The night the 'Mad Stad' finally felt like home

While the Madejski Stadium isn't as steeped in history as our former home of Elm Park, it's certainly seen it's share of highs and lows over the past 15 years. People will always have their own favourite memories but for me in particular, one night stands out as the night our new stadium suddenly felt like home.

In his recent five things article, Jon pointed out how there's a growing divide between those who focus on results and those who worry about performance. I think it's safe to say that 15 years ago when we made the Madejski Stadium our home, such a divide was unthinkable as anyone would have bitten your arm off for being in the second tier play-off places.

If you missed them (or have smartly erased them from your memories...) the first two years for Reading in the Madejski Stadium were pretty woeful by anyone's standards.

Tommy Burns assembled an overpaid and under-performing squad who struggled against teams with much poorer budgets that must have also received a big lift coming to one of the best stadia in the country at the time. A first season largely spent in mid-table was then followed by an alarming slide towards Division Three.

It's not worth thinking about just how bad things could have been if we'd been relegated down to the bottom tier while playing in a 24,000 seater stadium,  just look at how Darlington coped with such a scenario.....

With the football on the pitch dire, it's hardly surprising that the crowds were also low.

While over 18,000 watched the first ever game with Luton, it didn't take long for attendances to drop down to around the 9-10 thousand mark, a figure you'd now associate more with a first round league cup tie than league games.

Sure there were a few good matches, notably some epic clashes with Bournemouth but generally as a fan turning up to our new ground you were faced with row after row of empty seats.

Overall, our average attendances for those first two seasons combined was just 10,470, something hard to imagine in an era when 17,000 is considered a small crowd.

Thankfully things began to change on and off the pitch under Alan Pardew. An inspiring run at the end of the 99/00 season was followed up by some magnificent games the following season as the strike duo of Jamie Cureton and Martin Butler were racking up the goals and fans were starting to turn up to support the team.

Brentford were smashed 4-0, Oldham 5-0 and Swansea 5-1 in the space of three home games and Wrexham, Oxford, Grays, Luton and Bury would all get hit for four before the season was through. Unfortunately blips on the road and the relentless form of Millwall and Rotherham meant it would be the play-offs for the Royals.

Reading would face Wigan and while the first leg saw a sea of Orange in the away end, the game itself was a pretty boring 0-0.

The return leg saw a bumper crowd of over 21,000 cram into the Madejski Stadium, the highest we'd seen at the ground since that first game against Luton nearly three years before. That night I found myself in the upper West, and remember looking out over a sea of blue and white, something helped by the fact there were hundreds of balloons in the ground.

Those balloons would even cause a stoppage 20 minutes in, as Wigan boss Steve Bruce was growing increasingly angry with how they were disrupting play.

While the atmosphere was lively, it was suddenly crushed by a Lee Nicholls goal for Wigan midway through the first-half. With the failure of our previous promotion campaign still fresh in the minds, it felt like another case of here we go again as the clock ticked down and Wigan stood firm.

But then with just five minutes left on the clock, the game turned on its head.... I can't even do the events justice, I'll just let this video do the talking.

The goals that night did more than just send us to Cardiff, they felt like a release of frustrations built up ever since that magical run to the Bolton play-off final six years before.

The pain of that May Bank holiday defeat, the subsequent breaking up of a magical team, relegation, the wasted promise of the Burns era, all of that fell away as fans stormed on to the pitch to celebrate the fact that Reading were 90 minutes away from regaining their place in the second tier, a league we'd only spent six years in since the second World War.

It wasn't just the fact there were 21,000 fans in the ground, it was the passion they showed that night that finally made you think better times were around the corner. It showed to the wider world that we could fill our ground and back the team on to better things.

Defeat to Walsall in the final derailed that growth and progress slightly but I'm convinced that it was that game that helped inspire a lot of younger and more causal fans to keep coming back, and our average attendance soon rose from 12,647 in 2001, to 14,115 in 02, 16,011 in 03 and by 06 it finally cracked the 20,000 barrier.

There have been plenty of other magical nights and afternoons at the Stadium since then. We've had some big cup ties, won promotions, beaten some of the biggest teams in the country and seen some even more dramatic late comebacks than we saw on that night 12 years ago.

While all of those times have been special in their own ways, for me I can't look past that night for the way it really seemed to drag Reading from a small team in a rusting stadium, to one that would only look forwards for a decade to come.

Please let us know your memories of that night below, or why not share some of your own Madejski memories?

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