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Madejski Moments - Reading 2-2 Oldham Athletic

Matt Williams recalls a not-so-memorable game that turned out to be part of a run-in that's gone down in Reading folklore...

Mike Hewitt

There are some Reading matches that live long in the memory, whether it's because of a stunning scoreline, amazing performance or because it marked a special occasion like a promotion, significant debut or milestone.

So what right does a drab draw with Oldham Athletic, occurring sometime in mid-March 2002, have in a list of the Madejski Stadium's most significant matches?

The clue's in the scoreline. A draw, something Reading fans would have to get used to for the following month, as the Royals spluttered their way to automatic promotion.

The run-in to the 2001/02 season has gone down in Reading Football Club folklore. The games themselves may not be that memorable (I challenge anyone to immediately recall what happened in the actual game that we're going to cover), but the couple of months of nerves and anguish will remain with us forever, serving as a constant reminder that following the Royals is never straightforward.

At one point, Reading had a huge lead at the top of the division. The only way we'd stand a chance of getting caught is if we went on an inexplicable run in which we dropped points in almost all of our last ten games.

Which, of course, we almost did.

The run of draws was already in full flow when Oldham visited the Madejski Stadium on 23rd March 2002. Three of the previous four games, including two at home, had resulted in 3 points on the Pools Panel scorecard, but signs that this was no more than a blip were indicated when Reading won away at Chesterfield at the end of that run.

How vital that win would prove to be. The Oldham game then marked a further run in which Reading drew every match remaining in the season, and would only just hold off Brentford in that thrilling game on the final day to secure promotion.

It'd be easy of me to say that no-one could have predicted just how close it would all get when Reading and Oldham took to the field in March, but looking back on match reports from the time, the nerves already appeared in evidence. Reading may have been top of the league but they weren't playing like champions, looking uncomfortable against an Oldham side who had just come off the back of a huge spanking by Cardiff.

That said, the game started well, and Reading were 1-0 up within 8 minutes. John Mackie got on the end of a Kevin Watson cross to head home. Watson is still one of the classiest players I've seen in a Reading shirt, with great vision and range of passing. But there was always just something missing from his game that would stop him playing at the very highest level.

In the middle that day with Watson was Phil Parkinson, a bonafide Reading legend. Parky was the antithesis of his midfield chum - a tough tackling bundle of energy to go alongside Watson's silky passes.

Outside of them, Reading's wings were covered by John Salako and Andy Hughes. Salako is a strange one. He made a huge difference when he first joined the Royals, but as soon as he signed a permanent contract his form started to dip. No surprises there, but it did grate with Reading fans somewhat.

Nevertheless, Salako's impression on the team shouldn't be underestimated. He got the team believing in themselves, gave them a bit of a swagger when it was needed. The club's history in signing big(ish) names have rarely ended in anything but failure (Ray Houghton being the most notable example) but I'd still argue that Salako falls into the 'success' category.

Like Watson and Parkinson, the juxtaposition between Salako and his right wing counterpart Hughes was glaring. Whereas Salako was an out and out left winger, who'd fade out of games at times but possessed the skill and trickery to beat a full back and create a moment of match-winning genius, Hughes was a versatile terrier who relied as much on never-ending stamina and drive to make an impression.

This made Hughes a rather divisive character. Many Reading fans couldn't stand seeing his name on the team sheet, bemoaning his lack of control and sharpness. Sometimes he was playing the game at such a mad pace that he'd fail to do any of the simple things right. Yet another section of the Reading support loved Hughes. He had no ego, no illusions about professional football. He played the game at such a pace for good reason - because it scared the hell out of the opposition. The full back may find they could outclass Hughes on the first, second and third occasion, but when football's version of the Duracell bunny would come running at you for the 30th time that half, then there's a chance your knackered self would let him through. I'd be tempted to use the often quote Arnold Palmer here: "The harder I work the luckier I get," Hughes applied that to football and then some.

The Oldham game saw Hughes revert to the wing after a spell of games filling in for Graeme Murty at right back. Murty returned to a backline that also included Adie Williams and Nicky Shorey, whilst in goal behind them was Phil Whitehead, a good keeper who perhaps disappears from memory easier than he should simply because he was overshadowed by his eventual replacement Marcus Hahnemann.

On the face of it, Murty-Williams-Mackie-Shorey looks a decent back four, but they were in disarray even against a cumbersome Oldham attack led by perennial lower league journeyman Dele Adebola.

And the game was soon level when the defence fell asleep from a corner and Lee Duxbury nodded home. Again the nerves kicked in. The 15,000 fans at the Madejski (described by HobNob Anyone? that day as 'bumper' things change) fell silent.

But Reading took the initiative and tried to respond. A few more breaks down the right proved fruitless, but eventually Nicky Forster's persistence paid off, and just as the whistle was about to go for half time, his mazy run and cross found Parkinson who tapped home.

Get in. An important goal at a crucial time. Don't they always say that just on the stroke of half time is always the best time to score?

If they do, then sometimes those people are wrong. Rather than kicking on to close the game out, Reading's second half performance was disjointed, lethargic, and just a bit weak-willed from the division's supposed top team. Oldham equalised with 15 minutes remaining and it wasn't until then that the Royals' attack really sprung back into life. A cameo from tricky Tony Rougier (so tricky even he rarely seemed to know what he was doing) and a spate of nicely positioned free kicks weren't enough to help Reading find a winner, and indeed few could have complained if Oldham had nicked the 3 points themselves.

Wins for rivals elsewhere meant that from such a comfortable position, Reading were now in a real battle for automatic promotion. They hadn't lost in five, but had only taken 3 points in one of those games, and needed to find some sort of creative spark and get back to winning ways soon. Especially considering that one of the main promotion contenders, Brentford, would be our hosts on the final day of the season. It would have been really handy if we could have it all wrapped up by then.

Of course when that final day came, the drama had far from concluded. An optimist would say Reading were unbeaten in 9 going into the game, a pessimist would argue that Reading had only won one of their past 9 matches.

Yet a draw would still take Reading up, and when Cureton popped up to make it 1-1 and seal the deal (and yet another draw) the sense of relief was palpable. The Royals had done it, but they hadn't made it easy.