A Semi Road Trip
Manchester United 2-0 Nottingham Forest (EFL Cup Semi-Final Second Leg)
Prior to this two-leg tie, and aside from the playoffs of which I know, there’s been plenty of ups and downs in recent past, the last ‘major cup’ semi-final match that Nottingham Forest were involved in was way back in 1992, when the Reds beat Tottenham Hotspur (after a bomb scare and extra time) at White Hart Lane.
Roy Keane scored the winner that day in the rain at the lane to set up a final at Wembley in the League Cup then sponsored by Rumbelows, against a side he would later join for a British record fee, Manchester United the eventual victors at the Twin Towers, in blurry blue & white Adidas sponsored Sharp emblazoned clobber, the tie ending 1-0 with a goal from Brian ‘Choccy’ McClair.
I wasn’t at either game, aged 13 at the time I was playing Junior football and watched the final at Prestatyn Pontins whilst on tour at the Easter Festival of Football.
So with that in mind, it’s been a long bloody wait, and due to popular demand I couldn’t even get tickets to the first leg, but managed to get hold of one for the second leg, the only problem being, I made my purchase well in advance of Forest getting beat 3-0 at the City Ground.
Last week’s drubbing in Nottingham effectively put the tie to bed, but it’s not every day you get to watch your team play in a semi-final at Old Trafford, against Manchester United, so myself, a few friends, and 7,000 other Nottinghamians made the journey regardless, across the Pennines or up the M6, to Manchester, to support our team.
I’ve picked a couple of mates up from Bestwood Village so head through Chesterfield after the M1 picking up the A523 at Baslow before joining the A6 ahead of Chapel-en-le-Frith.
We’ve plenty of time so head to the Trafford Centre for a bite to eat at Bills as Joe goes sneaker shopping at JD Sport as myself and Wayne look awkwardly at the latest trend in Nike Air Max.
It’s getting on for 7pm so we head for the car and down bags making the short journey to an industrial centre off Village Way where we are charged £5 to use a factory car park. It’s a bit of a walk as we cross over Wharfside Way, the ground eventually appearing underwhelmingly hidden behind a number of warehouses dotted along the drab and lengthy dual carriageway.
We walk over the John Gilbert Way bridging the nearby rail track as the stadium starts to become more distinctive, standing alone cantilevered, lit up in the dark as the hurry for the turnstiles see’s men, women and children crossing the car parks in all directions.
We’re meeting PJ at the gate of the East Stand where today’s ‘away fans’ are being housed, I’ve already cracked my 10k steps as I spot him stood looking around, we’re in the queue, searched and scanned, through the turnstile and up the endless steps to level three a good 30 minutes from kick off.
Like an Oasis in a dessert, there’s a bar at the top of the steps, well a kiosk at least, serving hot food, tea, and more importantly tonight, beer.
The queue is large, but it’s worth the wait, a reasonable £3 a pint of Carling, well a plastic bottle poured into a plastic glass which I then throw into a plastic bag used instead of a plastic bin, good to see a club like United ignoring the plastic reduction pandemic.
Drink drunk before a quick pit stop we head out to our seats where we have a decent view, centre of the goal but bloody high up, you can see the Stretford End in front, South Stand to the left, Sir Alex Ferguson Stand to the right, it’s a huge vast slightly dated, but daunting and imposing looking arena, noise levels however are not huge, despite the score and a first trophy in six years for United beckoning, it’s the Forest fans doing all the singing.
3-0 up from the first leg I’m surprised that United are semi-strong tonight and not giving too many of their youngster’s immediate starts. Only Garnacho of the ‘famous’ United Academy is graduated to starting XI. The likes of Casemiro, Varane, Bruno Fernandes all chosen by Erik ten Hag to help ensure the job gets properly done.
Never in doubt? Forest are much better tonight than last week, they defend with guts and heart, put themselves and their bodies on the line, I’m impressed with the centre halves who are enjoying marking the immobile Wout Weghorst, in fairness United are at a canter, but the first half is even, Hennessey has one save to make for Forest as Dennis at the other end is denied by his own team-mate Surridge getting in the way, then Weghorst hits a post as half time approaches and time to grab another beer.
The Forest crowd have been singing “Were gonna win 4-0” but no-one really believes it. The United fans fail to rise to any bait thrown, like chucking a sardine to a shark, we’re a bit too ‘small fry’ for these big fans of this big club, who are probably only here because their brother-in-law who got the ticket, couldn’t be arsed to come.
The game is played at what feels like an international friendly tempo (believe me, I’ve been to a few), a bit of quality on show, but those with most ability, probably don’t want to use it up just yet. Brazilian winger Antony offering arguably the moment of the first half with a long range left footed half volley which skims the crossbar to some ooh’s and aah’s of both sets of supporters, Garnacho on the other wing a constant torment to Neco Williams who does really well under the circumstances of dealing with the Argentine’s trickery.
It's all going to plan as we discuss being happy with a nil-nil at the break, we even dare to dream of bowing out of the cup gracefully with a sneaky 1-0 win, which would mean nothing to many, under the grand scheme of things, but an awful lot to us. Then, shortly after an hour of third gear football is played, a huge sway of home advantage signifies the gulf in class of these two teams is really just 'massive', three subs on for United, Rashford, Sancho, Martial, whilst Steve Cooper in return takes off Brennan Johnson for a lad who struggled on loan recently at League One Sheffield Wednesday.
Poor Alex Mighten who wasn't wanted by the Owls, has looked busy with lots of energy since coming on, but is nowhere near good enough for Premier League standard, he’s been sold short on half way and United are in behind, Willy Boly is out of position and Anthony Martial is running through at pace, he feeds Rashford who’s shot is deflected straight back into the Frenchman’s path who places home the games opener on 73.
Three minutes later it’s two, Forest have a knack of quickly conceding successive goals, Fred prods in from close range after Rashford’s pull back, both goals the fault in my mind of Serge Aurier, who’d only been on the field of play ten minutes, his Manager switching full backs at a time he didn’t really need to, we’ll forgive Mr Cooper though, who the Reds fans including myself, chant the name of, despite the 5-0 aggregate deficit.
The late goals give the home fans a lift of the noise decibels but the closing minutes see a deluge of United fans up and leave their seats, a semi-final win and most can’t be bothered to celebrate it, it’s been that sort of tie, long won by half time back in Nottingham, United don’t even celebrate at the whistle, their players already in the changing rooms as Forest’s are still out applauding their travelling army with one last take in of the surroundings.
I’m disappointed in the United fans and players reaction, but does this tell you more, about a club ‘used to’ winning things, expecting success, beating teams they should beat, in competitions they don't care about, rather than it does about myself, and my own club, just happy to be here, in a semi-final, all be it on the hand of an ass-whooping, having the time of our lives.
For United, I watch Lisandro Martinez who oozes class, he always looks like he has time on the ball, he always looks to make the right decision, a throw back swashbuckling footballer who reads the game so well, he’s proving those annoying television pundits like Graeme Souness wrong that modern centre halves don’t need to be six foot plus, with every game he plays he get’s better, and for me he walks into any team in world football.
Casemiro likewise is on another intelligence level to most around him, Bruno Fernandes imperative to the way ten Hag sets up is the creative pivot that allows the rest of the team to flourish from his ball playing going forward, the captain hardly misses a minute for United, he’s more important than you might think, having Casemiro in behind allows him to strut in those pockets, without having too much concern in defensive responsibility.
Also impressive is Alejandro Garnacho who certainly has some kind of ‘X’ factor to his game, confident, arrogant, but for a young kid he makes good decisions and knows when to make a simple pass. Antony for his flicks and tricks could take a look at his opposite winger and learn something? Whilst Marcus Rashford’s cameo suggested he still has a big future at the elite level of football, flourishing right now in the form charts, his pace power and agility a mix of raw footballing talent that could see him spearhead the attack on that long wait in return for trophies.
Whilst Forest were largely non-existent in the attacking third, the pace of Brennan Johnson did on occasion frighten the full backs of United, my man of the match for the away side was probably Neco Williams who was always nipping at Garnacho’s heals from right back, whilst Scott McKenna and Willy Boly can be proud of their own games, although for seventy minutes they didn’t have the toughest of tasks to deal with, the later stages perhaps proving that much more is needed in bulking the Forest defence if they are to achieve a few more semi-finals like this, within the next 30 years.
United’s wait for a trophy makes the final against Newcastle United a really intriguing affair. Win that, and returning to the ‘good ol days’ might not be too far around the corner for the Red Devils? Lose it, and Newcastle themselves end an even longer run than both United, and even Forest, for some much needed major silverware, 54 years of waiting for the Geordies, who should they finally lift their hoodoo, will probably themselves, be on the cusp of starting something very special indeed.
Luckily I’ll be there on Feb 26th to see it, a shame it’s not Nottingham Forest returning to Wembley with me after their last success in May, but since that playoff victory over Huddersfield, 2022/23 has all just been about Premier League survival, and now, without distraction, Steve Cooper and his side, can concentrate solely, just on that.
Manchester United: Tom Heaton, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphael Varane (Harry Maguire 80), Lisandro Martinez, Luke Shaw, Bruno Fernandes, Casemiro (Victor Lindelof 80), Fred, Antony (Jadon Sancho 63), Wout Weghorst (Anthony Martial 63), Alejandro Garnacho (Marcus Rashford 62).
Nottingham Forest: Wayne Hennessey, Neco Williams, Willy Boly, Scott McKenna, Renan Lodi (Serge Aurier 64), Remo Freuler (Danilo 64), Orel Mangala, Gustavo Scarpa (Ollie Hammond 80), Brennan Johnson (Alex Mighten 64), Emmanuel Dennis, Sam Surridge (Detlef Esapa Osong 86).
8:00pm Kick Off. Wednesday 1st February 2023, Old Trafford, Manchester (att 72,315).