Sheffield United v Nottingham Forest: Sander Berge breathes some life back into play-off semi-final

Sheffield United gave this match the absolute Full Monty. Which was exactly the right thing to do.

Saturday, 14th May 2022, 5:39 pm

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But once the mute button was pressed on the booming pre-match soundtrack and emotive videos disappeared from Bramall Lane’s big screen, it all boiled down to football.

Nottingham Forest produced some of their best. Sheffield United initially didn’t. Which, in the grand scheme of things, means Paul Heckingbottom should be mighty pleased this Championship play-off semi-final is still alive going into next week’s second leg thanks to Sander Berge’s late effort. Just.

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“The body language changed,” Paul Heckingbottom said. “In both camps. Hopefully it proves to be a pivotal moment.”Breathless, relentless and utterly absorbing, today’s contest stuck two fingers up to the notion that the opening instalments of these doubleheaders are always cautious, cagey affairs.

But if the first notable blow Forest landed on United was a shade fortunate - Ben Osborn losing his footing at the vital moment - the second turned out to be an absolute gift; the otherwise impressive John Egan being robbed of possession before Johnson turned home from close range. Berge, profiting from Jack Robinson’s presence, then got his pal out of the cart.

“It could have been a clean sheet, could have been more goals,” Forest’s manager Steve Cooper acknowledged. “But I’m positive and pleased.”

United were unchanged, which surprised absolutely no one given this starting eleven had filleted Fulham only seven days earlier. But Cooper, who would have probably have required smelling salts if Heckingbottom had broken up his team, unveiled seven, Again, a move United’s coaching staff will have second guessed given that he rested so many of Forest’s leading performers for their dead-rubber at Hull.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom speaks to his players during a drinks break during the Sky Bet Championship play-off semi-final, first leg against Nottingham Forest: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

What neither Heckingbottom or Cooper could have predicted, however, was the slip which presented Colback with the chance to break the deadlock. The build-up to Forest’s opener was impressive, with Joe Worrall sweeping the ball with the outside of his foot towards Surridge on the flank. But had Osborn not slipped when the cross was swept into the box, all that fine work would surely have come to nothing. Even though the cross should not have been allowed to arrive in the first place.

Instead, after Wes Foderingham had saved well from Philip Zinckernagel, the midfielder found himself staring at a yawning, empty chasm. Otherwise known as United’s net.

Egan, the United captain, saw a header cleared off the line as the hosts looked to respond. But as the half progressed, Forest began to take control of the contest. The only trouble was, from Cooper’s perspective, they failed to make their pressure count with Foderingham saving from Surridge and Brennan Johnson either side of a glaring miss by Ryan Yates before Johnson pounced during the closing stages.

United applied some pressure soon after the interval. But, like Forest, failed to translate it into something tangible on the scoreboard. Sander Berge fired over from close range and Iliman Ndiaye was inches away from scoring a worldie as he cartwheeled through the air to meet a cross.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom (left) encourages their players as Nottingham Forest manager Steve Cooper looks on.

Egan’s lapse in concentration, which allowed substitute Joe Lolley to test Foderingham before Johnson followed up on the rebound, appeared to have sucked the life out of United. But Berge’s late effort, after Robinson had muscled his way into position, resuscitated them.

Sheffield United: Foderingham, Stevens (Norrington-Davies 89), Osborn (Jebbison 82), Robinson, Egan ©, Basham, Norwood (Baldock 69), Fleck, Berge, Gibbs-White, Ndiaye. Not used: A Davies, B Davies, Hourihane, Osula.

Nottingham Forest: Samba, Spence, Worrall ©, Colback, Zinckernagel (Lolley 69), Surridge (Davis 77), Johnson, Yates, McKenna, Cook, Garner. Not used: Horvath, Figueiredo, Laryea, Mighten, Cafu.

Referee: Andre Marriner (West Midlands).

Sheffield United's Sander Berge (left) and Nottingham Forest's James Garner battle for the ball: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

Attendance: 30,225