How Blades and Forest came from nowhere to put top flight in sight
Championship playoff is a meeting of clubs who started poorly, sacked their managers and have been fired by young talent
The Championship campaign has been quite the white-knuckle ride for Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest, whose stressed-out fans must now contend with the anguish of being put through the playoff wringer. The idea of promotion to the top flight was extremely fanciful for both clubs in the early months of the season, with bad starts prompting concerns that they were more likely to go down than up. But after their playoff semi-final that starts on Saturday at Bramall Lane, one of these storied clubs will be a Wembley showpiece away from football’s fabled “dreamland”.
It has been some journey, given the nightmarish way their campaigns opened. United were relegated from the Premier League with Paul Heckingbottom in interim charge after the dismissal of Chris Wilder last March and their owners opted against giving him the manager’s job full-time. Instead, they brought in the more experienced Slavisa Jokanovic. It would quickly prove a costly mistake.
With promotions from the Championship with Watford and Fulham on his CV, the Serb had seemed a wise choice, but a change in formation led to a more pedestrian style, poor results and extreme dissatisfaction in the Bramall Lane stands. Jokanovic was dismissed six months and 22 games into his three-year deal, with United 16th. Heckingbottom, in charge of the under-23s, was again handed the reins, only this time permanently in an move some considered to be the cheap option. His appointment was not greeted with unanimous approval by United’s fans.
Below them, Forest were in the process of dragging themselves up the table after a disastrous opening few weeks that left them bottom with one point. It prompted the sacking of Chris Hughton after six defeats in seven matches, their worst start in more than a century. Having got through 13 managers in the previous 10 years some stability was urgently required and Steve Cooper, who had led Swansea City to back-to-back playoffs before leaving last July, was identified as the man to provide it.
“It doesn’t cost anything to be humble, it doesn’t cost anything to work hard, it doesn’t cost anything to show respect,” he told a fans’ group not long into his tenure. “As much as I want to build an identity and play a certain way, I also want us to show real core values of what it takes to be a real football club. There’s got to be a set of principles that you stick to, that you really believe in. Build from the back, be exciting, get good numbers up the pitch, get good attacks, create real opportunities to score.”
At United, Heckingbottom set about changing fortunes by returning to the 3-5-2 that had served them so well in their first season back in the Premier League under Wilder and ramping up the intensity of training. “You just saw that on a match day,” said the right-back George Baldock in an interview with Sky Sports in November. “Everyone was a lot more intense. When you play at that intensity, you cause the opposition a lot more trouble.”
Cooper, a former England Under-17s coach who has worked at the Wrexham and Liverpool academies, was quick to extol the virtues of youth upon taking over at Forest. “I believe a thriving Championship team has good young players in it,” he said. “Teams that have done well in the Championship have had homegrown players in them who are running a bit more with that youthful enthusiasm. I want homegrown players in the squad.”
In 20-year-old Brennan Johnson, recently awarded the Championship’s Young Player of the Season award, Cooper and Forest have a midfielder who could scarcely be more enthusiastic and he has chipped in with 16 league goals and 10 assists this season. His consistently outstanding displays have attracted the attention of several Premier League clubs and Forest could struggle to keep him, even if they win promotion. Djed Spence, on loan from Middlesbrough, is another youngster who has excelled, the right-back catching the eye of a wider TV audience with a barnstorming display as Forest knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup. Available from Boro for about £17m, the 21-year-old is believed to have admirers at Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool, among other elite clubs, but reports suggest he is prepared to commit to Forest if they go up.
At Sheffield United’s recent end-of-season awards, Morgan Gibbs-White made off with the two most prestigious gongs, winning player of the season and young player of the season after scoring 11 goals and providing nine assists as his side steadily made their way up to fifth. On loan from Wolves, the 22-year-old’s future is also uncertain but it seems inconceivable that he will not be a top-flight player next season, whether or not the Blades win promotion.
To do so, they will have to overcome the worst playoff record in English football, having failed to win promotion in eight attempts. They go again on Saturday against a hungry Forest side who will be desperate to prevent them making it nine times a charm.