In the 15 years I’ve been watching the Royals I’ve been lucky enough to see some great finishers at the club. Jimmy Quinn, Trevor Morley, Kevin Doyle, Dave Kitson, Shane Long, Paul Bray…. OK maybe not. Still in that timeframe one man has stood out to me as someone who knew where the goal was, and the one man you wanted a chance to fall too inside the penalty area. Jamie Cureton.
I’ll not labour too long on what Jamie got up too before he came to Reading, or afterwards. The guys over at Ex-Canaries.co.uk have produced an excellent history piece on Jamie’s exploits before and after his time at Reading, so for me this article is my reasoning why I consider Cureton a Mad Stad ‘Legend’.
First of all I struggle to think of a former Royal other than Cureton who’s remembered just as much for his impact AGAINST Reading. Cureton first bore himself into the minds of Reading fans when he was part of a Bristol Rovers team on a cold January day back in 1999 when the former Norwich man helped tear Reading to shreds with a four-goal haul in the second half that helped consign Reading to a 6-0 defeat and their biggest to date at the Madejski Stadium.
After that day Jamie continued to impress at Bristol Rovers and with former team-mates Jason Roberts and Barry Hayles both going for significant sums, it was somewhat surprising for Royals fans to learn that we’d signed the former Norwich man for just £250k in the August of 2000. Alan Pardew had moved to sign the striker after Nicky Forster had been ruled out with a serious injury and it was a signal of intent from Pardew and the board that a Royals promotion push wouldn’t be derailed.
His signing was arguably the last time Reading signed a proven goal scorer from a team at their level or higher and the excitement of getting a player who just 18 months before had smashed four past Scott Howie at the Madejski can’t be understated. It was just the jolt we needed at the time and Cureton wasted little time grabbing a goal on his debut in a Worthington Cup first round first leg game at Leyton Orient.
The striker didn’t find the mark in his league debut at Northampton, but his home debut saw Cureton score a last minute equaliser in a dramatic Reading comeback against Stoke, to earn a 3-3 draw. Fellow front man Martin Butler also scored that day and it was the start of a partnership that would become prolific throughout the campaign.
In September Cureton bagged his first hat-trick in a 4-0 win over Brentford, while he scored another against Luton two days before Christmas. The striker also managed a run of 9 goals in 9 games in March and April to keep us in the hunt for automatic promotion.
It wasn’t just the volume of goals that helped make Cureton a legend though, just look at some of the games he scored in. He netted the winner away in Swansea, where we’ve never had much joy historically, scored the only goal to beat his former team at the Madejski Stadium, hit the only goal in a win at the County Ground against Swindon and also scored in both games against Oxford that season.
Beyond his goals, Cureton was part of one of the most exciting Reading teams that I’ve ever witnessed. Having been too young to see the 1993/94 side, Cureton was an integral part of a team that began to draw people back to the stadium after the post 1995 Wembley slide, and his partnership with Martin Butler gave you a reason to come along each week, knowing that you’d probably see one of them get a goal. In fact, from the day he signed until the end of that season, there were just five home league games where one of the pair didn’t score.
Sadly their goals couldn’t see Reading into an automatic promotion place as Reading had to settle for the play-offs and a semi-final with Wigan. Cureton didn’t have a great impact in a drab 0-0 draw at the JJB but he would play a big role in a dramatic last five minutes at the Madejski in the second leg, that ranks as one of the best games ever seen at the Stadium. With Reading trailing 1-0 to Wigan with just four minutes to go Martin Butler grabbed an equaliser and just minutes later Nicky Forster was brought down in the area giving Cureton the chance to score from the spot and send Reading to Cardiff. …. Only he missed…. Cue a second or two of disbelief… memories of Archies’ miss six years before came flooding into the mind…. But then there was Forster, 2-1 game over, let’s party!
Cureton made up for his penalty miss in the final at the Millennium Stadium by giving Reading a 1-0 lead, but he could do nothing to stop the combination of Tony Rougier’s head and a speculative drive from Darren Byfield consigning us to another year in Division Two.
The following season didn’t go quite as well for Cureton. With Forster back from injury there were suddenly three strikers for two places and the team in general struggled early on to find any consistency, sliding to 14th after a 3-1 defeat at home by Swindon in mid-October. Cureton had scored just twice by that point and both of those came in one game at Port Vale in early September. Thankfully the Royals rallied and Jamie began to find the old magic alongside Butler, as Reading recorded key wins at Notts County, Oldham and Brentford with Cureton grabbing four goals in those three games.
Just when it seemed as if the old partnership might be back on track, Butler suffered a serious injury at home to Wrexham that would keep him out for most of the season. In his absence, Cureton struggled to find a rhythm alongside Forster and found himself out of the side around Christmas. He managed just two goals in four months, again both against Port Vale, as Reading made a strong title challenge led by Forster. Even from the bench Cureton still found a way to make an impact, scoring in back to back appearances off the bench against Notts County and Brighton to force his way back into the team for the final run in. The striker then bagged four in six games but Reading slowly slipped from top spot after a long run of draws, setting up an automatic promotion decider against Steve Coppell’s Brentford at Griffin Park.
Cureton was overlooked for the game in favour of Martin Butler, but with the team trailing after over an hour, Pardew turned to Cureton to replace Sammy Igoe. Then came the one Cureton goal that will forever be remembered by Reading fans. A long ball from Adi Viveash was flicked on by Phil Parkinson just outside the area, that bounced in front of Cureton eight yards out who after one touch sent a deft flick past the Brentford keeper and into the net, scoring the goal that sealed promotion. Given our failures in the play-offs over the years and the fairly dominant nature of our promotions in 1994 and 2006, it's fairly safe to say that it's the closest thing we've had to a promotion winning goal in a winner takes all game and that reason alone would be enough to make him a legend in my eyes.
Back in the second tier for the first time in six years Cureton hit the ground running. Scoring six times in Reading's first five games, including a match winning double against Sheffield Wednesday. Sadly for the forward the goals soon dried up, with the striker scoring just 1 goal between the end of August and April, as Pardew began to employ a 4-5-1 formation with Forster as the lone striker as Reading settled into a play-off position. Just two more goals followed and with his contract up in the summer it seemed Cureton was all set to leave with a whimper rather than with a bang.
However fate handed Cureton one last chance to seal his legend with the Reading fans in the play-off semi-final against Wolves. after Nicky Forster had been injured in the first leg leaving Cureton as the man to replace him for the return leg at the Madejski. Reading had lost the first leg 2-1 and only had to score once to seal a second trip to the Millennium Stadium in three years but try as they might, there was no way past Matt Murray in the Wolves goal. Alex Rae killed the game off with ten minutes to go and the Premier League dream slipped away from Reading once more.
Cureton failed to sign a new deal that summer and left for a chance to play in South Korea, before returning shortly after to sign with QPR. It was with the 'fake hoops' that Cureton made his last real impression at the Madejski, getting himself sent off for kicking out at Steve Sidwell in a game in 2004.
After leaving QPR, Jamie bounced around the second and third tiers, playing for Swindon, Colchester, Norwich, Barnsley, Shrewsbury, Exeter and now Leyton Orient but Reading remains the only club other than Bristol Rovers where Cureton has played more than 50 games and his 51 goals in just 78 starts puts him alongside any modern Royals striker in terms of goals to games.
The numbers alone would make him a legend but to me it's the role that Cureton played in lifting the fans and providing us with some real moments to savor that make him a true hero. He ticks just about every box you'd want when talking about what you want a striker to achieve in his time at a club. A debut goal, scoring hat-tricks, forming a deadly partnership, hitting the winner against your local rivals, scoring a goal in a play-off final and scoring a promotion clinching goal. Add in his four goals for Rovers and his QPR red card and he's had more memorable moments than most at the Madejski stadium.
His all round contribution may not have matched the likes of Nicky Forster, Dave Kitson, Kevin Doyle or Shane Long but in a time where Reading needed a man to complete the promotion jigsaw, Cureton was just the man and just the legend we needed.