Swansea and Forest serve up a treat
The Liberty Stadium
It was the type of game that reminded me why I fell in love with football in the first place.
Swansea defeated Nottingham Forest 3-1 on Monday to book their place in the Championship play-off final, but to reduce the match to a statistic would be to do a huge disservice to a contest packed with emotion and entertainment.
There was awesome skill and attacking flair, missed chances, battered woodwork, controversial refereeing decisions and, at the end of it all, a goal from the half-way line to finally extinguish Forest's fire.
It was a night that shredded the nerves of the supporters of both teams to the same degree that it must have thrilled the neutrals watching on television. It's hard to imagine a more stark contrast with the goalless first-leg draw at the City Ground on Thursday.
The last 10 minutes were quite simply breathtaking as Forest pushed and pushed for the goal that would level the match and the tie at 2-2.
Forest had looked dead and buried before Robert Earnshaw, once of Cardiff, came off the bench to score the goal that gave them hope. And when the striker directed a shot at goal seconds before the end, time seemed to briefly slow down. There was a collective intake of breath from the home fans, while Forest supporters must have thought they were about to be catapulted into dreamland.
The hopes and aspirations of an entire season seemed to be distilled down into a split-second's action. It was Swansea's night, and the ball struck the base of the post and rolled to safety.
Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers saw his side's attacking flair richly rewarded. Photo: Getty
When substitute Darren Pratley delivered the coup de grace with a brilliant strike into the empty Forest goal from 50 yards, deep into injury-time, the relief was obvious.
Manager Brendan Rodgers charged down the touchline in a manner reminiscent of mentor Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford when the Special One was in charge of Porto many years ago. Players hugged each other; Pratley ripped off his shirt and was booked for the ebullience of his celebrations. A few fans invaded the pitch even though the match had not yet finished and the occasion seemed to have briefly spiralled out of control.
The full-time whistle did see a large-scale pitch invasion but that did not prevent several Forest players, members of the backroom staff and boss Billy Davies from battling through opposition fans to pay tribute to their own magnificent supporters, who had tried so hard to raise their team as they trailed 2-0 with time draining inexorably away.
"That was scary, very scary but we owed our fans a thank-you," said Davies after his journey through the Swansea fans.
His team were frequently cut to ribbons, particularly in an opening half during which the Swans scored twice in a four-minute spell, but Davies was in typically bullish mood as he contemplated another season that has ended in play-off heartbreak.
"I am not down or disappointed," said the Scot, who tasted defeat against eventual play-off victors Blackpool at the semi-final stage last year. "I'm upbeat.
"At the end I said to my players that they must keep their heads up. In the second half we put Swansea to the sword but I have said for a while that in play-offs a refereeing decision or a little bit of luck can be crucial."
Forest's failure to win promotion will inevitably bring with it speculation about the Scot's future. His feisty personality and stubborn streak mean that he is frequently at loggerheads with someone or other, often key figures at the club he is managing. At Forest he has barely been able to disguise his frustration with the transfer acquisitions panel that oversees the buying and selling of players.
However, on Monday he was adamant that he had no intention of leaving the City Ground.
"Let me make it clear - 100% clear - that my agreement with this board was three-and-a-half years to get this club out of this division," added Davies, who joined Forest in January 2009.
"Along with my staff, I've already started looking at the changes needed, and we will prepare again for another excellent challenge next season. I'm not planning on going anywhere."
But Monday was not really about Davies and his future - it belonged to his opposite number Rodgers and the team that he has created since taking over last summer.
"It was a brilliant game, it was probably [worthy of] a final in relation to the quality of both sides," said 38-year-old Rodgers, who was the Swans' fourth choice to succeed Paulo Sousa.
"You have to pay credit to Nottingham Forest for coming here and playing like they did. They played very, very well. But I think the night belongs to my group, my players and the supporters because they were absolutely heroic."
Swansea are by some margin the most attractive side I have seen in the Football League this season, and if they go on to win the final I think they will be a refreshing addition to the Premier League.
Darren Pratley was mobbed at the Liberty Stadium after his winning goal. Photo: PA
The lush, large pitch at the Liberty Stadium is well suited to their easy-on-the-eye brand of football, while the atmosphere that their supporters create is sensational. We live in an era where fans are often drowned out by music pumping out from overwhelming tannoy systems, but not at Swansea. As the PA announcer said before kick-off: "This is Wales, this is Swansea - we can sing."
Swansea can sing on the pitch, too. They are composed and calculating in possession, always probing, probing, probing until space opens. If, as has been suggested, they are the closest the Championship has seen to a club modelled in the image of Barcelona, then on Monday midfield duo Leon Britton and Joe Allen were their Andres Iniesta and Xavi. They might lack inches but they have cunning and ambition in abundance.
Wide men Scott Sinclair and Nathan Dyer boast incredible pace. They terrified the Forest defence every time they ran at goal and have been the stuff of nightmares for full-backs all season.
Stephen Dobbie intelligently filled the space behind striker Fabio Borini and scored an excellent goal after drifting across the edge of the Forest penalty area before placing his shot beyond goalkeeper Lee Camp. Borini is on loan from Chelsea and boasts a subtlety of movement rarely glimpsed outside the top tier, although his touch at times let him down on Monday.
I do not recall ever seeing goalkeeper Dorus de Vries kicking the ball up-field. It is just not the way Swansea go about their business.
It was no surprise that as Rodgers discussed his team's victory he explained that he watches just about every Barcelona game, home and away. Rather like the Catalan side, the Swans are patient in possession but play a high-tempo pressing game when they do not have the ball.
The Welsh club were exciting but porous in defence under Roberto Martinez and tight at the back but short of goals under Sousa. Rodgers seems to have created a potent balance.
It is obvious that he has a strong bond with his players. Time and again on Monday he spoke of how proud he was of them and how much courage they had shown to stick to their principles on such a high-pressure occasion.
"They dug deep and showed team spirit to get through the match," said Rodgers. "We were tipped to finish in the bottom three but we finished in the top three. Now we have reached Wembley and we must remember to celebrate this great achievement."
A few weeks ago as Swansea defeated Sheffield United 4-0 Rodgers stopped standing at the edge of his technical area and retired to the dug-out. As he did so, he explained to coach Colin Pascoe that he was sitting down because he was bored.
There was nothing boring about Monday's game. It was a wonderful and welcome advert for the drama of the play-offs.