There are times in life that you think something is your destiny. In football, this feeling doesn’t happen often, but the playoff campaign in 2001 was one of those rare occasions where you felt like, whatever happens, it’s our year. Cue Barry Hunter...and Anthony Rougier.
Alan Pardew had inherited an expensively assembled squad from Tommy Burns that was significantly below the standard required at third tier level. The appointment of Martin Allen as assistant, coupled with astute but critical signings, was the catalyst to finally beginning to produce positive results in the second half of 1999/2000. The form carried across into 2000/01 and going into the season’s final three games Reading sat in second position with promotion in their own hands. Sadly, the wheels came off with a 2-2 draw at home to Walsall which tilted the balance in favour of Rotherham, and then at Layer Road with a 2-1 defeat. The final day 3-3 draw with seventh placed Bournemouth was immaterial in many ways as Reading were assured of third place, but the result did have a bearing on who we met in the playoffs as Nicky Forster’s 88th minute equaliser gifted Wigan sixth position at the Cherries’ expense.
4000 Royals made the 200 mile trip to the JJB to witness a sterling defensive performance that was rewarded with a goalless draw. Wigan dominated proceedings throughout, but couldn’t find the breakthrough, and the result provided the perfect platform to complete the job. But the match at the Madejski was a very different beast altogether, and anyone who was at there on that Wednesday evening will only recall with fondness the manner of victory. Wigan took the lead with a low Kevin Nicholls free kick in the first half, and then proceeded to defend with aplomb, but with time ticking away the trump card was played as Nicky Forster was introduced with just 10 minutes remaining and he proceeded to take the game directly to the Latics.
With just four minutes remaining, Forster took on two Wigan defenders, crossed low into the six yard box which was only parried out to Martin Butler who slammed home. Tie saved, and extra time...or so we thought. Three minutes later Wigan’s defence left Forster in acres of space in which to run in behind and latch onto a simple ball over the top. A desperate lunge from behind felled the flying striker in the box, penalty given. Jamie Cureton took responsibility for securing the Cardiff date, but after a long delay fluffed his lines as Carroll flung himself to his left to parry, but only to the feet of the onrushing Forster who sidefooted home. Limbs and voices went into uncontrollable spasm, and we went on to see out the remainder of the game with no real scares in front of goal.
And then the final. Bittersweet memories of 38,000 Royals hopelessly outnumbering the pocket of Walsall support in the opposite corner. On the then notoriously awful Millenium Stadium pitch, Cureton swept home from a long throw and flick on to put Reading 1-0 up after half an hour. Two minutes later, McIntyre hit the bar from an Igoe cross. Game changer. Despite all of our dominance, Walsall equalised just after half time as Don Goodman swept home from close range, and the remainder of the match was even as both sides went close on numerous occasions, and extra time was called for to separate the teams. Once again Reading took the lead as former Saddler Martin Butler flicked home a Phil Parkinson ball into the box, and it looked like Walsall’s race was run but the stinging hand of Lady Luck smacked Reading squarely in the chops with 12 minutes left as the most bizarre own goal knocked Reading for six.
A burst into the box from Dean Keates was seemingly ended at source by substitute Barry Hunter, whose row Z clearance was exactly what was needed. Sadly, Anthony Rougier, who was tracking the Keates run stumbled as he also attempted to challenge. On his way down, the Hunter clearance smacked into his head and ricocheted past a stranded Phil Whitehead for 2-2. Two minutes later, Barry Hunter got too close to Darren Byfield who received a ball to feet, spun and launched a low, speculative effort from distance. Whitehead was beaten low to his left, 3-2, and Walsall survived a number of scares before the final whistle ensured more playoff heartbreak for the massed ranks of Reading supporters.
So Why Did We Fail?
On paper, Reading seemed the stronger outfit having a side that I think, player for player, was individually better than Walsall’s. However, although the Saddlers finished a comfortable five points behind the Royals, their league record was remarkably similar to that of Reading with 23 wins to our 25, 12 draws to our 11, and 11 defeats to our 10. Even the goalscoring was similar, 79 to 86 scored, 50 to 52 conceded. Undoubtedly, their team was the match of Reading. Crucially perhaps, they had the measure of the Royals that season having won 2-1 at the Bescot in November and the aforementioned 2-2 draw at the Madejski in April.
In truth, on the day, Walsall manager Ray Graydon played his cards perfectly, although there is an element of having no other choice in the end. It would be almost unheard of in this day and age, but Graydon didn’t make a sub until well into extra time, whereas Alan Pardew played two of his very attack minded bench in an attempt to win the game in 90 minutes. Nicky Forster came on for Sammy Igoe midway through the second half, and Anthony Rougier replaced Jim McIntyre around the 80 minute mark leaving just Scott Howie, Barry Hunter and Darren Caskey on the bench. Graydon, on the other hand, knowing Walsall were more than holding their own, was happy with his lot and accepted extra time with the same team that started the match.
However, having fallen behind early in extra time and with nothing to lose, Graydon went all in and made three subs at once, Tom Bennett, Paul Hall and Jorge Leitao making way for Matt Gadsby, Gabor Bukran and Darren Byfield. Pardew was then forced into a change as Adrian Williams was forced to make way for Barry Hunter at half time in extra time due to excessive cramp.
And there was the problem for Reading. In attempting to win the game in 90 minutes, particularly so early as the 60th minute, Pardew sacrificed fresh legs later in the game. Graydon waited...and waited, and the freshness of his three subs, particularly on the heavy and slippery pitch, proved key. I therefore think the reasons why we failed can be summed up as thus:- 1) while they didn’t harm the shape or attacking nous of the side, the substitution gambles in an attempt to win the game at 1-1 didn’t come off, meaning 2) the canny Ray Graydon, having let the game run into Extra Time, let the game run as far as he could before he had to make a change. His hand was forced into a make or break situation, but because it was so late in the game the Reading legs were tired and didn’t quite have enough to save the game once the third trickled in. And lastly, 3) we suffered the absolute pits in terms of luck with that second equaliser.
In truth, while this defeat hurt, it wasn’t as devastating to me as 1995. In fact I’d argue this was the least harming of our playoff defeats. At the time, of course, it was painful to take. Reading were desperate to regain their second tier status as the infrastructure and investment had outgrown tier three, and a defeat such as this can make a fan think “what if this keeps on happening”? But in hindsight, there was no question we would be as strong the following season, if not stronger, and so winning promotion was just a matter of time.
Having said that, the circumstances of victory over Wigan made everybody feel “it’s our year” which made the defeat to Walsall harder to take, but if there’s one thing I learnt in 2001 is that the footballing gods will sometimes emotionally draw you in and mess with your head, before chewing you up and spitting you out in an inglorious mess. Since that playoff final I’ve considered destiny to be a bit of a bitch.
2017 Team v 2001 Team
Al-Habsi v Whitehead
Whitehead – adequate for Division 2 but ingloriously ditched by Alan Pardew in favour of Marcus Hahnemann soon after promotion a year later.
Gunter v Murty
I need make no argument in favour of Graeme Murty for this one.
Moore v Viveash
Adi Viveash was a capable and cultured central defender but Liam Moore is streets ahead in this battle.
McShane v A Williams
Tough one this. Adi in his pomp was every bit the equal of McShane, but edges it as he was home grown. Sorry Paul.
Blackett v Robinson
The effect Rooster had on the side and the positivity his relentless forward surges brought to the stands was a key reason why the tide turned immediately after his signing. For that alone, he gets the vote.
Obita v McIntyre
McIntyre, signed as a striker, ended up on the left. A capable but unspectacular player, he failed to truly win over the Reading faithful and found his level in Division 2. Obita is a far more gifted player, and an academy product.
D Williams v Parkinson
I’d be lynched if I didn’t choose Parky wouldn’t I?!
Swift v Harper
Nine years at Reading, just shy of 350 appearances, a key component of the 106 team and a player who more than held his own in the Premier League. Swift has some way to go to equal the achievements of James Harper.
Kelly v Igoe
I loved Sammy Igoe. Diminutive, a game changer, but sadly his genuine qualities were all too rarely seen and he faded in and out of matches. Kelly, on the other hand, is one heck of a talent. His ball playing quality is phenomenal and the call up for the Republic of Ireland all but capped his season.
McCleary v Butler
Difficult to compare as the two players aren’t all that similar. Butler scored 28 goals that season, but was a one-season-wonder in a Reading shirt and was never quite the same player after his leg break. McCleary’s class is there for all to see, and he’s a proper winger. Always difficult for any other position to win over a winger when I’m judging them!
Kermorgant v Cureton
Urgh, what a choice. I think purely for the effect Cureton’s goals had on the side, the effect one particular goal had on our history, and the fact he was the last player to reach 30 goals in a Reading side swings it. What a choice to be forced into making though...
READING 2017 5-6 READING 2001