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Reading FC In The Play-Offs - A Look Back - 2002/2003

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2002/2003

Just three days to go until the first leg of our play-off semi-final against Dave Jones' Cardiff at the Madejski Stadium and we're a tantalising 270 minutes from promotion back to the Premier League. In the meantime it's time to look at another of our previous play-off campaigns, this our 2002/03 Division One play-off ties, which saw us again match up with Mr Jones, who at that time was managing Wolves.

Background

After defeat at Cardiff in the 2000/01 Division Two play-off final, Alan Pardew had led Reading to promotion the following season by finishing second behind Champions Brighton. Although not an official play-off, our promotion bid had come down to the final day of the season where we needed to draw or beat third placed Brentford to secure a return to the First Division. Reading had fallen behind at Griffin Park only for substitute Jamie Cureton to score a vital equaliser to kick off the celebrations both in West London and back in Berkshire.

Gradually over that season and over the course of the 2002/03 season back in Division One, Pardew had slowly reshaped the side. Players such as captain Phil Parkinson, 'keeper Phil Whitehead, Matt Robinson, Adrian Viveash, Sammy Igoe and Martin Butler were replaced with Arsenal youngster Steve Sidwell, American stopper Marcus Hahnemann, young left back Nicky Shorey, John Salako and Andy Hughes as Pardew employed a 4-5-1 formation built around striker Nicky Forster.

Throughout the 2002/03 season Reading had been an all or nothing team. They'd lost 17 times over the course of the year, as many as fifteenth placed Rotherham, yet had won 25 times and drawn just four times. The team had successfully carried over the momentum from their promotion season to be in and around the play-offs for most of the campaign, with Forster's 16 league goals vital in helping the Royals to a 4th placed finish and set up a play-off semi-final with perennial nearly side Wolves.

Semi-Final v Wolves

Wolves had finished fifth, one place behind Reading in the league with the two sides both winning away from home in the respective league meetings between the teams. Andy Hughes had scored a stunning long-range strike to give the Royals a 1-0 win at Molineux back in the September, only for Wolves striker Kenny Miller to give the black country side a 1-0 win at the Madejski Stadium in March.

Miller was part of a Wolves side that had a good blend of experience and youth. As well as Miller, young goalkeeper Matt Murray was touted as a future England Number 1 while young full-back Lee Naylor and centre-back Joleon Lescott were also tipped as future stars. To go with their exciting young talent, Dave Jones' side also had veterans Denis Irwin and Paul Ince in the side as well as journeyman Nathan Blake up front. Wolves had been in the play-offs 4 times in the last 10 seasons as well as finishing seventh twice as the pressure grew from the fans for the club to return to the top flight for the first time since 1984. So the pressure was all with the home side when the Royals came to town for the first leg of the semi-final.

Alan Pardew's men were backed by 4,500 loyal Royals who were in full voice throughout the early exchanges despite some less than friendly hospitality by a minority of home fans who decided to throw objects down from their seats in the upper tier at the Royals fans below. However the Reading players couldn't be intimidated and played a classic counter attacking game, led by the immense Forster who had the Royals ahead after 25 minutes when he poked home at the far post from Nicky Shorey's cross.

Wolves fought hard to get back into the match but were being well stifled by a defence led by Ady Williams, who was taking part in his third play-off campaign for Reading, having also played for Wolves for parts of 3 seasons.

The match turned in the 61st minute when Forster had to go off injured after a challenge from Naylor. Reading's entire game plan was built around the former Brentford striker and his loss had a massive effect on the Royals, who struggled for rhythm. Marcus Hahnemann had to pull off a string of fine saves, but he could do nothing when Shaun Newton's shot hit Graeme Murty and deflected the ball home. With the scores level Wolves kept on surging forward and with just eight minutes left the home side won a free-kick on the edge of the box that Naylor drilled low past Hahnemann to give Wolves a 2-1 lead. Things got worse for the Royals in stoppage time when young winger Nathan Tyson saw red for a late lunge on Paul Butler, though the visitors held on to go back to the Madejski just one goal behind.

That left Reading needing a two goal win at the Madejski to book a trip to Cardiff and in their hour of need Reading turned to their hero at Griffin Park, Jamie Cureton, to fill Forster's place in the side.

A record crowd at the Madejski Stadium saw Reading huff and puff their way through the first half, creating plenty of chances but unable to find a goal that would level the tie. Matt Murray was superb throughout the game, commanding his area well and thwarting Henderson and Cureton in the Reading attack. Glen Little and Graeme Murty were in fine form down the Reading right hand side but nothing they could do would matter when Wolves substitute Alex Rae wriggled free in the Reading box 10 minutes from time before shooting past future Wolves 'keeper Hahnemann to end the tie. 1-0 it finished to Wolves on the night and 3-1 on aggregate to send Wolves into a final against Sheffield United.

What Happened Next?

The next season the Royals continued to build their young side and were once again in the play-off mix when Alan Pardew suddenly left to join West Ham, despite the Hammers being lower in the First Division than Reading were at the time. After a brief spell with Kevin Dillion in charge, Reading appointed Pardew's former mentor Steve Coppell to take over as manager but Coppell could only lead Reading to 9th in 2003/04 and 7th the following season. However just when some fans were beginning to wonder if the core of the squad was good enough Reading would take The Championship by storm in 2005/06 and win the league with a record 106 points to finally make the Premier League for the first time in our history.

Wolves would beat Sheffield United in the final to win promotion to the Premier League only to slip back down the following season. They'd spend the next four years back in the Championship before winning the title ahead of Birmingham and Reading in 2008/09 to get back into the top flight.

How Did The Team Compare To This Year's Crop?

Both sides finished above expectations in the second tier while both had a mix of youth and experience, this one is one of the toughest ones to judge but here are my thoughts for what they are worth! I'm going to look at the team from the first leg as my basis for comparison.

Hahnemann v Federici

This one is very close to call, with both keepers still learning their craft at this stage of their careers. Despite being 30 by the time of the Wolves game, Hahnemann had only played around 50 games in England with the majority coming that season for the Royals. Still he'd been a definite upgrade over previous keeper Phil Whitehead and had helped push us up the league. I'd give the Hahnemann of 2003 a very slight edge over our current No1 though if I were writing this article next season I'd fancy this to be reversed.

Shorey v Harte

Shorey had grown immensely as a player since his introduction the previous season and had formed a great partnership with John Salako down the Reading left. Shorey was capable of overlapping well and was no slouch from set pieces either. Given Shorey's ability from set pieces and his ability to both attack and defend at a high level, I'd take Shorey every time.

Murty v Griffin

It's the same decision as in my 2000/01 review and by this stage Murty was an even better full-back.

Williams v Mills

For the first time our current captain edges out Ady in my estimation. Williams had done a decent job throughout the season but time was just beginning to catch up with the Welsh defender. Again it's still very close but I'd just about have Mills v 2011 against a 2003 Ady Williams.

Brown v Khizanishvili

If you hadn't figured it out by now, I'm rather a fan of our Georgian defender and as much as Steve Brown was a dependable option, he doesn't come close to Zurab.

Hughes v McAnuff

Andy Hughes always gave his all for Reading though never got half the credit he deserved. Hughes wasn't a top 6 Championship quality midfielder but he was essential to the way Reading wanted to play that season. However despite his strength's I'd still plump for an in form Jobi.

Chadwick v Kebe

One of these players has played in the Champions League while one of them could conceivably do so one day in the future. Despite the former being Luke Chadwick it's no contest really as our Jimmy is far superior to the Manchester United loanee who started up at Molineux.

Harper v Karacan

Harper was immense that season, a really dynamic midfielder who had formed a great partnership with Steve Sidwell. For all of Jem's plus points I'm still taking James Harper in what was one of his best seasons with the club.

Sidwell v Leigertwood

Sidwell was still inexperienced at this level by the time of the Wolves game but had shown exactly why he had come through the ranks at Arsenal with great play both going forward and in defence. This one is also very close to call but I'm just about picking the current Fulham man.

Henderson v Hunt

Henderson did a job, but the young striker didn't seem to quite have the ability at this stage in his career and it was no surprise to see him shipped out to Gillingham within a year.

Forster v Long

It's very difficult to pick anybody over the Shane Long of 2010/2011 but if ever there was a striker more important to his team and more capable of winning game on his own then it was Nicky Forster of 2002/03. His pace was capable of decimating teams and Pardew built his team around Forster, such was his ability and form.

That leaves the final score:

Reading 2002/03 6 - 5 Reading 2010/11

But what do you think? Which team do you think was the better side? Please vote in our poll below. Last time out 89% of you thought the 2010/11 side was superior to the 2000/01 team, with just 11% saying the opposite.

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Please leave your thoughts and memories below.

Next week we'll be looking at Steve Coppell's final hurrah in the 2008/09 Championship Play-Offs against Burnley.