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The Oppo - Cardiff City

After two home matches, the Royals are back on the road and head west across the river Severn on a trip to a familiar foe and a 55th league meeting with Cardiff City.

Michael Steele/Getty Images

Head to Head

Cardiff hold marginally the better of the record between the clubs with 19 wins to Reading’s 18, and there have been 17 draws. Cardiff have had more than the measure over the Royals in recent years as we go into the match without a win in 12 league meetings, the Royals’ last victory against the Bluebirds coming in April 2005 as a comical Glenn Loovens own goal was sandwiched between the only brace of James Harper’s career and the seemingly inevitable Dave Kitson and Kevin Doyle strikes. Reading ran riot at Ninian Park that day, winning 5-2 and doubling the tally of goals scored against Cardiff to 10 in season 05/06 after the 5-1 win at the Madejski on New year’s Day.

Since that day of course, the Bluebirds have moved across Sloper Road, taking the keys to the Cardiff City Stadium in August 2009, and the Royals are yet to win on any of their regular league visits there. So far, two draws in their opening two visits, the latter the ill-tempered 2-2 in 2011, have been followed by three passive surrenders – 3-1 in January 2012, Alex Pearce’s personal nightmare in November 2014 as he scored an own goal, conceded a penalty and was sent off in the first 45 minutes of a 2-1 defeat, and then the 2-0 defeat last season which went some way to losing Steve Clarke his job.

Despite the marginally inferior league record against Cardiff, Reading have a better goalscoring record having notched on 82 occasions compared to Cardiff’s 76, in part aided by that 10-goal season in 2005/06, as well as having conceded just 12 goals in all of the league meetings at Elm Park. The last of the dozen conceded was an own goal scored by Welshman Jeff Hopkins who slotted the ball past Shaka Hislop under pressure, equalising a Michael Gilkes opener in April 94. Reading dropped two points that day but it mattered little in the end as we all know Reading still won the division, a point ahead of Port Vale and fully 35 ahead of Cardiff who finished up 19th (and we’ll give the heaviest defeat of that season a convenient swerve).

Of course, it would be remiss to not make at least a passing mention to the two victories the Royals have notched up at the Cardiff City Stadium, firstly in the ultimately ill-fated playoff campaign in 2011 as Reading memorably won 3-0 in the playoff second leg courtesy of a Shane Long double and Jobi McAnuff’s memorable clincher which secured a first trip to the new Wembley stadium, and then in the FA Cup 4th round in January 2015 as Steve Clarke oversaw the magnificent run to the FA Cup semi-final, in part thanks to the 2-1 win courtesy of Olly Norwood’s first goal in Reading colours and a last minute Hal Robson-Kanu effort.

Played

RFC Wins

Draws

CCFC Wins

RFC Goals Scored

CCFC Goals Scored

Ninian Park

22

7

5

10

31

42

Cardiff City Stadium

5

0

2

3

5

9

Cardiff Overall

27

7

7

13

36

51

Elm Park

16

8

6

2

31

12

Madejski Stadium

11

3

4

4

15

13

Reading Overall

27

11

10

6

46

25

Overall

54

18

17

19

82

76

Memorable Match

As Reading slugged it out with the very best English football had to offer between August 2006 and May 2008, Cardiff continued their gradual upward climb, building brick by brick, and come the first meeting between the clubs after the Royal’s relegation back to the Championship the Bluebirds had turned into a very different beast to the one visited in April 2005. The fixture computer had dealt Reading their last league visit to Ninian Park a late November date, and typical of matches between the two sides the match proved to be eventful.

Ninian Park, particularly after the roof was placed on the Grange End, was perfect for a fantastic atmosphere, Cardiff supporters being typically hostile, unwelcoming, and this occasion fared no differently as 17,154 English and Welshmen raised the decibel level considerably throughout, and on the back of that vociferous support Cardiff made by far the faster start, testing the Royal’s back line of Armstrong, Rosenior, Bikey and Ingimarsson from the off, and as the match failed to descend into a more rhythmic flow it seemed inevitable that the Bluebird’s pressure would see them strike early, and that’s exactly what happened as the defence buckled with 10 minutes on the clock. A clever ball forward was flicked on by Michael Chopra and Wayne Routledge stole through on goal, his pace taking him beyond Bikey and Ingimarsson, and planted a low strike past Hahnemann in front of the Canton Stand for his first Cardiff goal.

Far from going on to press their advantage, however, the goal served to galvanise Reading who equalised quickly. A Cardiff corner was easily cleared to Jimmy Kebe in acres of space on the left flank who used his electric pace to great effect, waltzing past the covering defenders with ease, getting to the byeline and pulling back for Kevin Doyle, who was in an excellent run of goalscoring form with this goal being his 15th of the season, and 52nd in total in Reading colours.

After 15 minutes of blood and thunder the game finally calmed and lapsed into a more typical ebb and flow as Reading played their typical away game, sitting back as a tight unit and looking to hit the home side on the break. That was until referee Peter Walton left most people in the stadium bemused by pulling his red card out in the direction of Andre Bikey after an innocuous aerial challenge with Michael Chopra on the halfway line. Reading shuffled the pack slightly as a result, Noel Hunt made way for Brynjar Gunnarsson while Kalifa Cisse stepped back to plug the gap at the back, but with Cardiff sensing blood the onslaught ensued. Despite defending stoutly, however, the Bluebirds were given another helping hand by another innocuous decision by Peter Walton 10 minutes later as the referee pointed to the penalty spot after an apparent foul by Marcus Hahnemann, again on Chopra. Ross McCormack scored the penalty for his 12th goal of the season.

And that was it until half time as Reading struggled to contain Cardiff who were looking to kill the game off, but Steve Coppell’s undoubted ability to organise a side in adversity proved invaluable as Reading acquitted themselves excellently in the second half, sticking to a game plan of getting two banks of four behind the ball and using Doyle’s strength and pace as an outlet, keeping it tight at the back and attacking with intelligence when the opportunity arose. Ultimately the Royals secured the draw their second half performance warranted thanks to an excellent first time strike from Brynjar Gunnarson on 50 minutes, and from there the remainder of the game saw few scares, the defensive line seeing out the threat of Routledge, Chopra, Bothroyd and McCormack fairly comfortably despite the Cardiff pressure.

Reading lost ground on Wolves and Birmingham at the top of the table on the night, but the feeling was one of positivity coming out of the ground as a point gained under the circumstances, and the six point gap was far from insurmountable as Reading found themselves second by Christmas thanks to an eight-match unbeaten run of which this match was the first (having suffered a surprise 2-1 defeat three days previous to Southampton). Sadly, as mentioned in previous articles, a catastrophic loss of form for Reading and put paid to automatic promotion and Reading went on to lose in the playoffs to Burnley.

They Played For Both Teams

Seven articles in, and whilst I have touched on key backroom members of the 2005/06 season who played for both clubs previously, I am yet to cover the career of a member of the 106 team. The urge to do so in this case proves irresistible, with the unorthodox career path of James Harper under profile.

A graduate of the Arsenal academy, where his first team initiation ceremony is apparently legendary, it was always unlikely that a young player would be given a first team chance with the likes of seasoned professionals like Ray Parlour, Patrick Vieira, Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires ahead of them, and an 18 year old Harper made a one-month loan move to 3rd Division Cardiff City in January 2001. His three appearances for the Welshmen saw no defeats as two heavy victories, 6-1 against Exeter and 4-1 against Plymouth, were the sandwich to the meat of a 1-1 draw at Roots Hall, Southend. However, a red card in the game against Plymouth ended Harper’s time at Ninian Park. The spell in Wales did wonders for Harper though, as Alan Pardew did his homework on the player and less than a month later signed Harper from the Gunners for a fee of around £400k. Harper was to form an ultimately formidable central midfield partnership with Steve Sidwell, with Coppell often describing the player as his "water carrier". Not a typical English blood and thunder midfielder, Harper was responsible for picking the ball up off the defence and setting up attacks, and contributing to covering exposed teammates where needed. His style of play complimented Sidwell’s like no other, and for four seasons the pair formed one of the best partnerships in the Championship at the time.

Harper was a Reading player for nine seasons, racking up 348 appearances in total, scoring 26 goals including a memorable strike on his debut against then promotion rivals Rotherham United. Having played superbly on his debut Harper was to be in and out of the side for the remainder of the season as Pardew shuffled the pack regularly, playing 11 of the final 17 matches. As a measure of Pardew’s belief, however, Harper surprisingly started ahead of star player and fan favourite Darren Caskey in the despairing playoff final against Walsall.

Over the course of 2001/02 Harper drifted in and out of the side. As a ball playing midfielder who always lacked physicality, he struggled to adapt to the hurly-burly of Division 2 football, however he still made 25 appearances in the league, playing a key role in Reading’s successful quest for promotion, and it was in the higher level that Harper’s talents really started to come to the fore as he made 36 appearances in the league plus both unfortunate defeats in the playoffs to Wolves. He was named player of the year for his efforts. Having nailed his qualities very much to the mast both Pardew and then Steve Coppell continued to utilise his ball playing qualities, and it was under Steve Coppell that his place and role in the team was cemented. It was Alan Pardew who succeeded in bringing Harper’s Arsenal clubmate Sidwell to the Madejski, and it was Steve Coppell who really moulded the central midfield partnership as Harper was one of the first names on the teamsheet every week under his tutelage. Such was his importance to the Coppell side, over the next five seasons Harper made 201 league appearances in 214 matches, missing just one league match in the record breaking 05/06 season (when Coppell reshuffled his pack late in the late season dead rubber against Stoke) and then went on to start every single Premier League match in 06/07 and 07/08.

08/09 was very much a downward spiral for Harper as the second half of the season was very stop-start, with short but numerous spells out of the side not aiding the fluency of the team with Coppell searching in vain for the winning formula. Harper made no appearances in the final six matches or the playoff semi final versus Burnley. Still with a year to go on his contract though, Brendan Rodgers utilised Harper’s services in five matches, starting the two League Cup matches against Burton Albion and Barnsley, and three sub appearances in the league matches versus Newcastle United, Swansea City and Sheffield United. It seems a very ignominious manner for such a fantastic servant to Reading FC to bow out of the Madejski, but Harper was shifted out of the club on a sort of "swap loan" deal with Sheffield United, which saw Brian Howard make his way down south, a deal which was made permanent in both directions in the January transfer window, Harper signing a deal with the Blades until the end of the season. 34 appearances in total for the Yorkshiremen was not enough to convince Kevin Blackwell to renew his contract and Harper became a free agent for the first time in his career.

Newly relegated Hull City came calling however, as Nigel Pearson offered the player a trial and he was subsequently offered a two-year deal to team up with former Royals teammate Liam Rosenior. After a late October debut Harper retained his place in the side and scored his first and only goal for the Tigers, ironically against Reading in a 1-1 draw at the KC Stadium. Harper made 28 appearances for Hull in 10/11, yet the next season began the real decline of Harper’s career as he made just one substitute appearance in the league for Hull, and in January 2012 he was loaned to Wycombe Wanderers who were struggling at the wrong end of League 1 at the time. Four defeats in five appearances was never going to endear him to the Chairboys faithful, he returned to Hull, didn’t play another minute of football that season and was released from Hull City after his contract expired at the end of the season.

During the close season it was locally reported that Harper was training with Hungerford Town in order to maintain his fitness, and it was Dean Saunders, who at the time was manager of Doncaster Rovers, gave his agent the call offering him a one-year deal. Harper was a regular in Rolvers’ side in the first half of the season, but Saunders resigned midway through the season to join Wolves’ forlorn struggle against a second successive relegation, and the experienced Brian Flynn took the reins at the Keepmoat to the end of the season. Unfortunately for Harper, despite playing a critical part of Rover’s successful promotion push to the end of January, Harper was to make just four more appearances under Flynn, but despite the club renewing his contract new manager Paul Dickov failed to play him at all in the first half of 13/14 and Harper left Rovers by mutual consent in January 14. A short term contract with Barnet in the Conference National offered some respite, where he made six appearances in the Bees’ successful return to the Football League, but once again he would not be offered a new deal.

Since his release from Barnet, Harper has played in the Conference South for Basingstoke for 18 months, narrowly missing out on promotion after a playoff defeat to Whitehawk. He has since been released and can now be seen ploughing the fields of Southern League Premier Division Hayes & Yeading’s new stadium, the SkyEx Community Stadium.

The downward spiral of a player with the quality of James Harper is hard to fathom. It happens to players sometimes, yet it is incomprehensible that such a key cog in a record breaking team should not be able to secure himself a good standard of football at another club for any length of time. In some ways Harper was a decade ahead of his time as the current fashion for three-man midfields would surely suit him better than a two, and perhaps Steve Coppell should be afforded greater credit than he is already for squeezing the absolute maximum out of the player. In Harper, Reading really did have a player that, as a part of the whole, was perhaps the most valuable sum of the part.

Grudge Moment

Far be it for me to tar every Cardiff supporter with the same brush, I have of course met some very convivial Welshmen in my time which is only natural given my personal connections to the principality, and in fact have been given a degree of "shelter" by a pair of Bluebirds in 2005 after strolling into the Ivor Davies only to be seemingly surrounded by Burberry and stonewashed clothing with colours on. It felt like these chaps saved my bacon on that day, but of course these chaps are realistic enough to know that there are certain clubs that carry a reputation. It is to Cardiff’s benefit that they have attempted to weed out their troublemaking contingent, particularly since the move to the Cardiff City Stadium, however back in the late 90’s their reputation was fierce, and on the days they travelled en masse the local plod invariably had their work cut out.

1997/98 was a poor season for Reading as Terry Bullivant’s Royals headed for relegation (of course overseen latterly by Tommy Burns), but a similarly poor season for Cardiff saw them fare well enough in the FA Cup with victories over Slough Town, Hendon and Oldham Athletic. Reading made hard work of Cheltenham Town in the 3rd Round, and the sides were subsequently drawn against each other in round 4. The first match, a 1-1 draw, passed off without incident, South Wales Police ensuring order was maintained, however the replay at Elm Park remains infamous in Berkshire as Cardiff wreaked havoc in the town and at Elm Park. Personally, I bore witness to just the trouble in the stadium and distinctly recall the catalyst as a chant of "Eng-er-lund" from the South Bank fully 30 minutes prior to kick off. Cue missiles firing from the Town End, and members of the Cardiff contingent attempting to confront the home supporters. I vividly remember the steward, a lady whose name escapes me, being carried away, seemingly seriously injured at the time although it turned out that she had returned to the front line after half an hour or so of treatment.

Bluebirds supporters also continually threatened to jump the barriers in front of them, physically deterred from doing so by the massed stewarding and policing ranks. When they scored there ensued the best crowd bounce I have ever seen, with associated pitch invasion by half a dozen nutters, and there then followed renewed goading, baiting, and missiles. Karma and all that though, the match went to extra time and penalties, and during the second period of extra time an announcement over the public address system informed Cardiff supporters that the last train home was due at 10.23PM and would not be waiting. The announcement was made at about 10.15. How we laughed!!

Cardiff always travel well to Reading, and there have been instances of trouble from Cardiff supporters since, including station buses trashed in March 99, and most notably on Boxing Day 2008 when an Adam Federici equaliser sparked a series of skirmishes at the end after Michael Chopra thought he had won the match for Cardiff. One thinks Michael Duberry didn’t exactly endear himself to the Bluebirds that day either.

It must be said, as previously stated, that Cardiff City have done very well to try to remove this element of their support, to the extent that they won Family Club of the Year I believe in 2010, however it will always rankle with me as a Reading fan that the last FA Cup tie at dear old Elm Park was overshadowed by hoards of Welsh idiots intent on violence and disruption.

Fact, Interesting or Otherwise

Robin Friday, who else? The stories told in and around Reading are frequent and well known, and his transfer to Cardiff was typical of a man who simply didn’t give a f**k having travelled from Reading with just a platform ticket, getting himself arrested on arrival at Cardiff Central station and having to get his new manager to bail him.

Of course, the immortal scene preserved in time is of Friday sticking the "V" sign up at Luton goalkeeper Milija Aleksic. Friday had repeatedly clashed with the keeper in the early stages of the match, and was lectured by the referee for a late challenge later on in the first half. Friday offered his hand in conciliation but Aleksic reacted angrily to the gesture and refused to shake, Friday took this as a personal affront and once the resulting free kick was taken Friday chased back, won the ball, and then went on to round the keeper and slot into the net. Jogging back to the halfway line, Friday stuck the "V" sign in Aleksic’s direction in "celebration", earning himself a booking in the process.

Not only did the man have a biography written by former Oasis bassist Paul McGuigan which featured this very image on the cover, the moment has been preserved in musical archives as the Super Furry Animals used the iconic photo for the first release of their 1996 single "The Man Don’t Give A F**k", and featured a dedication to Friday for "his stand against the man". Hopefully the Royals can make a stand Friday would have been proud of this weekend.