Football League Championship, Play-Off semi-final second leg
The Scene - Cardiff City Stadium, Tuesday May 17th
Result : Cardiff City 0 – Reading 3
Part four of our greatest Reading FC moments of 2011 sees Jon Keen take a look back at a crucial play-off trip to Wales when The Royals delivered a vital performance just when it mattered, and secured a trip to Wembley.
Whilst all the media hyperbole leading up to this match centred on the possibility of an all-Welsh Play-Off Final, the talk amongst supporters centred on how this match was impossible to predict. The three previous meetings with Cardiff that season had all ended in draws – two of them in contentious circumstances.
The talking point in the first match was a Cardiff equaliser from Jay Bothroyd which hit the crossbar and bounced down, and either did or didn’t cross the line, whilst the return ended 2-2 when Craig Bellamy scored from a free-kick well after added-on time should have expired – this excess added-on time coming after a 20-man punch-up followed the award of this free-kick. The fall-out from this had rumbled on when the English FA banned Mikele Leigertwood for his part in the resulting affray, whilst the Welsh FA found insufficient evidence to impose any ban on Craig Bellamy.
And the first leg of the play-off, at The MadStad the previous Friday, had ended 0-0, with both teams anxious not to lose, meaning the major points of interest were both Bellamy and Hal Robson-Kanu limping off, so this truly was the proverbial “too close to call” match where anything could happen. Just to complicate matters, speculation was rife about who would play, with on-going speculation about both Bellamy’s and Robson-Kanu’s fitness as well as that of Jimmy Kebe’s, who’d missed the previous five games.
Before the match this feeling of the unknown was tangible, and when the team news was announced things didn’t become much clearer – although Bellamy wasn’t fit, neither were Kebe or Robson Kanu, and Reading’s right-wing slot was taken by Shaun Cummings, young and inexperienced even at right-back, and with no experience on the wing that anyone knew of.
That selection raised eyebrows and lowered the hopes of the Reading supporters where I was drinking pre-match, in a carvery restaurant across the shopping park from the stadium – just one of the indicators that Cardiff City Stadium is certainly no Ninian Park, as much of the wonderfully oppressive atmosphere and sheer hostility of the previous ground seems to have been lost with the move to the new stadium and the apparent concentration on attracting families. Cardiff had even provided their supporters with noise-making “clapper-banners” – to me it’s a sad day when a club as passionately supported as Cardiff feels the need to help supporters make extra noise at such a crucial match.
And so to the game itself. For the first quarter it was as tight as the previous games, although Cardiff had the most of the ball, Reading defended with grit and determination to restrict Cardiff to just a few half-chances – the best coming when a strike from distance by Jay Bothroyd came off Zurab Khizanishvili and narrowly missed the far post, with Federici nowhere near it. But after 28 minutes the combination of a Cardiff defensive cock-up and the touch of a striker in the form of his life combined to give Reading the lead. Just inside the Cardiff half, Dekel Keinan's back pass to the keeper struck Kevin McNaughton instead. Although the ball fell to the onrushing Stephen Bywater, his poor clearance hit Shane Long, who executed a perfect lob into the net from 20 yards. A sublime piece of instinctive skill from a striker full of confidence, and the cue for disbelieving exuberance from the Reading fans – but after a truly eerie silence across the whole ground as the ball was in the air and seemed to take forever before landing in the net.
Cardiff’s nerves were visible from that point on, and things got better for Reading as the home crowd piled further pressure on Dave Jones and Cardiff with every misplaced pass, and in the 44th minute Kiernan again helped Reading by grabbing hold of Matt Mills’s arm as he tried to turn in the penalty area after a corner. Shane Long slotted the penalty away with consummate coolness, and Reading were 2-0 up at half-time.
The atmosphere that evening amongst the 2054 Reading supporters was as good as I ever remember - although some supporters were remembering that the last time Reading had been 2-0 up at half-time and one game away from Wembley they’d lost to Aston Villa, a year earlier. Despite the joy there was still a feeling of nerves and disbelief as the second-half started. Predictably, Cardiff threw everything at Reading, and whilst Jay Emmanuel-Thomas put a couple of very similar chances wide Reading put in a thoroughly professional defensive performance, playing to their strengths of soaking up Cardiff pressure and breaking quickly.
As the match went on and the fat lady was warming up her voice the celebration-level amongst Reading supporters was cranked up, and even a near miss by Noel Hunt when it was easier to score didn’t dampen spirits. “Shoes off if you love Reading” will live in the memory of anyone who was there for many years – with the vast majority of the away support standing and singing through most of the game, and common-sense stewarding, it was a superb experience and the sort of atmosphere you get to be part of only rarely. I’d definitely agree with those who compare it to the atmosphere at Leicester for Promotion in 2006.
And the icing on the cake of this simply immense performance by Reading came in the 84th minutes. 18 months earlier Job McAnuff had gone on a jinking run at Anfield that was like John Barnes famous run In Brazil, except after jinking past most of the Liverpool defence he put the final ball wide! This time, whilst he didn’t quite beat as many defenders, he made no mistake with the end-product, and at 3-0 with 6 minutes left everyone knew this match was well and truly decided, and that the game was up for Dave Jones and Cardiff’s policy of splashing the cash on strikers whilst neglecting the defence.
All that was left was for significant numbers of Cardiff supporters to leave – except for the small numbers who showed their feelings by discovering that the aforementioned clapper-banner made ideal missiles to aim at stewards or Ian Harte. But the 2054 from Reading stayed and celebrated long into the night – a performance from the supporters to match the epic one from the players out on the pitch.
The whole team had played with commitment and confidence, and it’s hard to pick out any man of the match – although Matt Mills was superb throughout, especially with a last ditch block of a Chopra shot in the first half, and the whole defence played perfectly together as a unit. Similarly the midfield was superb, never stopping running breaking up Cardiff’s play, and attacking on the break at pace – and a special mention to Shaun Cummings for a superb out-of-position performance. Up front, Noel Hunt was everywhere as always, whilst Shane Long was the ultimate striker – full of movement and confidence and always likely to create a chance. Really, this is the performance the team of 2010/11 should be remembered for, not the relatively lack-lustre one at Wembley two weeks later.
After the match, of course, we had the madness of Wembley tickets and the media story changed from the “All-Wales” play-off final to the “Brendan Rodgers vs. Reading” story, as well as Dave Jones being sacked from Cardiff for not delivering promotion when they’d been in second place in the table for most of the season. On the night of the match, though, he showed his class by having champagne delivered to the Reading dressing room after the match – a nice touch from a thoroughly decent man.
But for me an over-riding memory of immediately after this game was sitting in traffic to get away from Cardiff and Dave seeing a Cardiff clapper-banner discarded in the gutter, and running out to retrieve it, so we could see what it actually said : “We’ll be there ..... at Wembley.” Well, that went well, Cardiff, didn’t it? – thanks to one of the most complete and professional Reading performances you’ll ever be lucky enough to witness.