A few minutes before kick-off, as has become tradition, Steve Cooper emerged from the Nottingham Forest tunnel to a wall of noise, another feverish atmosphere. Then, before taking a seat in the home dugout, Cooper inhaled deeply and a prolonged puff of the cheeks followed. Perhaps he had anticipated the wild ride that was to play out over the course of 101 minutes of white-knuckle action. It is, Cooper said, a price he is willing to pay if the results keep coming.
This was not a night that was good for the blood pressure but by the end Forest, courtesy of a Taiwo Awoniyi double, Morgan Gibbs-White’s penalty and a decisive strike by Danilo, had wrapped up a brilliant win over the bottom club Southampton and a precious three points, breathing life into their bid for Premier League survival. With three games to play – trips to Chelsea and Crystal Palace, on the final day, bookend a date at home to Arsenal – Forest’s heads are above water. Mathematically, Southampton can survive but it will take a miracle from here.
Southampton’s players, sullen-faced, gathered, largely hands on hips in front of the travelling fans. James Ward-Prowse, a little withdrawn and extremely deflated, looked deep into the stand. It was all a stark contrast to Gibbs-White embracing pitch security staff as Forest completed their victory lap to the thud of Just Can’t Get Enough. “I think the boys showed character,” Rubén Sellés, the Southampton manager, said. “They wanted to come back, they wanted to play. We ran out of time.”
Perhaps it was no surprise that this game was played at a breathless pace given both teams’ pressing need for points. Any hope generated from Leicester’s pummelling at Fulham quickly evaporated by the time Everton coasted to a surprise victory at Brighton. There is something special about games under the lights here at the best of times and filthy conditions only enhanced an entertaining, if sometimes slapstick, encounter. “I just spoke to one or two [Southampton] players that I know and they said: ‘What an atmosphere’,” Cooper said afterwards.
Nothing epitomised the absorbing nature of this game more than Brennan Johnson burning past Armel Bella-Kotchap after 10 minutes, leaving the Southampton centre-back floundering like Scrappy-Doo and then on all fours. With Bella-Kotchap grounded with a hamstring problem, Jan Bednarek did brilliantly to prevent Johnson locating an unmarked Awoniyi. Bella-Kotchap, injured trying to keep up, headed down the tunnel with the help of medical staff.
Forest were roared off the pitch at half-time, their two-goal buffer restored after Gibbs-White sent Alex McCarthy the wrong way from the penalty spot. A split-second after controlling the ball in the Southampton box, Ainsley Maitland-Niles pressed self-destruct, whacking the achilles of the lively Johnson. Gibbs-White made no mistake.
Awoniyi got the ball rolling on 18 minutes when he swept home Johnson’s neat centre and, three minutes later, the striker had doubled his and Forest’s tally, smacking in from close range after latching on to Danilo’s clever touch.
Forest seemed comfortable after exposing Southampton’s soft centre but the visitors replied on 25 minutes when Carlos Alcaraz applied the finishing touch to a slick counterattack. Ward-Prowse nicked the ball from Gibbs-White inside his own half and freed Che Adams into a promising three v two scenario. Adams located Stuart Armstrong, who slid the ball across the six-yard box for Alcaraz to control and then tuck in. Sellés, bouncing on the touchline, tried to energise his team. Theo Walcott went close to an equaliser but then Maitland-Niles gifted Forest a penalty.
Dead and buried? Southampton scoring within five minutes of the restart was not part of the script. Sellés seemingly had to convince Bednarek and Lyanco, who replaced Bella-Kotchap, to go up for an early second-half corner. Ward-Prowse’s inswinger landed in the Forest the six-yard box and Lyanco eluded Felipe to head in. A couple of minutes later a Ward-Prowse free-kick, and another wicked delivery, caused more problems. Lyanco forced a save from Keylor Navas.
Now it was Forest who were feeling the heat. Kamaldeen Sulemana, on in place of Walcott, skipped past Renan Lodi and rattled a shot into the side netting via a deflection. From the resulting Ward-Prowse corner, Lyanco again won the first header but Navas punched clear before the lurking Adams could welly in. A fidgety crescendo loomed.
Southampton could smell blood but Forest increased their lead. Johnson was again the catalyst. He cut the ball back for Gibbs-White, whose cute flick on the penalty spot ran perfectly for Danilo to lash in. The Forest substitutes’ bench – even Serge Aurier, who departed injured – emptied to join the celebrations and Cooper darted off along the touchline. Ward-Prowse’s late penalty, after Sam Surridge clipped Roméo Lavia, set up a tense finale but Forest held on. “It is a massive win but it will be even bigger if we build on it,” Cooper said. “We are going to need more points.”