Last Saturday's 0-0 draw at Coventry ensured that Reading would make the play-offs for the fifth time in the past 16 years. Between now and our first leg match, I'll be looking back at our previous four play-off campaigns and looking at whether this year's team is better placed to make it through the biggest three games of the season.
Today it's time to have a look at our first play-off experience, back in 1994/95, when Jim'n'Micks barmy army made it all the way to Wembley
Reading went into the 1994/95 season as Second Division Champions, having finished top of the third tier under Mark McGhee the previous season. The Royals started the season with a 1-0 defeat to promotion favourites Wolves at Mollineux but by October they'd settled in the top six, continuing to play a brand of attacking football that's still held by many Royals fans as being the best they've seen from a Reading side.
Then in December of the Royals suffered a massive blow when manager Mark McGhee quit the club for Premiership strugglers Leicester, taking assistant boss Colin Lee along with him. The fans felt betrayed after McGhee had initially promised to stay with the club, with the Reading Evening Post printing the fact he would stay a mere hours before McGhee departed. In the short term the club chairman John Madejski turned to a management committee that included senior players Jimmy Quinn, Mick Gooding, Adrian Williams and Jeff Hopkins, with the club memorably trouncing Wolves 4-2 in a live televised match at Elm Park.
The committee was eventually whittled down to Quinn and Gooding who managed the club as co-player-managers. The pair signed Welsh striker Lee Nogan shortly after and it was his goals that helped lead Reading into a second placed finish in Division One, our highest ever finish. In any other season we would have been automatically promoted to the top flight, but the Premier League's decision to contract to 20 teams meant that there were just two promotion places instead of the usual three, meaning Reading faced a play-off semi-final with Tranmere before facing either Wolves or Bolton in a Wembley final.
Semi-Final vs Tranmere
Having finished second we faced fifth placed Tranmere, who were coming into their third straight play-off campaign and were spearheaded by former Liverpool and Real Sociedad striker John Aldridge who had scored 24 goals in 33 games that season for John King's side. In the two league meetings between the sides that year the Royals had lost 3-1 at Elm Park and also lost 1-0 at Prenton Park.
On a day when Blackburn would capture their first Premier League title, a couple of thousand Royals made their way back up to Prenton Park on a lovely May afternoon, with thousands more watching on ITV at home. What all of those people were to witness was one of Reading's finest ever away performances, as we picked up a crucial 3-1 win to put one foot at Wembley. Stuart Lovell grabbed two of the goals with Lee Nogan netting the other, rendering Chris Malkin's goal for the home side largely irrelevant.
The home tie took place just three days later with a packed out Elm Park in full voice. Half of the Town End was even given to the home supporters with every free bit of concrete packed with Loyal Royals, hoping for a second trip to Wembley in seven years. Reading were far more nervy this time around then they had been in the first leg, with Tranmere forcing Shaka Hislop into some fine saves and hitting the woodwork more the once, to keep the home fans on edge. Still the Royals held firm and the final whistle resulted in a pitch invasion with 'que sera sera' ringing out into the night.
Final vs Bolton
May 29th 1995 is a date that will resonate with any Reading football fan for the rest of their lives, as the Royals headed to Wembley to face Bolton.
Some 35,000 Reading fans made the trip down the M4 and our Chairman even walked there! along with the BBC Radio Berkshire commentary team for charity.
I was nine years old at the time, it was my first season as a Reading fan and little did I know that it would be the best run by a Reading team for the next 10 years.
The Reading team that day lined up in a 5-3-2 or 3-2-3-2 depending on how you looked at it. In goal was Shaka Hislop, perhaps our greatest ever goalkeeper and a man who had played every minute of every game since the opening day of the previous season. In front of him, Adrian Williams captained the side and was partnered in defence by Keith McPherson (playing with a broken foot) and Dariusz Wdowczyk. Australian full-back Andy Bernal was given license down the right had side of the defence, with Mick Gooding operating loosely on the left. The midfield was anchored by Simon Osborn with Scott Taylor and Michael Gilkes either side of him. Gilkes was the sole survivor from Reading's last trip to Wembley in the 1988 Simond Cup final, a game in which he'd scored. Up front Stuart Lovell partnered Lee Nogan, with Jimmy Quinn, Jeff Hopkins and goalkeeper Simon Sheppard the three named substitutes.
Facing us were an impressive Bolton side who had knocked out Wolves in their semi-final. Wanderers had also been to Wembley a couple of months beforehand for the Coca-Cola Cup Final, a game they'd lost 2-1 to Liverpool. In the league we'd lost 1-0 at Burnden Park in the January, before securing a vital 2-1 win over the Trotters at Elm Park in April. The Bolton team was full of experience with a strike force led by Scottish strikers John McGinlay and Owen Coyle. In Midfield the promising young pair of Alan Thompson and Jason McAteer gave them plenty of energy, while Alan Stubbs was an imposing force at the back. On the bench that day for Bolton was also one Peter Shilton who had played in the first leg of their semi-final win over Wolves at the age of 45!
The game started in impressive fashion for the Royals, with Lee Nogan scoring a stunning opener to give Reading the lead after just four minutes
Just eight minutes later we were in dreamland, as Ady Williams poked the ball home to put us 2-0 up.
Before half-time it could have been 3-0 after Michael Gilkes burst into the box only to be chopped down by the already cautioned Jason McAteer. The referee awarded us a penalty but opted not to send off McAteer which at the time seemed irrelevent as Stuart Lovell stepped up with the chance to give us a 3-0 lead and almost certainly secure our place in the Premier League.
What happened next is something that's still in the nightmares of Reading fans to this day. Lovell saw his spot-kick saved by Keith Branagan and the course of the match changed, with Bolton believing they could come back and come back they did.
I've not seen a moment of the second half since watching with my own eyes at Wembley, but what did happen on the pitch was goals from Owen Coyle (a man who would cause more play-off heartbreak for Reading in years to come) on 75 minutes and then curellest of all, an exqualiser from half time sub Fabian De Freitas just two minutes from the end, to send the match into extra time.
Reading were clearly shattered, exhausted and demoralised against a rampant Bolton side. The team in white soon took full control, and went into a 4-2 lead thanks to Mixu Paatelainen and a second from De Freitas.
Player-manager Jimmy Quinn did manage a late consolation, but it was too little too late. 4-3 the final score to Bolton.
The Reading fans stayed after the final whistle to cheer the lads up to the Royal Box, the least the players deserved after a magnificent season. I remember coming back on the M4 and hearing 'Always look on the bright side of life' playing on BBC Berks and it became a bit of an anthem over the coming days as Reading fans slowly lifted themselves from the disappointment of the day. The team even had a brief bus parade around Reading for the fans to show their appreciation.
What Happened Next?
Quinn and Gooding kept their jobs as player-managers but saw key members of the squad leave the club over the summer. Shaka was sold to Newcastle for a club record fee of over £1 million, with Simon Osborn leaving for QPR and Scott Taylor went to join Mark McGhee at Leicester. Those that remained showed flashes of brilliance over the next 12 months, including a run to the League Cup quarter finals, but couldn't come close to recapturing their form of the previous two years, eventually finishing 19th in the First Division. Three years after their Wembley run, Reading would suffer relegation into Division 2, with the majority of that team gone and Quinn and Gooding replaced by Bullivant and then Burns as the club moved into the Madejski Stadium.
In hindsight it's been said that promotion COULD have been a disaster for the club. Elm Park was nowhere near Premier League standard and the capacity would have been reduced, or we'd have been forced to play elsewhere until a new stadium was built or Elm Park improved. The squad itself was also thin, Hislop aside none of the team from that play-off final would ever play in the Premier League and even the victorious Bolton side would suffer immediate relegation.
Even so until that magical March day in 2006 for many this was as close as we were ever going to come to the Premiership and the scars still remain for many.
Captain on that day Ady Williams gives his memories of the day here.
How did the team compare to this years crop?
It's always difficult to look at two sides especially when they're 16 years apart but in my opinion this team at it's best was capable of better performances then this year's side.
Hislop v Federici
I'll go for Shaka on this one, Fedders is a fine keeper but Shaka was dominant and for me our greatest ever keeper.
Bernal v Griffin
Griff Shades this one for me, he's better defensively then Bernal though perhaps not quite as strong going forward.
McPherson v Harte
Harsh to compare the two as they played different positions in the defence, though Harte provides more of a set piece threat then anyone on the pitch that day and is still just about adequete defensively. McPherson never let you down but he was doing just enough to get by at that level.
Williams v Mills
It has to be Williams for me. The Welsh centre back was resilient and strong and capable of playing the ball forward when necessary. If he hadn't suffered quite so badly with injuries then there's no doubt in my mind Ady would have gone onto play Premier League football.
Wdowczyk v Khizanishvili
Alongside Andre Bikey these are two of our cultured defenders of all time and it's very hard to pick them apart. Wdowczyk was magnificent in his brief time with the club but Zurab has also shown himself to be a class act. Still I'm going to vote for the Polish international.
Gooding v Karacan
Both players were workhorses in the midfield for their respective sides, covering every blade of grass in search of the ball. Gooding by this time was into his 30's and at the end of his career, playing in a variety of positions on the pitch as well as managing and coaching the team off it. It's really really hard to pick a winner between the two of these though I think Jem's potential outweighs the peak of Micky's power. Still in a play-off final today I'd want Gooding of 1995 on the pitch against a Jem of 2011.
Osborn v Leigertwood
Both men were the driving force of their team's midfield, enabling the rest of the team to play to it's strengths. Osborn couldn't battle in the same way as Legs but he could create and score at a better rate. I'm once again opting for the 95 option and going for super Simon.
Taylor v Kebe
Scott Taylor was my first 'favourite player' having scored the only Reading goal in my first Reading game back in January of that year. The right winger had come through the ranks at the club and chipped in with his fair share of goals but he was no Jimmy. Kebe has an ability to win a game single handedly and while perhaps not as consistent as Taylor, I'm opting for a real match winner.
Gilkes v McAnuff
Gilkes was at a similar stage of his career that Jobi is now on that day at Wembley. Both around 30 and slightly past their peak, but both capable of delivering moments of magic and making key runs. Gilkes wasn't as quick as he had been on his day of glory at Wembley seven years earlier but he was still a potent force, demonstrated in his winning of Lovell's penalty. For me though Jobi has the better skills and a greater top level of performance then Gilkes.
Nogan v Long
Nogan scored some vital goals on our way to Wembley and a magnificent one in the final itself but he was nowhere near the quality of Long.
Lovell v Hunt
Poor Poor Archie :( no football fan could fail to feel sorry for Stuart Lovell given what happened after his fateful penalty miss. Lovell had been a great foil to Jimmy Quinn the season before and followed it up with some terrific play alongside Quinn then Nogan. Archie's hat-trick over Swindon that season was brilliant and he was one of the star performers away at Tranmere in the semi-final. Hunt has struggled with injuries recently and hasn't quite looked at his 2008 best ever since. That being said, he's a better player at his best then Lovell at his. Still as a sympathy tie-breaker I'm giving it to Archie.
That leaves the final score:
Reading 1995 6 v 5 Reading 2011
But what do you think? who would you rather have in your team given the choice? let me know your thoughts below and vote in our poll.
Next time out, I'll be looking at how Alan Pardew's men fared in their Division Two 2000/2001 play-off run.