If you were to survey Reading fans for their opinion on most memorable matches held at the Madejski Stadium, one would imagine a seemingly routine, bottom-of-the-table 2-0 win over Colchester United in the middle of winter wouldn't be particularly high up the list of entries. However, this match for me is the ultimate turning point for Reading FC, the match that pinpoints exactly where the Royals started to get things right, the catalyst for growing into the club it is today.
For the preceding 70 years Reading had bummed mainly around the old Division 3 (League One in today's money) with brief forays into Divisions 4 and 2, but the club had really struggled to progress beyond its natural third tier level, very often finding themselves back at that level not long after leaving. Too good for Division 4, not good enough for Division 2. Following relegation in 1971, five promotions and four relegations occurred, but Reading always found themselves back in Division 3. Or 2, which is exactly the setting for this match.
The backdrop to the match wasn't exactly glorious. Reading sat in the relegation zone mired in a 13-match winless run stretching back to a win at Oldham in October, although during the run there was an element of cheer in the FA Cup and Football League Trophy. Tommy Burns' heavy, almost reckless spending had proven massively ill-judged as he had signed on a quantity basis, rather than quality. Burns had been sacked in September, so Alan Pardew had inherited a squad of players lacking desire, heart and, most importantly, quality. With such low calibre players as Jimmy Crawford, Sean Evers and Keith Scott, Pardew struggled to find the winning formula. The opponents of the day, Colchester United, also sat mired in trouble in the lower echelons of the table, although theirs was an expected struggle, but at the time this was a key battle in the fight against the drop.
Pardew's doubters were in full cry at this point in time, with the unpopular John Gorman his right hand man receiving additional stick for his Swindon connections. However, the turning point in fortunes occurred as a result of a gentleman's agreement. On appointing Gorman, Reading agreed to not stand in his way if Glenn Hoddle returned to management. Hoddle was duly appointed as Southampton manager in the week and the agreement was honoured in turn. As a result, somewhat out of the blue, Pardew turned to local boy and Reading fan Martin "Mad Dog" Allen to become his assistant, who immediately set about giving the squad the kick up the arse they needed. Results from this point onwards clearly showed he would have a hugely positive effect.
Additionally, in the days prior to the game, Reading signed left back Matt Robinson from Portsmouth for £150k, and striker Martin Butler would soon follow the following week just in time for him and Nicky Forster to stick one down the throats of the Preston North End supporters who would bay for blood at Deepdale (a 2-2 draw, Forster and Butler both scoring). With Stuart Gray a persistent figure in Paul Turner's physio room, Reading had struggled with consistency at left back, numerous right footed players had stepped in - Andy Bernal, Andy Gurney, Chris Casper, as well as left footed attacking midfielder Lee Hodges, all to no avail. Robinson stepped into the side seamlessly and endeared himself to Reading's then dwindling faithful with a 100mph, lung-busting performance which earned him the man of the match bottle of bubbly.
Madejski Stadium filled with hope
Reading's midweek signings had brought a sense of hope not felt around the Madejski, a sense that we had started to make decisions that were going to move us in the right direction, and that hope filtered onto the pitch as the players gave the sparsely populated Madejski Stadium crowd a performance to be proud of. The previous 13 matches seemed a distant memory as Robinson's energy down the left flank drove at the very heart of Colchester's defensive weaknesses.
With Reading attacking the North Stand in the first half, chances were consistently created and it came as no surprise after 20 minutes when Robinson drove once again down the left and passed to Jim McIntyre who in turn played the ball infield to Mark Nicholls. Chelsea loanee Nicholls took two men out of the game and passed the ball to in-form Darren Caskey in the box to the right of goal.
With the full back drawn inside, Caskey beat the keeper to his right in front of the North Stand. 1-0 Reading, and fully deserved. Colchester offered very little in attack although they did have a goal chalked off for offside just before half time when Reading's defence failed to deal with a deep free kick, the ball coming off the post to Karl Duguid who tapped home from close range.
The second half was a somewhat different story as Colchester manager Steve Whitton made a double substitution. The highly rated Lomano Tresor Lua-Lua was one of those, and immediately was the focus for much of Colchester's good work, pinging the ball left and right while also skinning Andy Gurney at every conceivable opportunity. Reading, however, were not content to sit on the lead and soak up the pressure. At this point, big money summer signing Nicky Forster had not scored at the Madejski, and despite his best efforts with Reading driving forward at every opportunity he would come agonisingly close on a number of occasions, the closest being a wonderful curving shot that came off the Colchester post.
As the match wore on Reading began to sit deeper, as is usually the way with struggling teams defending a narrow lead, and it became increasingly apparent that we were going to have to hit Colchester on the counter attack to kill them off. For once it actually happened as Reading wrapped up the match with a goal of pure quality. Substitute Hodges, who had entered the fray for McIntyre, received the ball on the left and drove forward, passed infield to Nicholls whose perfectly executed first time lay off to Caskey was as subtle a touch as you could wish to see, as was Caskey's low curving shot from 20 yards which, unlike Forster's effort that hit the post from a similar area, was perfectly placed to the left of the despairing keeper's dive.
Relief! The second goal knocked the stuffing out of Colchester and Reading saw the game out comfortably. The players received a rousing ovation post match from the 7,304 crowd, who recognised arguably the best performance of the season so far.
Having lost 12 of the previous 26 league matches Reading lost just four of the remaining 20, picking up 40 points and charging up the division to finish 10th. This was some achievement, given the fact that we finished a point and position better off than the previous season which was one generally closer to the playoffs than relegation. From this day forward Reading's—and Pardew's—reputation would only grow, and in just two years promotion was secured.
Once Pardew resigned he was closely followed by a man who is now considered a legend in Reading, Steve Coppell, whose team's 05/06 and 06/07 will always be fondly remembered. Both men were ably supported by a chairman who would dip into his pocket if the timing and justification was there, and so the club's stock began to rise from almost perennial third division fodder to a force to be respected at the top end of the Championship table.
The stadium helped immeasurably as the income streams increased, and there can be no doubt that without it we would not have been able to sustain Championship football after the financial crash in 2008 hit John Madejski hard. Since then, and with a different business model, Brian McDermott steadied a rocking ship after the ill-fated Brendan Rodgers months, taking over in the 09/10 season that bore remarkable similarities to the 99/00 season. In other remarkable Pardew similarities, McDermott would oversee a playoff final defeat in his first full season followed by a promotion the next season amongst the backdrop of the TSI saga.
But when all is said and done, Alan Pardew, who is far from the most popular man in Berkshire these days, laid the foundations for the place we find the club in today, and since the 99/00 season ended with a 1-0 win over playoff-bound Stoke City, Reading have invariably had something to play for on the final day of the season. More often than not, promotion has been a possibility. Relegation struggles have been in the Premier League of course, this past season aside, and let's not forget the final day battle for a European spot in 06/07, the absolute pinnacle of Reading FC's league success.
Reading's natural level has grown considerably since 29 January 2000. We can quite comfortably consider ourselves a top 30 club now, and until we have a run of seasons outside of that top 30 positions then that is where we should considerer ourselves at. We've had some fantastic times since that cold January day 15 years ago, the day the Reading FC rollercoaster clicked into gear. And it's been one hell of a ride since!