Stalemate for Forest and United

May 10, 2003
By The Insider
(Archive)

The sight that confronts you as you enter Nottingham Forest's impressive stadium is the imposing Brian Clough Stand.

And for all too long, that is what the greatest figure in Forest's history has been to this club - a little too imposing.

Like Maggie Thatcher has cast her unhelpful shadow over those who have succeeded her as leader of the Conservative party, so Cloughie has been the benchmark for those who have sat in the chair he occupied in such glorious fashion for so many years. An example many a big name has failed to live up to in the last decade.

But that great era is firmly being placed into the annals of history by this fresh-faced Forest team who pay tribute to the club's traditions by playing a style of football that is very much in the Cloughie mould.

And maybe Hart has picked up a few old tricks from a manager who he worked under in his playing days as, when Soccernet's Insider took his seat in the press box, the immaculate pitch was being given a smattering of water that looked powerful enough to create a few puddles.

This match was never going to be a classic, there was far too much at stake for that, and the first half zipped along in predictable fashion. With players sliding on that well watered pitch, tackles flying from all corners and chances few and far between for either side, this was traditional play-off football. But when they came, the openings really should have been snapped up.

Marlon Harewood should have opened the scoring as his sixth minute header floated under the bar instead of crashing off it. Unmarked as he met a well flighted corner, it was the sort of chance a Premiership striker may have snapped up, but that is often the difference between life in the First Division and the one above.

If either of these two end up winning the play-off Final in Cardiff later this month, the odds are they will need to add a proven quality striker to their ranks in a bid to ensure survival and Carl Asaba's 19th minute miss went a long way to confirming as much.

Matthieu Louis-Jean's wrenched clearance was bad enough, but quite how the Sheffield United target man miss with an open goal at his mercy from six yards was hard to understand.

Headers from Michael Dawson and David Johnson highlighted the Blades apparent weakness when defending corners as the first half drew to a close, but the occasion was definitely more memorable than the game as the first half whistle blew.

After Harewood spurned two decent chances in opening few minutes of the second period, David Johnson finally shattered the tension around The City Ground with the opening goal. A fine ball from Dubliner Andy Reid gave the former Ipswich star a clear run on goal and he finished in style. With 55 minutes gone, the advantage has swung Forest's way.

Yet this Sheffield United side have not made such a massive impact this season for no good reason. Neil Warnock's men may not be the most cultured side in the game, but they refuse to lie down against any kind of odds and were level within a minute.

Mark Rankine, Darren Huckerby
GettyImages / CliveBrunskillDarren Huckerby holds off Mark Rankine

Louis-Jean did his best to hand the Blades a goal with his first half mistake and he went on better this time as hacked down Michael Brown in the box to concede a clear penalty. Brown duly dusted himself down and converted the penalty with aplomb.

And that was that, other than a couple of near misses at either end, with Michael Tonge's 89th minute effort coming closest to handing United a first leg lead.

The red card handed out to Forest's Michael Dawson in the closing minutes after his rash lunge on Steven Kabba may just be a turning point as the young defender will now miss the return at Bramall Lane on Thursday.

'I thought it was harsh to send Michael off and he is distraught with the decision,' confirmed Forest boss Hart. 'It wasn't really that sort of game and he has only made one foul in the game. It's a real shame that we will be without one of our best players for the second leg. I don't comment on referees generally and it's best I don't say anything about this one either.

'And we are still in this, don't worry about that. We played very well and were unlucky not to get more than the one goal. It sets it all up perfectly.'

Neil Warnock press briefings are generally lively, but he was not as his controversial best on this occasion. 'People said I might come here for a draw, but we don't know how to do that,' he said with a snigger.

'It was end to end and I thought it was great game for TV. There is a lot of resolve in that dressing room and we handled the situation well.

'I'm not one who gets nervous generally, but even was worried going into this one and when we go the penalty I was even more shaky. We are in good shape now and hopefully we can finish it off at Bramall Lane. It was tense today, but you wait and see how it feels on Thursday. That will be real tension.'

The half-hearted applause ringing out from those nervy Forest fans said it all at the final whistle. This club have made great progress in the last few months, but comparisons with the Cloughie sides of yesteryear cannot be banished just yet.

MAN OF THE MATCH - Michael Brown - the Blades star confirmed his status as one of the brightest young stars in the game with some fine touches in the midfield. Premiership-bound, even if it's not in Sheffield United colours.

INSIDER QUESTION - Would either of these two be fit to grace the Premiership next season? Having watched games in that league for the last nine months, there was a dip in quality on show in this game.

CHANT OF THE MATCH - It took Forest fans precisely 62 seconds to break out into a cry of 'Neil Warnock's a w****r'. It was a fine tribute to the ex-Notts County boss from their point of view.

PRESS BOX RUMOUR - There was talk of 'tunnel incidents' both at half-time and at the final whistle. Neil Warnock made reference to it and more may come of those scuffles ahead of the return on Thirsday.

FOREST VERDICT - Had they taken their chances, Hart's men would have been going to Bramall Lane for the return in the lead, but instead, they are up against it. A fully fit Da.rren Huckerby could have made a difference, but he was far from that.

BLADES VERDICT - Another triumph for Neil Warnock who relishes these play-off battles and will expect to be in the Cardiff Final after this battling display.

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