After relegation from Division One and leaving Elm Park for the Madejski Stadium at the end of the 1997/98 season, the Royals had struggled to make much of an impact on Division Two. Despite manager Tommy Burns spending millions of pounds revamping the squad with players such as Graeme Murty and Sean Evers, they finished their first season back in the third tier in 11th and well short of the play-offs. The following season then started in disastrous fashion and with Reading second from bottom midway through September Burns was sacked and replaced with former reserve team boss Alan Pardew.
Under Pardew the club slowly started to turn the corner, with new signings such as full-back Matt Robinson and striker Martin Butler helping to turn the team from relegation strugglers to a side who ended the 1999/2000 campaign in 10th.
Over the summer Pardew added more key pieces, including re-signing former captain Ady Williams, former Reading loanee Adrian Viveash and Trinidadian forward Tony Rougier from Port Vale, to turn the club into genuine promotion contenders. After an injury to Nicky Forster, Jamie Cureton was recruited from Bristol Rovers, just over a year after he'd scored four goals at the Madejski in a 6-0 win for Bristol Rovers. Cureton soon struck up a formidable partnership with Martin Butler and the pair scored fifty league goals between them to help keep the club in the promotion hunt throughout the season.
Sadly despite being second as late April 23rd, Reading couldn't hang onto an automatic promotion place, being pipped by Rotherham and Champions Millwall to finish the season in third place. That meant they'd have to play Wigan in the play-offs for a chance to play either Walsall or Stoke at Cardiff.
Semi-Final v Wigan
Reading headed to the JJB Stadium to face a Wigan side who had finished sixth in the league, and were set for their third straight play-off campaign, having lost in the semi-finals in 99 and losing the 2000 final to two late extra time goals from Gillingham. In the two league meetings between the sides, the Royals had drawn 1-1 at the JJB in October, while a Jim McIntyre goal had given them a 1-0 win at the Madejski Stadium in March. Wigan were a solid side with promising young keeper Roy Carroll behind solid defenders such as Arjan De Zeeuw and Pat McGibbon helping Steve Bruce's side to the second best defensive record in the division.
The first leg saw thousands of Royals fans head up to Lancashire in Orange, with a pre-arranged 'orange day' organised as Reading would be playing in their orange change strip. Wigan provided sterner opposition then Tranmere had six-year previously, and had numerous chances to take the lead, only for the excellent Phil Whitehead to deny them repeatedly. Reading had their own chances, with Hunter and Parkinson going close, but Carroll stood firm in what would be his final home appearance in front of the Wigan fans before a move to Manchester United. 0-0 the final score, and so it was back to Berkshire for the second leg.
The second leg saw the Madejski Stadium's biggest ever crowd to that point, with over 22 thousand in the stadium, and hundreds of balloons greeted the players as they came onto the pitch. The balloons were soon grating on Wigan manager Steve Bruce and the match had to be stopped after twenty minutes while they were cleared from the pitch! Minutes later and Wigan took the lead through a Kevin Nicholls free-kick and looked set to hold that lead until four minutes from time, when some of the most dramatic moments in Reading's recent history unfolded. Nicky Forster who had only returned from a serious injury a few weeks before, came off the bench and with minutes of the game left he burst down the right and drilled the ball into the Wigan six yard box. The ball deflected out only as far as Martin Butler who slammed the ball home to send the Madejski Stadium delirious. 1-1 on the night and with no away goals the game seemed set for extra time when Forster burst down the right again, cutting into the box only to be brought down for a penalty. Cureton stepped up and saw his effort saved by Carroll but the shot was only parried as far as Forster who put home the rebound to send Reading to Cardiff! I don't think I've ever felt a better atmosphere at the Madejski on that night and the video below sends shivers down my spine every time I watch it!
Final v Walsall
Reading now had just Walsall standing between themselves and a place back in Division One, and headed off to Cardiff for their second ever play-off final. The match was played in Cardiff due to Wembley being rebuilt and around 30-odd thousand made their way from Berkshire for the day, vastly outnumbering their Walsall counterparts.
Walsall had been relegated out of Division One the season before and were looking to bounce back at the first attempt. The Saddlers had the better of the league games between the two sides that season, winning 2-1 at the Bescot Stadium (in a match refereed by World Cup Final ref Howard Webb) and had come back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 at the Madejski just a few weeks before the final. Their attack was spearheaded by Jorge Leito who had scored 18 goals with Pedro Matias a threat from midfield. Jimmy Walker was one of the best 'keepers in the division, while former Reading man Tony Barras was at the hear of their defence.
Royals boss Alan Pardew sprung a surprise in his team selection, with Darren Caskey being overlooked for 20-year-old James Harper, who had signed from Arsenal some three months before. Otherwise it was as expected with Phil Whitehead in goal, Matt Robinson and Murty as the full backs with Williams and Viveash as the centre backs. In Midfielder Harper partnered skipper Phil Parkinson in the centre, with Sammy Igoe on the right, Jim McIntyre out on the left and Butler partnering Cureton up front.
The game was fairly end to end for the first half an hour or so before Jamie Cureton grabbed the opener for Reading after a long throw from James Harper was flicked on just inside the area to Cureton who turned and half volleyed the ball into the back of the net from about eight yards out. Reading could have gone 2-0 up after McIntyre hit the woodwork, but it was Walsall who finished the half the stronger, nearly scrambling the ball home in the final minute of the half.
Walsall also started the second half well, and within minutes were level when Don Goodman found space inside the Reading box to slot home 1-1. Both teams then had chances to win it in regular time but once again Reading found themselves heading into extra time in a play-off final.
Unlike that day at Wembley, Reading were the stronger team at the start of extra time, and within seconds had the lead through Martin Butler. Cue more jubilation from the Royals fans and we felt as if promotion was once again on the cards.
But just twelve minutes from the end of Extra time, Walsall were level in the most fortunate of circumstances as Barry Hunter's clearance bounced off the back of Tony Rougier's head and looped over Phil Whitehead to equalise. Just a couple of minutes later and it was game over, with Byfield wriggling free just outside the box before hitting a shot the eluded Whitehead at his near post, 3-2 the dream was over.
Leaving the stadium that day you had a different feeling to Wembley. In 95 you felt as if the fairytale was always too good to be true and that really we had done fantastically well to even make the final. Yes the way we lost was heartbreaking but you felt a sense of pride at how little old Reading had come so so close to making the big time. However in Cardiff you felt the opposite, that we'd let an average Walsall side go up at our expense and a situation that should have been avoided by going up automatically. The fact we'd led twice added to the sense of frustration, that and seeing the 15,000 or so Walsall fans going mental and hearing the fireworks go off as you left the ground.
What Happened Next?
Reading started the following season in inconsistent fashion and lost Martin Butler for most of the season with a serious ankle injury. Martin Allen lost his job as Pardew's assistant and Kevin Dillon came in as number two, coinciding with the signing of midfielders Kevin Watson and John Salako who helped kick-start a promotion push that saw Reading leading the division for most of the season, only to stutter across the line on the last day of the season with a Jamie Cureton goal at Brentford.
Walsall would spend the next few seasons in the second tier, before being relegated in 2004 and then relegated into the bottom tier just two years later.
How did the team compare to this years crop?
This team was playing in the tier below so it's harder to really compare. Pretty much every player today would be in that side but I'll be looking at the role and importance that each player had in the team and how well they performed against expectations.
Whitehead v Federici
Whitehead delivered stability and reassurance in goal that had been missing arguably since Shaka left in 95. His distribution wasn't amazing but he was a fine shot stopper and organised the defence fairly well. That being said, Federici is arguably even better a shot stopper, while his distribution and leadership far exceeds the former Oxford keeper.
Murty v Griffin
Murty really grew into the right back position over the season, having been originally signed as a winger by Burns. His attacking instincts were clear to see and alongside Robinson, he formed a solid partnership with Sammy Igoe down the right. While Griffin is probably a more steady defender his all round impact in the team isn't quite as significant as our Championship winning captain.
Robinson v Harte
'Rooster' brought raw energy and enthusiasm to a side and was a key catalyst on our revival during the second half of 1999/00. Sadly he was never technically gifted and was just about adequate in a team who were aiming for bigger things. Harte is just as good defensively while providing a lot more from set pieces.
Williams v Mills
Just like in my 1995 review im giving the nod here to Ady, though by now it was a lot closer. Injuries had taken a yard of pace from William's game by then and while steady, our former captain wasn't quite at the peak of his powers but still reliable.
Viveash v Khizanishvili
The former Swindon man was a solid defender but he didn't bring the same class or all round impact that Zurab does.
Parkinson v Karacan
Parky was 33 when he captained the team in the final but despite his age his was still capable of covering every blade of grass. For me, Karacan is the closest thing I've seen to Parky since he left the club and Jem has more technical ability then Phil had. That being said I'd just about take the Parky of 2001 over the Jem of 2011, but it's close.
Harper v Leigertwood
Harper was still young and inexperienced when he started at the Millenium Stadium, having made just thirteen league starts in his career to that point. While the potential was there, and Harper didn't have a bad game, I'd still rather have seen Darren Caskey play that day. Leigertwood and Harper are similar players though Mikele has more bite to his game and Leigertwood of 2011 is a better option than a young Harper.
McIntyre v McAnuff
Having been signed as a striker by Tommy Burns on deadline day in 1998, the Scotsman had never really delivered as a striker but had carved out a role in the team on the left of the midfield for Alan Pardew. He did a decent enough job but couldn't turn the game in the same way that Jobi can.
Igoe v Kebe
Igoe was a solid little player (no pun intended!) and never let you down, but he's nowhere near Jimmy in terms of either his importance to a side, yet alone ability.
Cureton v Hunt
Cureton never got through the same amount of work as Hunt, nor was he as good in the air but the former Bristol Rovers man certainly knew how to find the net. He scored the opener that day and had a formidable partnership with Butler that saw us take apart teams over the course of the season.
Butler v Long
This one is tricky because both players at their peak were so vital to their sides. Butler was the workhorse of the partnership with Cureton but still found the net time and time again. Sadly he was never the same player after his ankle injury but in the two seasons before he was unstoppable. Even so I'm going to give this one to Long because of his pace.
I would say though that I think Alan Pardew had better options on the bench compared to Brian McDermott. Tony Rougier, Nicky Forster and Darren Caskey were all capable of changing a game and I don't think the present squad has that many game changing subs.
That leaves the final score
Reading 2001 4 - 7 Reading 2011
What do you think though, which was the better side? Last time out, 63% of you thought that the 1995 side was better than the 2011 version, with 26% saying the 2011 team was superor and the other 11% saying it was too close to call.
Please let us know your memories of that side and the play-off run in the comments below.
Next time out it's another Alan Pardew side, this time his 2002/03 Division One play-off semi-finalists.