Image: Peter Glaser on Unsplash

The epitome of a ‘sleeping giant’, two-time European Cup winners Nottingham Forest have been stuck in the middle realms of the football pyramid since 1999 — without even knocking on the door of a return to the Premier League since they reached the play-offs over a decade ago, losing to Swansea City in the semi-finals in 2010-11.

But this season, the fortunes of the City Ground faithful have finally changed. Rooted to the bottom of the table following six defeats in their opening seven Championship matches, Chris Houghton was sacked and Steve Cooper was brought in.

That’s where this fairy-tale journey all begins — with Forest rapidly beginning to climb the table before securing fourth and a return to the play-offs.

Sheffield United awaited Cooper’s men in the semi-finals, and with Paul Heckingbottom hoping to take the Steelman back to the promised land of Premier League football on the first time of asking after they suffered relegation in 2021, there was very little to separate the two sides in the football betting odds.

But it was Forest who gained the ascendency in the first leg in Sheffield — Jack Colback and Brennan Johnson giving the visitors a two-goal advantage at Bramall Lane before Sander Berge gave Heckingbottom’s side a lifeline in the 91st minute, meaning both teams headed to the City Ground with it all to play for.

When Johnson made it 3-1 on aggregate within the first 20 minutes of the second leg, it looked all but over again. But Sheffield United didn’t give up and Morgan Gibbs-White and John Fleck clawed them back into the tie, forcing extra-time. But Brice Samba proved the hero in the penalty shootout, saving three spot kicks to book a trip to Wembley.

The Forest fans flocked to Wembley in their tens of thousands for their date with destiny against Huddersfield Town in the play-off final on May 29th, selling out their 36,475 allocation in the west end of the national stadium.

And there were scenes of jubilation when the Reds finally broke the deadlock on the brink of half-time after a cagey first half — Chelsea loanee Levi Colwill turning James Garners’ deep cross into his own goal after being put under pressure by midfielder Ryan Yates.

The nervy Forest fans will have wiped the sweat from their brows as the retiring Jon Moss waved away not one, but two very strong penalty appeals from Huddersfield as they upped the ante late on.

Both of which were very questionable decisions, and have caused uproar in the aftermath of the game, with VAR (brought in specifically for the play-offs) refusing to overrule the referee’s decision that Harry Toffolo dived for the first before barely checking the second despite Lewis O’Brien appearing to bring down Max Lowe inside the area.

Forest, relatively untested by Huddersfield aside from those two penalty appeals, held on to win 1-0 and there were scenes of pandemonium amongst the sea of red shirts in the west end of Wembley. Their beloved side had finally done it; Cooper’s play-off final curse was ended and the sleeping giant had finally been awoken by the glaring chants of Depeche Mode’s ‘I just can’t get enough!’

Who knows what next season holds for Forest, with onlookers not all convinced that they will be able to retain their Premier League status beyond next season. But their fans won’t start worrying about that until it comes down to it, for the meantime, they will continue to revel in the glory of winning the play-offs.

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