If near-neighbours County can lay claim to one of the more successful Play-Offs records, then their city rivals Forest are the polar opposite. Not only have they not achieved promotion in four attempts, they have not even made it to a Final and are vying for the title of the worst Play-Offs team. For a team that had scaled the heights on both domestic and European fronts under Brian Clough in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this is a sad indictment of how far they have fallen in the last decade.
Nothing can encapsulate their woeful performances more than their 2007 encounter with Yeovil Town. Forest dominated the first leg away from home and cruised into a 2-0 lead, so the City Ground faithful expected little more than routine progression to the Final.
Despite the setback of going 1-0 down in the second leg, order was restored with Stephen Dobbie’s strike early in the second half. The game seemed to be meandering towards its inevitable conclusion when Yeovil scored twice in the last eight minutes, with stalwart Marcus Stewart netting the third (his fourth Play-Offs goal for a different club) to force extra time.
Yeovil then took the lead only to be pegged back on aggregate but finally Yeovil’s fifth goal completed Forest‘s misery and sent them out 5-4. As the Guardian described it, Forest “suffered one of the most humiliating defeats in their history,” whilst for Yeovil this was probably one of the highest points in their ten-year league history.
Their capitulation in the home leg was calamitous but not out of the ordinary for a team that has managed to turn the traditional home advantage into a home handicap. Not once have Forest managed to win a home leg during their four attempts, which is sloppy and verges on the woeful. Aside from the Yeovil disaster they also conceded four goals at home to Blackpool, paving the way for the Seasiders to complete the full set of Play-Offs promotions in each of the three leagues. Even the most optimistic Forest fans must dread the very idea of qualifying for the Play-Offs as they know that heartache is not too far away, and here we turn to writer and Football365 editor Daniel Storey for the insider’s view.
Imagine the sickest feeling in your stomach imaginable. You’re on the way to the biggest interview of your life and you realise that you’ve forgotten your CV. And all of your clothes. As you jump off the bus and run back home, you realise that your house keys have fallen out of your pocket in your dash to disembark. As you stand cold and naked in the street, a white van splashes through a puddle and showers you in freezing, dirty water.
That’s how the Play-Offs feel to a Nottingham Forest supporter.
Despite the Play-Offs closing in on their 30 birthday, Forest have only been occasional sufferers at the cruel hand of their fate. We’ve crammed the heartache into four sorry campaigns. Each time we have failed to reach the Final. Each exit has seemed more complex than the last, a club displaying a farcical ability to kick itself in the face when it matters most.
For those who assume that my claims of preposterous incompetence are melodramatic, let me give you a list of our four semi-final first leg scores: 1-1, 2-0, 1-2, 0-0. Tight and tense, never more than a goal either way, exactly as the Play-Offs should be. Now let me present to you our four second-leg scores: 3-4, 2-5, 3-4, 1-3. Utter madness.
It is an almost award-winning tribute to choking on the biggest stage. Sixteen goals conceded at a rate of one every twenty-six minutes. If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs… you’ll reach the Final at Forest’s expense. Many fans of many clubs will darkly boast that theirs is the club most proficient at snatching despair from the jaws of triumph. This is my bid on behalf of Forest.
The defeat to Sheffield United in 2003 was terrible, 3-1 up on aggregate with half an hour to play in the second leg. Had away goals counted we would have gone through, but a wonder goal from Paul Peschisolido and a(nother) Des Walker own goal sealed our fate. I stood at Bramall Lane and nursed a pain that I thought would never end.
But nothing beats Yeovil in 2007 for sheer horror. It had been billed as David vs Goliath, two-time European champions against a club that had only been in the Football League for four years. In the first leg at Huish Park, we effectively ended the tie as a contest, winning 2-0. David can only win every so often.
And then the second leg, the epitome of Forest’s inglorious failure. We performed atrociously throughout, but still led 3-1 on aggregate with eight minutes of normal time remaining. What followed was four goals conceded in 27 minutes, a sending off and an injury after all three substitutes had been used. We were consigned to our fate and stuck in League One, former greats now disgraced and mocked for our ineptitude. Derby County were promoted to the Premier League that season, just for good measure.
It often feels as if Forest are paying for our European Cup success, a 35-year karmic rebalancing act. You had all that unexpected joy, so here is a deserved dose of extended misery.
There’ll be hope, of course, but only as a prelude to pain. The Play-Offs provide that in spades. Triumph, sure, but mainly the worst kind of hope.
The Agony & The Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs by Richard Foster is available now in paperback through usual outlets and directly from Ockley Books