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Nottingham Forest seize destiny at Wembley to end 23 years of desperate longing for the Premier League


WEMBLEY STADIUM – Twenty-three years of heartache, pain, underperformance and enough frustration to make Nottingham Forest’s glory years seem as if they belonged to a different club. All of it over in a sharp blast of a whistle and a release that may well last as long as the summer. Steve Cooper had already done more than anyone since Frank Clark in the 1990s to take this club forward. In their eyes, he can now walk on the water under Trent Bridge.

It was frantic at times, as first-half control gave way to second-half pressure; perhaps a little fear too. The six minutes of injury time must have felt like six months for those who desperately tried to shout, chant and sing away their nerves and failed spectacularly. They may not quite believe they have made it until the fixtures are released. But they have ended the hurt.

This victory is satisfying because how could it be anything else. There is no other fixture in English football that demands less analysis; the result is emphatically king. They will look forward to Old Trafford, Anfield and the Emirates, to opponents who they have only faced in infrequent cup exploits. They will be welcomed in the Premier League too. The “proper club” principle is strong here.

But the manner of their victory was important. The accusation against Forest, against Bournemouth in the final week of the season and against Sheffield United in the second leg of their playoff semi-final, is that Forest became a little haunted by the situation. They had impressed all season when chasing, when promotion was nothing but a pipe dream that lay beyond the horizon. But holding something in your hands can make them shake. That had historical connotations too: Yeovil 2007 and Sheffield United 2003, anyone?

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Forest did hold their destiny in both hands. They were favourites, the neutral’s choice and the scorers of the first goal. Their supporters wanted them to keep pushing to kill off the game and yet they retreated further and further towards their own goal. Huddersfield pushed them hard. And still they hung on.

Joe Worrall, Steve Cook and Scott McKenna, the three central defenders, were magnificent. They reflect the three elements of a new Nottingham Forest: youth product, expensive signing, smart free transfer coup probably tempted to join by the Steve Cooper impact. Forest’s season has been changed by a hundred different decisions and moments, but would they be here without Cook and fellow January signing Sam Surridge, so vital during a striker injury crisis?

Cooper’s side rode their luck – Huddersfield will point to two pieces of rotten fortune that followed an unlucky own goal from Levi Colwill. Jon Moss was given the most high-profile fixture possible for his final match as a referee and Carlos Corberan will curse that decision.

In Moss’ defence, neither penalty call was clear in real time. A great fuss had been made of VAR’s use in this final, but you have to wonder what its point is if neither second-half incident can be deemed worthy of overturning. Nottingham Forest fans will not care. They may even consider that they are due some playoff luck. But they dodged two bullets in five minutes.

Town fans will have other regrets. Their team has been excellent at controlling their opposition’s strengths this season, and there’s no doubt that they attempted the same thing at Wembley. Corberan chose a risk-averse team and their intentions were clear immediately. With a bank of five and then four and Danny Ward on his own up front, they barely tried to win the ball in the opposition half, instead dropping deep towards their own goal.

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That made sense. Forest’s great strength is the combination between Brennan Johnson and Djed Spence on the right wing, but space in which to run is their oxygen. By closing off that space, you take away the weapon and therefore force Forest to pass the ball from side to side in search of a flaw. But it did become a little one-dimensional. Huddersfield managed the occasional counter attack in the first half, but generally resorted to long, low-percentage passes towards Ward.

James Garner was the best attacking player in the match, the enthusiasm of youth giving him a tigrish edge that so often matters in the moments. He is one of a group of prodigious loan and academy players who would surely have left the City Ground this summer if the worst had happened on Sunday.

No supporter really wanted to consider those possibilities – they had plenty else on their minds – but it is no exaggeration to conclude that this may be a game-changer in Forest’s modern history. Cooper has made them the natural home for young talent. Brennan Johnson, Worrall, Djed Spence, Garner, Keinan Davis – surely some of these can be persuaded to sign or stay.

But these are conversations for another time, quite frankly. They are not unimportant matters, but in comparison to the wave of relief and joy that emanated from one end of Wembley, they mean nothing. As that sharp whistle blew, players scattered in several directions, somehow knackered and yet full of an unrelenting energy that can only be provided by triumph.

For more than two decades, a footballing city has longed for a team that they can like as much as they love. Each of those supporters will tell you that their club, much criticised when they got it wrong, has reached out to its community and brought supporters closer to their bosom over the last two years. The theory was that together they could make each other doubly strong. Find the right manager to channel that energy and you have something truly special. And there’s nothing that feels more special than promotion at Wembley.

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