16 Conclusions from the Championship play-off final: Huddersfield 0-1 Nottingham Forest

Nathan Spafford
Nottingham Forest celebrate after beating Huddersfield 1-0 in the Championship play-off final

Nottingham Forest are back in the Premier League after 23 often painful years in the wilderness, while beaten Huddersfield were left cursing Jon Moss and VAR after a pair of penalty shouts int the second half…


1. The good news for both clubs, sets of supporters and neutrals alike came an hour before kick-off. Having missed substantial parts of the run-in, both Huddersfield assist king Sorba Thomas and Nottingham Forest striker Keinan Davis were selected in their respective starting line-ups at Wembley. In any showpiece event, it is the best-case scenario for both sides to be able to field their strongest selections.

With both Thomas and Davis taking to the field from the start for the first time in the play-offs, the stage was set for a contest between two sides who were at the national stadium thanks largely to the contributions of their returning stars.


2. That atmosphere leaves you speechless. Even watching behind a television screen from home, the full red house and packed blue and white half of the stadium blew your socks off in the build up to the big occasion. These are the sort of matches that make football worth watching. Regardless of the 90 minutes and beyond ahead, both sets of supporters made for an occasion which put the Champions League final shambles in Paris the night before to shame. This is what football is about.


3. Then came the football. And come it did; both clubs used the opening 10 minutes to set their stalls out for what they hoped was to come. The richest game in football has produced its fair share of duds as spectacles and more so many a slow start. It is only natural with such financial pressures placed on one 90 minutes of football, but the early stages of this affair saw both teams going at it and at each other in equal measure with the flair and attacking instinct we have come to expect from both Carlos Corberan’s and Steve Cooper’s sides this season.


4. Until it didn’t. A couple of Ryan Yates chances – a header just wide from a set piece and a wayward shot much further wide on the break were as close as we got to openings from either side in the opening half hour as this writer questioned just how attached the F365 editors were to a full 16 Conclusions.

By this point of last season’s final, the game was done. Favourites Brentford were 2-0 up and on their way, coasting through to the Premier League. Given that overwhelming and resounding victory came against Steve Cooper’s Swansea City, the Nottingham Forest manager would have been happy to hold out and keep Huddersfield at bay. Such big occasions are not for planning to overwhelm your opponents in the fear of being on the end of such treatment yourself. Being in the competition to the final whistle is the foremost priority. Cooper had learnt that lesson from 12 months previously.


5. Both sides came into this match with not-so-secret weapons. Forest had shown shades of their Brennan Johnson and Djed Spence link up, but it was Sorba Thomas’ set piece deliveries which almost bloomed full colour towards the end of the first half. Danny Ward did what he does best, persisting alone up front to win his team’s first corner of the day, and his deflected shot from Thomas’ intuitive corner won the second which was sent deep into the mixer. Against lesser opposition, either of those dead-ball opportunities could have been (and on plenty of occasions this season have been) the opener that the Terriers craved.


6. If the opening 45 minutes had been characterised by too much trepidation and an unwillingness to take risks, the game’s opening goal was the opposite. James Garner’s decision to shoot from far beyond the parameters of the box looked at odds against much of what had come before, but what a decision it proved to be. Jack Colback’s ducking head was suave, and the finish into his own goal from Levi Colwill was anything but.

Yates, who had missed the two best chances of the half was the man who almost reluctantly led the celebrations, but him not getting the touch was what saw the ball fly into the back of the net. His presence alone in the box was enough to panic the on-loan Chelsea defender to score the first half’s only goal.

Huddersfield v Nottingham Forest

7. While Forest have a system that works much more often than it doesn’t with little in the way of a Plan B, Huddersfield and Corberan have become famed this term for their fluid style and tactics which allows in-game changes to happen multiple times in any match. The introduction of Jon Russell for Naby Sarr allowed such a change, bringing an extra midfielder onto the pitch while retaining the back three out of possession with Jonathan Hogg dropping into the Huddersfield back three.

Even if you didn’t know it, it wouldn’t take a genius to work out that the Spanish head coach had cut his teeth under and with Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds, such is his predisposition to tinker with success at a moment’s notice in games big and small this season.


8. It was little surprise that Davis looked a shadow of his usual self, having been injured since Easter and unfit to start in any game since until today. Davis had made himself a crucial figure since his January loan switch to Forest from Midlands rivals Aston Villa for more than just his goal scoring prowess. In the final, he was neither able to impose his creative link-up play nor have a sight at goal with the supporting players taking centre stage in the xG column.

Midway through the second half, his season and perhaps his time with Forest came to an end, with fellow January signing Sam Surridge able to come on at his menacing best with fresh legs. Not a bad substitution to be able to make at this level. Neither were Duane Holmes and Jordan Rhodes for the ineffective pairing of Danel Sinani and Ward. As the game approached its final quarter, both teams were ready to show their teeth.

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9. It took 72 minutes to get some lovely VAR controversy, and thus, the narrative was born. Harry Toffolo ventured into the penalty area across fellow left-wing back Jack Colback and went over the leg of the former Newcastle midfielder. Moss waved away the claims in front of a sea of blue and white, but there was almost an expectation across the entirety of Wembley that the decision would be overturned.

Instead, the video referee did what it is there to do and not do. Jon Moss had not made a ‘clear and obvious’ error, such was the minimum contact made between the pair in the box. Had Moss pointed to the spot, it is almost certain VAR would have stuck with that decision too. The first time VAR had been tangibly used at this level of football saw it used efficiently and well. That doesn’t mean we want to see it become a permanent fixture in the Championship, however. Keep Kenilworth Road in the second tier at all costs.


10. Minutes after that controversial decision which wasn’t all that controversial, the second incident was so inconspicuous that it was easy to miss on first viewing. Moss couldn’t see through a barrage of bodies, but the VAR should have been on hand to offer guidance. Instead, the decision was almost batted away without a second glance. If xP (expected penalties) was a metric, Huddersfield should certainly have been above 1.


11. Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Brice Samba was the star of the show in the semi-finals, but was withdrawn for the final few minutes using every trick in the book to waste precious seconds having picked up a serious injury in the final few minutes of the match.

What had started as a good, controlled refereeing performance in his final match in the job descended into increasingly baffling decisions between Moss and the VAR. Moss should have enforced Samba to go off behind the goal rather than walk all the way to the touchline at a limping pace. There are many facets of refereeing which are overly criticised unfairly, but easy wins like this don’t help the cause.


12. This was far from a classic – recent history should have told us it was never going to be – but that matters not to Nottingham Forest’s promotion winners and band of merry men. A season which started so desolately ended in the ultimate glory. Football after the event is not about the 90 minutes, but the result. Whichever side had ended up on the losing side here could not argue that they deserved otherwise. Neither were at their scintillating best, but Forest did what they have done more any of their Championship contemporaries since Cooper’s September arrival – win.


13. For Huddersfield, they fell the way of the other two losing finalists at this season’s EFL play-offs. Neither Wycombe nor Mansfield showed up on their way to drawing blanks in London, and the Terriers got the Capital punishment that stems from not being good enough in front of goal. Not once did the Yorkshire side trouble Brice Samba or his late replacement between the sticks Ethan Horvath.

A season which brought so many highs for Corberan and Co. ended with a whimper rather than the bang they have become accustomed to at this stadium, having won on penalties on their previous two visits. The famous commentary that accompanied Christopher Schindler’s penalty in 2017 was not to be repeated here; no Huddersfield player took that chance.

This will now be a summer of transition as the Terriers look to hold onto their best players and head coach. Failure to gain promotion does not feel as much of a setback as it would have been for their opponents. The team ethic that surrounds Huddersfield’s side means few of their stars are likely to be the subject of Premier League interest, and there is every chance they can grow stronger from this ahead of the 2022/23 campaign.


14. If any manager deserved to win for their journey prior to kick-off, it was Cooper. Thousands upon thousands of words and hundreds of articles have been devoted to the amazing job the former Swansea manager had done in his job at Nottingham Forest to date. It has been somewhat forgotten that Cooper took Swansea to the play-offs in each of the last two seasons, progressing from semi-finalists to losing finalists in successive seasons to Brentford. There were no Bees in his way this time, though, and it was he and his Forest team who had the fatal sting on the day against their opponents. Cooper is not just one of the brightest British managers in the country; he is improving exponentially in many facets and should acclimatise to the Premier League at a level similar to Thomas Frank this season.


15. If the Bees felt like pre-chosen winners last May, the force of nature that has been Nottingham Forest’s automatic promotion form since Cooper’s appointment made it feel like they were destined to take their place in the Premier League for the first time in a generation. The narrative had almost pre-disposed that Forest just had to make it to the top flight, and they achieved that with relative comfort, save for those VAR decisions.

There is little room for making sense of what’s to come for both winners and losers (there’s a good idea for an article) immediately after such an occasion. Silver linings don’t glow too much when on the losing side at Wembley, but it felt like Forest needed to get there this season much more than Huddersfield did.

Huddersfield should find it easy to build on this season next term. Forest have a tough summer of recruitment ahead of them; a small squad has carried them through and loanees James Garner, Djed Spence, Keinan Davis, and Zinckernagel have no guarantees of remaining. Joe Worrall and Brennan Johnson are going to attract interest from established Premier League outfits still. Had Forest remained in the Championship, they would have been looking for replacement for all of that group and more. Premier League football brings hope that at least some of those will remain at the City Ground in 2022/23.


16. The final word always goes to the winners. Nottingham Forest are the biggest winners of the season for so many reasons. The city of Nottingham will be rocking tonight and for the foreseeable future. The city’s premier club is in the Premier League after far too many often self-imposed years in the wilderness. It is all too easy to forget that Forest have been a shambles off the pitch for much of their recent history.

Last summer’s arrival of CEO Dane Murphy from Barnsley reaped immediate benefits of a clear plan in the transfer market, while Cooper proved to be the man who could make it all work in double-quick time. For the first time in 23 years, Nottingham Forest are a Premier League club. For the first time in almost as long, this feels like a club sure of what it’s doing and where it is heading. These are treasured times indeed for everyone connected to the club.