“Far we have travelled, much we have seen,” read the banner draped behind Wembley’s west end. A fair percentage of Nottingham Forest’s fanbase will have scant, if any, recollection of their last runout at the highest level but now they can add Premier League destinations to their adventures. Mull of Kintyre will become a top-flight anthem once again and perhaps, if they are really fortunate, Paul McCartney will make good on his half-promise to perform his hit at the City Ground upon promotion.
This was the ascent neutrals had demanded: a dose of straightforward romance in complicated times and a reminder that the day eventually comes when one cannot keep a sleeping giant down. Forest did not produce a performance to pore over but, for the 40,000 in red, that was of no consequence. They had stumbled around the Championship for a decade since their last tilt at the playoffs, frequently resembling a bloated and incoherent mess. Under Steve Cooper they are sleek, agile and steely; lucky too, as it turns out, but few get this far without being able to admit that.
At full-time Ryan Yates, the academy product whose presence in the box had brought about Levi Colwill’s decisive own goal, ran towards his public and thumped the badge. Brennan Johnson, another who has come through the system and shone, produced a selfie stick from somewhere and wandered around half-dazed; Djed Spence, a loanee but just as integral a part of the fabric in this remarkable team, flung off his shirt and absorbed it all. On the pitch Cooper wrapped his arms around Steve Cook, his defensive lieutenant, and then hugged everyone else in sight. His transformation of this club from relegation battlers to worthy promotion winners is arguably the story of the season. Their city’s advance on Wembley had brought to mind Don DeLillo’s description of an assembling sports crowd: a vast shaking of the soul.
Forest might have been 23 years away from the Premier League but it had been three decades since their previous visit to this place. Fans queued at Nottingham station in such numbers that they were urged to travel from neighbouring towns; “make sure you take this in,” one told his companion when they had finally emerged at Wembley Park within view of the arch. Old friends, perhaps veterans of the days when Forest journeyed all over Europe and generally won, chanced upon one another outside. That is what Wembley finals do: they are about winning but also about kinship, the throwing back together in plain sight of connections that wax and wane over time.
The roar when Forest emerged to warm up was a reminder of everything that had been bottled up over those years of absence and recrimination. At the end it was the loudest noise heard inside the national stadium all season: a relief from long-term angst but also the release of tension that had built up during a scrappy, low-quality game that became an affair everyone simply had to get through.
With seven minutes of normal time left their owner, the colourful Evangelos Marinakis, had stood up and crossed himself. Forest had generally held Huddersfield, well coached by the hyperactive Carlos Corberán and possessing the match’s neatest player in Lewis O’Brien, at arm’s length, but should have conceded at least one penalty in the second half. The fact VAR did not intervene at all when Max Lowe clearly fouled O’Brien was at best a mystery and, more accurately, an embarrassing mistake. The technology had never been available for this fixture before and, on this evidence, it would be a waste of time to bother with it again.
Forest might contend that Brice Samba, their shootout hero from the semi-final, would have saved the spot kicks anyway. There was certainly an odd sense of inevitability about their progress here even if the likes of Johnson, Spence and Keinan Davis rarely reached full pelt. Cooper has made order from chaos, added to the clever recruitment that began prior to his arrival, and built a momentum that came to appear irresistible from inside and out.
The next task will be for Forest to keep pace with their own rapid ascent. Loanees like Spence, Davis and James Garner, whose devilish cross wrought the winner, will ideally be tied down; the top division has changed immeasurably since they were away, its edges harder and tolerance for soft-focus sentimentality less indulgent.
Those concerns can wait for a few days or, in the case of their supporters, the rest of the summer. Into the evening they sang meaningfully, channelling McCartney again, of the mist rolling in from the Trent: in fact, it has lifted completely.