Thirty years ago, the football world was a very different place. What we now take to be the Premier League was still the First Division of the Football League, three points for a win were just about to be introduced as Aston Villa won their first league championship since 1910, having fielded just fourteen players all season, and Nottingham Forest had surrendered their name as the champions of Europe after two years with a 2-0 aggregate defeat at the hands of CSKA Sofia in the First Round of the European Cup the previous September, but still finished the season in a creditable seventh place in the table. Much has come and gone over the course of the intervening three decades, though, and Forest find themselves in the play-offs for a place in the Premier League.
Swansea City, meanwhile, were heading for the promised land in 1981. The BBC’s Match Of The Day cameras were at Deepdale on the last day of the season to see John Toshack’s team win 3-1 against Preston North End and win promotion to the First Division for the first time on goal difference above Blackburn Rovers, relegating Preston at the same time. They were to last just two seasons in the top flight and by 1986 was back in the Fourth Division, but that team, a team of experience and flair, has come to be regarded as the high watermark of Swansea City teams over the years. Considering that the Swans finished in fifth place in the first of their two seasons in the First Division, it’s a tough act to follow, and Swansea’s world has come full circle in the intervening three decades.
This year’s Swansea City team has been something of an undiscovered gem. They have been indomitable at home – fifteen wins from twenty-three matches is the best record in the division – and ended the season by snatching third place in the table from Cardiff City. They have reason to be optimistic against a Nottingham Forest team with a tendency to blow hot and cold and a wretched record in the play-offs in recent years. The two clubs played out a perfunctory goalless draw at the end of last week, a match probably most notable for the first minute sending off of Forest’s Neil Taylor. Yet Forest failed to capitalise on having a one man advantage for practically the entire ninety minutes. How expensive might that prove to be this evening?
Two goals for Swansea in four first half minutes seem to answer this question fairly comprehensively, but it’s not as if Nottingham Forest don’t start brightly, with a shot from David McGoldrick that rattles the Swansea crossbar. The match swings from end to end during the only stages and it takes ten minutes before the match finally starts to settle down, by which time McGoldrick has had a further chance with a header that is comfortably saved by the Swansea goalkeeper whilst Nathan Dyer has had shots blocked twice for Swansea by Wes Morgan at the other end of the pitch. It feels as though the subsiding of the early maelstrom suits the home side better, and the feeling that a goal for Swansea is coming starts to grow.
After twenty-one minutes, Borini’s shot is deflected onto the crossbar. Swansea are starting to assert themselves more and more, and after twenty-eight minutes they take the lead. It’s slightly lackadaisical from Nottingham Forest. A short corner is rolled back to Leon Britton, who steps inside Marcis Tudgay and fires the ball like an arrow into the right corner of the net, leaving the Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Lee Camp rooted to his spot. Four minutes later, the second goal comes with a moment of subtly different brilliance when he plays a tidy one-two with Dyer, slips the ball through a defender and rolls the ball calmly into the corner of the net. Nottingham Forest are being outplayed and, although they manage to steady their ship in the closing stages of the half, Swansea’s half-time lead is well-deserved.
The second half is an exercise in containment for Swansea. This allows, to a point, the illusion that Nottingham Forest are going to get back into the match. Lewis McGugan rattles the Swansea crossbar, and this feels like the moment at which Nottingham Forest’s chance of getting back into the match may have slipped away from them. At the other end of the pitch, Swansea also make chances for themselves that they can’t quite take and then, with eleven minutes to play, a way back into the game. With a sudden – so sudden as to be quite unexpected – burst of place, Robert Earnshaw sprints past his marker and shoots inside the near post.
With this goal, the considerations of the rest of the season are suddenly vaporised and it all comes down to a ten minute shoot-out. Nottingham Forest need a goal to force extra-time. Swansea City need to hold their nerve, defend stoutly and hold out. A moment of panic. A moment of brilliance. It could be either. Could, though, is the key word. Swansea are well-organised and capable, and they don’t allow Forest the possession or time on the ball to launch a sustained assault upon their goal. It’s nervy – how could it possibly be anything else? – and the as the clock ticks over ninety minutes, Earnshaw, who has come alive in the second half of the match, cuts inside on the right-hand side of the penalty area, shoots across the face of goal and hits the base of the post.
Forest have committed everybody forward and, two minutes into stoppage time, they force a corner. The ball bounces out to McGugan who misses his kick completely and it rolls onto Pratley who crosses the half-way line and, with Camp trying to chase back, shoots from fifty yards and into the empty goal. With that, Swansea are through to the play-off final and will play Cardiff City or Reading in the final. It’s tough on Forest, who hit the woodwork three times tonight, but ultimately their failure to wear down a stubborn home defence has cost them this evening. Swansea City, meanwhile, go on to the final with confidence over-flowing in spite of the narrow shaves that they had to get through to get there, and the possibility of a South Wales derby looms on the horizon. They will be watching tomorrow night’s match with considerable interest and, if it is anything like tonight’s was, perhaps we all should be too.
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