have to play well, have to suffer, have to have a bit of luck and dig in – all of the things you have to do to be a real team we have done.
“Brice was brilliant today, I’m not one for singling people out but it’s difficult not to talk about how good he was in terms of the penalties, the saves, the distribution and the calmness.
“He is a big part of what we do on and off the pitch. It’s brilliant he got his moment.”
Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom told BBC Radio Sheffield:
“We don’t get what we deserve sometimes, football’s cruel like that.
“We were fantastic from the first whistle, got caught by a sucker punch again, but we responded fantastically well.
“They’ve done themselves proud, their families proud and myself and the staff proud and that’s all we ask for.”
- 4WorrallBooked at 90mins
- 27S CookBooked at 111mins
- 26McKennaBooked at 75mins
- 37GarnerSubstituted forRibeiro Diasat 119′minutes
- 11ZinckernagelSubstituted forLolleyat 71′minutes
- 16SurridgeSubstituted forDavisat 75′minutes
- 18Ribeiro Dias
- 19RobinsonBooked at 58mins
- 2BaldockSubstituted forOsbornat 108′minutes
- 4FleckSubstituted forHourihaneat 109′minutes
- Michael Oliver
Match ends, Nottingham Forest 1(3), Sheffield United 2(2).
Penalty Shootout ends, Nottingham Forest 1(3), Sheffield United 2(2).
Penalty saved! Morgan Gibbs-White (Sheffield United) fails to capitalise on this great opportunity, right footed shot saved in the bottom left corner.
Penalty missed! Bad penalty by Joe Lolley (Nottingham Forest) left footed shot is too high. Joe Lolley should be disappointed.
Goal! Nottingham Forest 1(3), Sheffield United 2(2). Iliman Ndiaye (Sheffield United) converts the penalty with a right footed shot to the bottom right corner.
Goal! Nottingham Forest 1(3), Sheffield United 2(1). Steve Cook (Nottingham Forest) converts the penalty with a right footed shot to the bottom left corner.
Goal! Nottingham Forest 1(2), Sheffield United 2(1). Sander Berge (Sheffield United) converts the penalty with a right footed shot to the top left corner.
Goal! Nottingham Forest 1(2), Sheffield United 2. Cafú (Nottingham Forest) converts the penalty with a right footed shot to the centre of the goal.
Penalty saved! Conor Hourihane (Sheffield United) fails to capitalise on this great opportunity, left footed shot saved in the centre of the goal.
Goal! Nottingham Forest 1(1), Sheffield United 2. Brennan Johnson (Nottingham Forest) converts the penalty with a right footed shot to the bottom right corner.
Penalty saved! Oliver Norwood (Sheffield United) fails to capitalise on this great opportunity, right footed shot saved in the bottom left corner.
Penalty Shootout begins Nottingham Forest 1, Sheffield United 2.
Second Half Extra Time ends, Nottingham Forest 1, Sheffield United 2.
Conor Hourihane (Sheffield United) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Ryan Yates (Nottingham Forest).
Substitution, Nottingham Forest. Cafú replaces James Garner.
Attempt missed. Joe Lolley (Nottingham Forest) left footed shot from the right side of the box misses to the left. Assisted by Joe Worrall.
Attempt saved. Iliman Ndiaye (Sheffield United) right footed shot from very close range is saved in the centre of the goal. Assisted by Morgan Gibbs-White with a headed pass.
Corner, Sheffield United. Conceded by Joe Lolley.
Attempt blocked. Sander Berge (Sheffield United) right footed shot from outside the box is blocked. Assisted by Rhys Norrington-Davies.