Last summer Nottingham Forest were widely derided for making 21 signings. And then, last September, Serge Aurier became No 22.
Since avoiding relegation Forest have tried to strengthen again but Aurier was the unlikely catalyst behind Forest’s late victory over Sheffield United. He teed up Taiwo Awoniyi as Forest took the lead inside three minutes and another wicked delivery with a minute of normal time to spare supplied the substitute Chris Wood to head in a winner.
It all felt rather cruel on Gustavo Hamer, the Blades midfielder whose debut goal was magnificent but ultimately, in brutal terms, had no bearing on this match. “It’s a great way to endear yourself to fans with a goal like that,” said the Sheffield United manager, Paul Heckingbottom, who remains desperate to add a striker to his squad after the sale of Iliman Ndiaye.
Heckingbottom introduced two teenagers off the bench but his team struggled to make the most of their second-half dominance. “We’re doing the learning on the pitch in the Premier League,” he said. “We need firepower at the top end of the pitch so that there is more discomfort for whoever we’re playing against. There’s a commitment to get players in. But it’s tough recruiting. We’re not flush.”
Before kick-off there was a rousing minute’s applause for former Forest players Trevor Francis and Chris Bart-Williams, both of whom died last month, and the thudding sound of the Forest faithful at full time as rain bucketed on to the pitch was something to savour.
Aurier assisted two goals in a top-flight game for the second time in his career, the previous instance against the same opposition, for Spurs almost two and a half years ago. “Serge’s crossing all game was outstanding, it was something we talked about in the buildup, freeing up players in the box, and they were two brilliant headers from two brilliant crosses,” said Forest’s head coach, Steve Cooper.
With two minutes and 23 seconds on the clock, Forest were in the driving seat. Brennan Johnson’s pace frightened United and he nudged the ball back for Aurier, whose first-time cross was inviting. Awoniyi got between Anel Ahmedhodzic and the United captain, John Egan, to head in from the edge of the six-yard box. There was a touch of Bebeto in the celebration as Awoniyi toasted the birth of his newborn son, Isaac. Dating back to last season, he has now scored in each of his past six league appearances. Matt Turner, Forest’s new No 1, punched the air.
On 15 minutes Awoniyi surely would have converted another devilish cross from the right by Aurier, only for Ahmedhodzic to get a toe to the ball. Morgan Gibbs-White combined with Aurier on the same flank and the former Tottenham defender sent the ball into the box. Neco Williams arrived towards the back post but Ahmedhodzic again made a smart interception to sweep the ball clear. Vini Souza, a £12m summer signing from Lommel, at least tested Turner with a curling shot and Egan should have done better at a corner.
United were a different animal after the interval. Ahmedhodzic forced Joe Worrall into a desperate block and Hamer’s equaliser was a thing of beauty. Scott McKenna’s clearance from a corner landed on the edge of the Forest box and from there Hamer, who tends to deal in the spectacular, trapped the ball and promptly caressed a graceful right-foot shot into the far corner. The away supporters behind the goal had the best seats in the house. Heckingbottom, who was booked at half-time, was calmness personified and merely clenched his right fist in celebration.
Hamer’s goal galvanised United and Forest faded. Bénie Traoré, another summer signing, had United’s best chance to earn victory on 78 minutes. McKenna and Worrall went for the same ball and Traoré feasted on the leftovers. The Ivorian dribbled towards goal but his shot was too close to Turner.
Wood had been on for only five minutes but seized his opportunity to make the difference. “This is a game now where it’s more than the starting XI, especially at the top end of the pitch because the game is so dynamic,” Cooper said. “They are 100-minute games now, minimum.”