Swansea City 3 Nottingham Forest 1: A stone-cold classic
He was rooted to the spot for the first, a statue of the Liberty as Leon Britton struck a superb left-footed shot into the far corner of his net. He dived for the second, but for the second consecutive season conceded a play-off semi-final second leg goal to Stephen Dobbie. When the third crossed the line, scored by long-time Nottingham Forest target Darren Pratley, he was in the Swansea half.
Lee Camp has enjoyed an exemplary campaign between the sticks at the City Ground. But the nature of the two goals scored past him, and especially the one into his empty net, must have re-inforced the growing feeling among Forest supporters that the play-offs just do not suit their club.
Not just the three strikes Swansea managed either. Also the three balls, hit by David McGoldrick, Lewis McGugan and the former Cardiff striker Robert Earnshaw, that smacked off the woodwork and away from the goal guarded by Dorus de Vries on a staggeringly entertaining evening in south Wales.
It was never going to be goalless – and there should have been plenty more than the four unevenly shared between the two sides. There could have been Forest penalties on two occasions and there were plenty of missed opportunities at both ends throughout the game. In the end, though, the difference was Swansea’s ability to turn dominance into a decisive two-goal advantage in a superb first-half spell that swung this tie clearly in their favour.
With top goalscorer Scott Sinclair marginalised for much of the tie, both home and away, Swansea needed to find goals from elsewhere to break Forest’s stubborn resistance. They got them from Britton, who was a Sheffield United player for the first half of the season, and Forest’s nemesis Dobbie. Again it was a clever piece of play on the edge of the box from the Scotsman that resulted in a shooting opportunity. Again he beat Camp into the corner of his net.
Forest are used to play-off heartache – Sheffield United, Yeovil and Blackpool have all accounted for them at the semi-final stage in the last decade – but this felt different to the last two occasions. There was real fight in the way they carried the game to their hosts in the second half and substitute Earnshaw’s brilliant finish was the least they deserved for their efforts.
But Swansea deserve their place at Wembley. There are so many sub-plots within this delicately woven tale that it is difficult to know where to start. The triumphant goalscoring returns of Britton and Dobbie, the irony that it would be Pratley who struck the killer third goal against a club that have openly courted him for many months, the failure of Earnshaw to double his tally when the post came to Swansea’s rescue and the jubilant Mourinho-esque dance down the touchline performed by the Portuguese’s protege Brendan Rodgers when Pratley’s longest of long-rangers crossed the line: as the drama unfolded, the story wrote itself.
Perhaps the clearest message of all, however, was the value of the play-off system to the Football League. Many football fans cannot cope with the 46-game grind of northern outposts and midweek marathon trips to the south coast, but no-one could deny how gripping this game was. So often with the play-offs, there are twists and turns that mirror the nature of the season that preceded them and the final kick can decide the outcome. It is an easy concept to sell – all or nothing and each event within each leg marking out the route either to success or failure. It is also the hardest defeat to take.
Swansea missed out on all of this last year, overtaken at the last by a swashbuckling Blackpool side that capitalised on the Welsh club’s poor record in front of goal. Pratley’s late strike was a cruel final nail in Forest’s coffin, but it also underlined how far Swansea City have come in a relatively short space of time.
Scoring a third goal in injury time at the end of their 48th league game of the season from fully 60 yards, just over twelve months since their inability to put a single one past Doncaster saw them miss out on the top six altogether? Things have changed at the Liberty Stadium and now they travel to another, rather larger arena with the intent and belief to cross the final hurdle.
As for Forest, it was the same old story in the sense that Wembley was so near and yet so far. A poor second half of the season, a play-off semi-final defeat and even the spectre of Stephen Dobbie – all of that was familiar. But this time their fans can have more pride in their players, given the narrow margins that decided their fate after a monumental effort against formidable opponents.
Swansea City will face either Cardiff City or Reading in the Championship play-off final on Monday 30th May.