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Madejski Moments: Reading FC 3-2 Middlesbrough

It's been almost eight years since one of the most significant fixtures in Reading's history - the home match against Middlesbrough in August 2006, the Royals' first ever game in the Premier League. As Loyal Royals dream of a quick return to the Promised Land, Jon Keen takes a look at that special day in our history.

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

The day had dawned at last; the day so many had been looking forward to since the previous March; a day that many believed they'd never actually see in their whole lifetimes. It was 19th August 2006, and Reading were about to open their first ever Premier League campaign at the Madejski Stadium against Middlesbrough.

Feelings had been mixed all summer - amidst the excitement and the lingering disbelief, there was trepidation, and lots of it. After all, this was "little Reading", with only one significant new signing, about to mix it with the big boys. And with pundits across the football spectrum telling punters to lump their money onto Reading as sure-fire relegation certainties, beneath the hope and the excitement there was an underlying fear of humiliation.

No-one quite knew how the team would get on - would they rise to the challenge, or would they be overawed by the experience and prove the pundits right? If so, Loyal Royals knew they faced a long and painful season of potential heartache and embarrassment.

But now that time had come - a Premier League team in their own right, or a laughing-stock just there to make up the numbers? As Mark Halsey blew his whistle to get the contest under way, hearts were in mouths.

And as the match started, the worst fears looked like they were about to be realised. It did look like men against boys, with the home team nervous and seemingly out of their depth. Reading chased for possession but hardly got a touch, and looked bereft of ideas as Middlesbrough passed the ball around them with ease, coming away with the ball from just about every physical challenge. And what little possession the home team had seemed pointless - the phrase "rabbits in the headlights" springs to mind as the ball seemed more like a hot potato, to be got rid of as quickly as possible. And the score line reflected this, with Stewart Downing scoring after 11 minutes and Yakubu doubling the visitors' lead ten minutes later after a Hahnemann fumble from a free-kick - again nerves were raw and visible.

You can tell so much from a player's body language, and the Reading players looked well and truly beaten once that second Boro goal went in. Heads were down, shoulders were slumped, no-one was looking anyone else in the eye, and I certainly feared the worst for the rest of the season.


But one little thing happened that changed the match and, I'm convinced, was also the catalyst for changing the whole of Reading's season. I'm a great believer in little things being the turning points for much bigger things in football, and I still vividly remember this one this little thing for what it led to.

As was usual then when Reading had possession at the back, they played the ball to Nicky Shorey, who was close to the touchline just inside his own half. About to be closed down by a Boro player, he didn't look for a quick pass to get rid of the ball - as he and his teammates had done so many times already. Instead, he let the player come onto him, and jinked to the right with the ball, and then immediately going on a run towards the opposing penalty area, beating a couple of defenders en route. His cross to Doyle forced a save out of Schwarzer - his first of the game - as the world seemed to stand still for a fraction of a second. When it started moving again, it seemed like everything had changed.

The best part of seven years later, it seems a ludicrous conceit to say that the whole game turned on this one jink and run, but I'm absolutely convinced it did. I distinctly remember a clear - and shared - feeling that something special had happened, and that everyone in the stadium realised it together in that split second.

This included the Reading players - their whole attitude and body-language had changed, almost as if they were cartoon characters and somebody had attached a pump and inflated them. Suddenly they were more upright, with heads raised and with shoulders no-longer slumped - whereas a minute earlier they'd reeked of defeat, now they swelled with pride. An unspoken but perceptible feeling of "You know what, we can do this..." seemed to flow between everyone in a blue and white shirt. And the crowd came alive too, in a big way, as if they'd spent more than twenty-five minutes waiting for something to rouse them, and now it had they weren't going to quieten again.

And from that point onwards a match in which everything so far had gone wrong turned into one where everything went right. Shorey's inspiration was infectious, spirits were visibly lifted, and Reading started playing with the sort of unfettered confidence that had seen them win a record 106 points the previous season. Tighter and faster in midfield and at the back, they didn't allow the visitors any space, and they launched attack after attack, with the away defence being tied in knots by the pace and mobility of Kevin Doyle. Suddenly it was Middlesbrough on the back foot.

Seol Ki-Hyeon, Reading's new signing, had grown in stature along with his teammates, and was now beating the full-back and putting in dangerous crosses. Two minutes before half-time he beat him again by right side of the area, cut to the by-line and fired in a low cross, which Dave Kitson scrambled over the line at the second attempt from just a couple of yards out. That goal had been coming, but the celebrations were hardly over when Steve Sidwell smashed the equaliser in from close to the penalty spot- from a cross from Ivar Ingimarsson of all people - just a minute later. Cue blue and white heaven!

There was still time before the break for Kitson to suffer GBH from Chris Riggott - criminally under-punished with just a yellow card - and for Doyle to miss a chance to take the lead after a pin-point Graeme Murty cross. But Reading went in at half-time with heads held high, and the knowledge that the game was theirs for the taking.

When they came out again it was more of the same, with Reading still playing the fast-running, free-passing style that had served them so well the previous season, but with the injured Kitson replaced with a hungry and motivated Leroy Lita. And just ten minutes into the half, he was the one who gave Reading the lead, as another fine Seol cross fell to him and he scored emphatically from inside the Boro box. It was exactly what Reading deserved, and they controlled the rest of the game, playing in the same confident and carefree style. They came close to extending the lead a number of times, and whilst Middlesbrough did have a Mark Viduka goal disallowed for offside, it was clear to everyone exactly who would end up with the three points.

And that's how it ended, with an emphatic win (in terms of style, if not score line) despite such a poor and nervy start. And it was the best possible opening to what turned out to be such a memorable season - not just winning, but turning it around to do so from the wrong end of two quick goals. And no-one will ever be able to convince me that it wasn't all started by Nicky Shorey and that jinking run from the hallway line.

As Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: "It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important." Although he might well have been talking about Nicky Shorey himself here, that one little thing was the catalyst for one great big successful season - a season which might otherwise have gone horribly wrong.


As a postscript, just to make things even better, that evening, in their first ever appearance on Match of the Day, Reading were up first. Seven years later the feeling of just how much that must have stuck in the craw of Hanson and Lawrenson still lingers.