Even Jürgen Klopp made his case for Steve Cooper deserving the award for manager of the season and it is impossible to argue otherwise after Nottingham Forest ended their 23-year exile from the top flight with promotion to the Premier League yesterday – though not without controversy.
When Cooper took over in September Forest were bottom of the Championship but after an extraordinary run they are back in the big time. The captain, Joe Worrall, led his teammates up the steps to the royal box wearing a bucket hat collected from a supporter en route. Cooper leaned on the steel railings, exhaled deeply and considered what must have been a quite magnificent view, the air a Garibaldi-red haze from the smoke bombs let off in a throbbing Forest end.
The biggest cheer was reserved for Cooper when he held the winners’ trophy aloft and, as his voice cracked and his eyes watered, he described the emotion of the afternoon.
An own goal by Levi Colwill ultimately proved the difference but those of a Huddersfield persuasion will point towards two peculiar refereeing decisions late in the second half as key moments that went against them. By the end Forest fans, many with hands on heads taking it all in, swayed through six minutes of second-half stoppage time, nerves frayed. Up in the directors’ box, Evangelos Marinakis, superstitious at the best of times, stood hands on hips.
As the final whistle went, Huddersfield’s players collapsed to the turf, some covering their face with their blue-and-white striped shirts. Soon after, confetti rained down and the Forest players were left to drink it all in as Just Can’t Get Enough, Forest’s unofficial anthem, blared around Wembley.
The defender Steve Cook, a savvy January recruit from Bournemouth, guzzled champagne from the trophy beside Brennan Johnson.
Perhaps it was inevitable that VAR, introduced for the playoffs this season, would play its part in a game of such magnitude after going unrequired in the League One and League Two equivalent. Things could have been very different had the VAR, Paul Tierney, decided that Jack Colback fouled Harry Toffolo with 73 minutes gone. Colback appeared to trip Toffolo as he jinked inside the box but Jon Moss, refereeing his final game before moving to an upstairs role at the Professional Game Match Officials Board, booked the Huddersfield wingback for simulation before the flashpoint was reviewed.
If Forest were lucky then, they were even more fortunate that the VAR did not take a closer look at the substitute Max Lowe bundling Lewis O’Brien over inside the box without making any contact with the ball. It is understood that neither incident met the threshold for the VAR to overturn the on-field decision and at the start of the season all clubs were advised that the tolerance level would be higher than previously. Equally this season referees have worked on the basis of establishing whether any contact inside the box had sufficient consequences in order to win a spot-kick.
This game was only 15 minutes old when Forest supporters, sifting their way through the back catalog of chants, landed on “If Yatesy scores, we’re in the Thames” and while Ryan Yates did not put the ball in the Huddersfield net, he played a significant role in Forest doing so. The decisive moment arrived two minutes before the break when James Garner, on loan from Manchester United, fizzed a cross into the box. Colback ducked, as if versed on what was about to unfold, and Colwill, under pressure from Yates, put the ball past his own goalkeeper, Lee Nicholls. Every outfield Forest player joined the celebrations and at the opposite end the scene was a picture. At full-time Yates pretended to swim before the Forest supporters behind the goal.
Yates, who joined the club aged eight, was one of three homegrown players in the Forest starting lineup, including Johnson, who was kept relatively quiet. Huddersfield, for whom O’Brien was particularly impressive in midfield, had looked the more fluid and were beginning to shade things until Forest scored but it was Yates who had the first clean opening. Naby Sarr clumsily upended Philip Zinckernagel and from the subsequent free-kick Garner located Yates but the Forest midfielder, who got free of Tom Lees, dropped his header narrowly wide.
Huddersfield struggled to work the Forest goalkeeper, Brice Samba, the penalty shootout hero in the semi-finals, but Sorba Thomas, one of those distraught at full-time, kept Worrall guessing.
Thomas skipped past Worrall 10 minutes before the break but his cross was dealt with and a few minutes later Danny Ward saw a shot deflected over. Ward got the better of Worrall on the touchline and Garner made a thudding challenge which resulted in a corner. Thomas played the ball low towards the penalty spot, where Ward, who peeled off his marker, arrived from the back post but Forest got a block in.
In the second half another Thomas cross proved problematic, this time from the right, but Djed Spence shepherded the ball out. Thomas whipped the resulting corner towards the front post but an unmarked Jonathan Hogg headed over. Hogg was livid with himself. For Forest, who replaced Samba with Ethan Horvath with a minute to spare, emotions ran wild.