Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughThe Playoffs - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough The Playoffs - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

The Playoffs

It’s something that has been said and written a lot since David McGoldrick walloped in the third goal at Selhurst Park on Saturday, putting the exclamation mark on our second consecutive top six finish. Nottingham Forest don’t do well in playoffs.

An obvious statement given our hat trick of semi final implosions but one worth examining on this most nerve racking of days.

My life has been a delicate balancing act over the last six days.  Keen to avoid potentially ruinous quirks of fate (like the time the time my then housemate smashed the Forest ash tray the night before the Yeovil calamity) I have pushed the Forest mug and pint pot to the back of the cupboard and given my girlfriend strict instructions not to use, or even look at them, until Tuesday.  I’ve still worn my far from mint condition 1999 third strip shorts to bed every night – my theory being that I had them on the night before we secured automatic promotion from League One at the *ahem* third attempt….

What galls me more than anything else about the playoffs, or rather Forest’s incredible ability to lose all sense of cohesion and confidence in them, is that this is basically our cup final.  As a boy I often day dreamed about Forest winning the Premier League.  I just assumed every team of reasonable size would do it once in my life time.  Now as a weary 29 year old, I’m aware that the playoffs represent our only real chance of success and certainly our best route to the new Wembley.

Each of the three eliminations has had its own unique pain but it many ways it’s still the first cut that’s the deepest.

Forest and Sheffield United have never been the best of friends but in 2003 the relationship was made all the more fractious by the presence of Neil Warnock in the opposing dug out.  Long regarded as a haemorrhoid on the anus of football by Forest fans, Warnock’s attitude, demeanour and unashamed cheating still invoke the ire of many a red to this day.

The first leg was at the City Ground.  We’d taken our usual perch in the upper Trent End.  Looming over the pitch you feel like you could pick the players up and move them to where they’re supposed to be.  Yep, we had an excellent view of a young Michael Dawson getting sent off – a major blow as even then he was one of our most important players.  Still a one all draw wasn’t the end of the world, especially when we learnt away goals don’t count double in the playoffs.

So to Bramall Lane on a balmy Thursday evening in May.  A pal from uni had shown commendable friendship by agreeing to come with us.  Despite not being a Forest supporter he was so nervous he had to excuse himself to be sick a couple of times before kickoff.  The tension was palpable.  A woman behind me told me off for abusing Dean Windass (one of those who always seemed to score against Forest.) Then, up the other end of the pitch, David Johnson scored his umpteenth goal of the season to put us ahead on the night and on aggregate.  When Andy Reid made it two just before the hour we were trying to work out how we’d assure Wembley tickets.  10 minutes later it was 2-2 and there was a grim inevitability about Des Walker’s extra time own goal which effectively knocked us out.

As the players gave us a heartbreaking “thanks for your support” clap at the final whistle the realisation began to set in.  This team would definitely be broken up.  Jenas had already gone, Dawson, Huckerby and Harewood would soon follow.

After dragging my mate to his feet off the Sheffield streets where he slumped, we caught the train back to Nottingham.  Nobody spoke, except one chap who just about managed to croak “Warnock.”

That proved a high water mark for Forest and Paul Hart.  He soon got the chop and Forest soon found ourselves in League One, earning the dubious distinction of being the only team to have won the European Cup and be relegated to the third tier of their domestic league.

We didn’t even make the playoffs in our first season but in the second we just missed out on automatic promotion and were drawn against Yeovil in the end of season shake up.

We watched the away leg at a friend’s.  A two nil stroll which set a new benchmark for the term ‘comfortable win’ duly came, this time we definitely would be going to Wembley.

I had a slight concern as I walked along the banks of the Trent (no mist at this time of year.) I’d started seeing a girl who was at uni in Leeds.  She was coming to Notts later that night and I’d agreed to meet her at the station at 10.  This would only be a problem if the match went to extra time.  Clearly it wouldn’t – we were two nil up against Yeovil.

What happened next is something of a blur.  I made a conscious decision in the aftermath to block out all memories of the game which saw us finish with 9 men (well 10 including a barely mobile Alan Wright) and somehow losing 5-2.  5-2. At home to Yeovil.  We lost 5-2.

I went and met said girl in a less than joyful mood and proceeded to take part in arguably the worst second date in the history of second dates. “Yeovil” was about as good a chatter as I could manage.

To rub salt in the wound I was up at 5am the following morning for my job as sports news reader for BBC Radio Nottingham.  Every half hour between 6 and 9am my job was to inform a sleepy Nottingham: “Forest won’t be going to Wembley this year after last night’s capitulation against Yeovil….” it was not fun.

Last year was sort of different. Yeah we’d finished 9 points ahead of Blackpool at the end of the season but they’d beaten us home and away and we’d limped over the line, disappointed to finish third.  After a 2-1 defeat at their place another home capitulation followed.  Actually that may be a bit strong, Blackpool were just much better than us.  This too hurt, I desperately wanted to go to Wembley, but it was easier to take than the Warnock defeat and the Yeovil humiliation. There was also the lingering thought which became a crumb of comfort – had that team gone up they may well have “done a derby.”

So to this year.  Didn’t sleep much last night predictably.  Spoke to my Nan yesterday, she’s lived in Nottingham for decades but is Swansea born and bred.  She has no interest whatsoever in football but when I informed of tonight’s game and its significance, she said flatly: “Swansea will definitely win.”  I took this as a bad sign.  However I’m pleased to say that when I stuck the radio on this morning the first song I heard was “the only way is up” which of course means this will certainly be our year.


For any other team the omens would be good.  We come into the tie on the back of four straight wins and after looking out of it a few months ago we should be full of confidence.  We’ve got plenty of players in excellent form and a packed City Ground can, at it’s best, be an intimidating place to be.

It’s all set up so perfectly.  Me and 13 (mostly) Forest loving pals return from an Amsterdam stag weekend on the eve of the final.  We could stay in London, head to Wembley and make an awesome weekend an unforgettable one.  Of course that won’t happen.  I’ve had three dreams so far that we lose the first leg 0-4 so anything other than that will be a sort of relief.  Anyway, time to go. St Pancras to Nottingham to the City Ground to, in all likelihood, the edge of despair.  This day must be attacked with vigour.  Vigour and beer.

Matt Davies

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