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Reading FC's Play-Off History: 2002/03

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Would it be third time lucky for Reading?

Naylor scores Wolves second Photo By Michael Steele/Getty Images

So far we've dealt with soul crushing defeats in play-off finals but today we'll look back on a semi-final defeat that might just have been a good thing for Reading FC.

What Happened?

Not much had changed between Dave's look at the 2000/01 campaign and this one just two years later. Alan Pardew was still at the helm and the squad was littered with familiar faces from a team who had followed up Cardiff disappointment with automatic promotion back to the Championship 12 months later.

Yet Pardew knew that our style had to change to cope with a higher division and so the likes of Sammy Igoe, Matt Robinson, Barry Hunter, Tony Rougier, Martin Butler and Jamie Cureton were phased out and replaced with future club legends in Marcus Hahnemann, Nicky Shorey, Steve Sidwell and a fully fit Nicky Forester. It was Forster who would be the key man that season, often leading the line on his own and scoring 16 times from 35 starts to help us seal a fourth placed finish on 79 points.

The team also benefited from a very solid defence, the fourth best in the division which conceded just 46 goals in as many games. That was helped by one of the greatest loan spells we've seen at the Madejski Stadium, when injury ravaged Matt Upson arrived from Arsenal and rebuilt his career in a wonderful three-month loan spell that ended with seven consecutive clean sheets.

All that set up a play-off tie with fifth placed Wolves, who were trying to finally make it back to the Premiership after three play-off failures in eight season a string of near misses under Graham Taylor, Mark McGhee and Colin Lee. The Wolves team was filled with experience, including former Manchester United pair Dennis Irwin and Paul Ince, plus some impressive youngsters in keeper Matt Murray, full-back Lee Naylor and Jolean Lescott.

As in our previous play-off tilts, at first, things all seemed to be going swimmingly. Forster gave us a 25th minute lead at Molinuex and Reading's defence were doing a fine job at keeping Kenny Miller, George Ndah and Nathan Blake quiet.

Then, Forster got hurt.

It's hard to overstate how badly this injury messed with our game plan but today it'd be comparable to Kermorgant getting crocked, only far worse. Forster's pace and ability to hold the ball up was key to our strategy and without him Wolves could begin to push further forward without fear of being stung on the break. Sure enough, a Graeme Murty own goal on 75 minutes was followed up by a Lee Naylor free-kick nine minutes later to put us 2-1 behind. To add to our misery, Nathan Tyson saw red in the final minute to truly end hopes of coming back to the Mad Stad on level terms.

Blake goes down after challenge from Williams Photo By Michael Steele/Getty Images

With no Forster for the second leg, Pardew turned to Jamie Cureton and Darius Henderson in a 4-4-2 to try and break Wolves down. We huffed and puffed but unlike the Wigan game two years before, there was to be no happy ending for Reading, who drew what would be the second of four blanks we've sat through in home play-off ties. Alex Rae killed us off with a goal nine minutes from time.

So What Went Wrong?

There were a few minor points but most of all Forster's injury.

If Fozzy hadn't been forced to go off it's hard to see Reading losing at Molinuex and with no lead to defend Wolves would have been even more vulnerable at the Madejski.

However, failing in 2003 might just have been the best thing to happen to Reading as it eventually led to Pardew leaving, Steve Coppell arriving and the evolution of our greatest ever side. It's hard to imagine a squad that included Kevin Watson, John Mackie, Darius Henderson, Andy Hughes, and Steve Brown putting up much of a fight at Premier League level and who knows what might have happened to the club long-term.

Fan Memories

Unlike Wembley and Cardiff it was hard to really feel either angry or upset after this exit. There was no feeling of 'that's our big chance gone' instead there was plenty of hope that Pardew could go on and build an even better team, something that would ultimately happen under Coppell.

Yet the sad thing about this tie was the conduct of Wolves fans seated above Reading at Molinuex. Objects were being thrown down on to the Reading fans, with some of them fairly grim to say the least. I also remember being goaded by Wolves fans outside the ground despite being in a group of two that included myself and Wimb senior... hardly the world's most fearsome Reading firm.

From that point on I've never quite taken to Wolves or their fans, which is a shame given that I'm sure it was only an idiotic minority of a generally fine fanbase.

2017 Team v 2003 Team

(Here I've gone for the first leg starting lineup as that was Pardew's favoured style)

Al-Habsi v Hahnemann

Not as much in this as you'd think but I still feel better with Marcus between the sticks than Ali.

Gunter v Murty

Impossible not to pick the greatest right-back we've had in the Madejski era.

McShane v Williams

In 1995 I went for Williams but this time around I'm going for McShane, as Ady wasn't quite the player of eight years previous, or even two years before.

Moore v Brown

Steve Brown was fine, he was a stopper and he had his moments but was he a great defender, meh not on Moore's level anyway.

Blackett v Hughes

Utility man v defender isn't a totally fair comparison but Blackett has moved around a fair bit so I'll plump for him to compare to Hughes, who edges this one based on his knack of popping up in important moments and an ability to slot in anywhere.

Obita v Shorey

No brainer here, sorry Jordan.

Kelly v Harper

I enjoyed James Harper but he doesn't have the extra skill and ability to pick a pass that Kelly adds to the side.

Swift v Sidwell

Again, sorry John but right now you can't compare to a man who would soon be voted best player outside the Premier League. However, Swift is well placed to change that if he continues to progress over the next year or two.

Beerens v Chadwick

Who remembers that Luke Chadwick played for Reading? I'd certainly forgotten. The former United man wasn't bad but he didn't exactly bring much to the side. Beerens can be hit or miss but when he hits, he hits.

McCleary v Henderson

Darius was fine and certainly improved after leaving Reading but again, was a backup player in the Forster story.

Kermorgant v Forster

I love what Kermorgant's brought to the side but Forster was just born to play the lone striker role. He could do just about anything and we'd have probably made the Premier League if he'd stayed fit.

TOTAL

Reading 2017 5-6 Reading 2003