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Thank You Ledge

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As Mikele Leigertwood departs, Matt Williams remembers a footballer who played a simple but pivotal part in Reading's recent successes.

Ben Hoskins

The game at Ashton Gate was over. West Ham had only drawn 1-1.

Having kicked off at 8pm, there was still 15 minutes plus stoppage time to go between Reading and Nottingham Forest when that result filtered through. And with the game at the Madejski still goalless, it meant that one goal, one simple goal, would take the Royals up.

80 minutes on the clock. Reading won a free kick on the left hand side. Ian Harte jogged over to take it, and blue and white hoops swarmed into the box. The ball in was a good one. Numerous Reading players dived in, but none could get a clean enough connection. But neither could the Forest defence.

The ball dropped at the back of the six yard box. Shirts were being pulled, limbs were flying everywhere. But one man emerged from the melee to get his boot to the ball first.

You know the rest.

That man was, of course, Mikele Leigertwood. Not exactly a player known for his goalscoring prowess, but one who was in the right place at the right time to write his name in the Reading FC history books.

I'd like to think that Reading fans appreciate the more workmanlike players. That we don't always just fawn over the goalscorers or the wingers who try a couple of stepovers and nutmegs. And if you look at the Player of the Season vote, maybe there's some basis to that arguement. This year's winner was a full-back. An attacking one sure, but a player who spent most of his time in the unglamorous left-back berth. The runner-up was Gunter, a full-on, bonafide, 'quietly do the job' player.

And it's not just this season - Chris Armstrong, Graeme Murty, James Harper...we don't always put our eggs in the exciting player's basket.

Leigertwood was never quite adored by the Reading FC masses, and in the year he scored that promotion winner he didn't even make the Player of the Season top 3. But like the Armstrongs, Murtys and Harpers mentioned above, his influence on the Reading team during his time at the club shouldn't go uncelebrated.

Leigertwood was what Football Manager would lovingly describe as a 'DM(c)'. His role being to boss the middle of the park, calming things down and turning defensive pressure into an attacking force.

But he wasn't exactly what you'd call a 'Makelele' type player, and he certainly wasn't a Roy Keane 'go sliding all over the pitch and wind up the opposition' type either.

He played with strength and power - some of my fondest moments being when Leigertwood simply stepped into the path separating some tricky opposition midfielder from the ball, and it seeming like said opponent had just run into a brick wall.

But he also had an element of majesty about his game too.

Those with shorter memories may chuckle a little at that last sentence. Towards the end of his spell with us 'Leigertwood' and 'calm' may not have been obviously evident, and his nervous passes and dwelling on the ball certainly caused a few panicky moments in the stands. But it's worth remembering that when he joined the club, the Royals had been in a spot of bother, struggling to get hold of the football and really grab a game by the scruff of the neck.

Leigertwood, on the other hand, brought with him an ability to pick up a loose midfield ball, shrug off a couple of opponents, and get it out wide to the playmakers to really do their job. For a manager like Brian McDermott, whose philosophy was built on tricky wingers catching teams on the break and pressurising the channels, this was a Godsend. Whilst the trendy football managers (and Adkins, when he first started at Reading) tend now to rely on the centre backs to start with possession and mount an attack, McDermott preferred to start higher up the pitch, and for him the man responsible for the execution was Leigertwood.

It was all so simple. You'd have Karacan haring about in the centre of the park putting in the mean tackles. Or Gorkks and Pearce winning the aerial battles when the opposition knock it long. On both occasions the loose ball would tend to drop somewhere near the centre circle, where Leigertwood would inevitably be perfectly positioned. With time seemingly standing still, Leigertwood would then shrug off any opponent employed by his team to do the same thing, and in one quick swoop knock the ball out wide to either McAnuff or Kebe.

And with Kebe and McAnuff both being the type of wingers who liked to start their runs deeper, relying on pace and trickery to scare a backtracking full back, this was the perfect ploy.

It may not have been the most glamorous of roles that Leigertwood had. He may not have been making the initial tough tackles or winning the big headers, and he may not have been the ones getting the crowd off their seat by breaking into the opposition box. But none of those players could have done their duty if he hadn't been at the heart of it all, allowing the game to flow through him. The missing link, if you will.

It was such a simple but pivotal role that it perhaps shouldn't be surprising that we saw immediate success upon Leigertwood's arrival. Going from a talented-looking team who couldn't get a win, to a tenacious team who couldn't be beaten.

Indeed let us not forget that when Leigertwood first arrived on loan in 2010, he embarked on a club record run of 17 games unbeaten for a new signing - a spell of 10 wins and 7 draws only coming to an end when we played Manchester City in the FA Cup.

It was some achievement. But the best was certainly yet to come - a stellar season followed culminating in that promotion winning goal. And whilst that's what we'll all remember him for, I'd like to pick up on a different game to end this piece. In fact, it's the game that ended it all for Leigertwood. Reading 2-2 Burnley is still fresh in the memory, and what a game it was.

And as Reading turned the screw in the second half, it was Leigertwood with his hand on the screwdriver. It may not have been enough to convince the club to extend his contract, but it reminded all us fans of the player we loved. There he was, in the middle of the pitch, doing the simple things right. Spreading the play out neatly, picking up loose balls, and feeding the attack at the most opportune moments. Even our thrown-ins - a set-piece we've recently been laughably bad at executing - seemed more simple, more controlled.

Like fellow departees Gorkss and McAnuff, Leigertwood never truly won all the fans over, paying the price for a poor season in the Premier League when he, and most of his teammates, were simply caught out of their depth.

But they say the journey is sometimes more fun than the destination, and few players contributed more to our elevation to the top tier than Mikele Leigertwood. And for that we should always be grateful.