Reading haven’t played Luton Town in the Royal County since 2008, a year that saw the FA Cup Final contested between Pompey and Cardiff and John Sergeant appear on Strictly. And yet, when the fixture list arrived in the summer, Luton at home in November felt like a ‘proper’ second-tier game.
My only memories of Luton are the inaugural game at the MadStad and the year they beat us during our march towards an eventually historic promotion to the Premier League. Over the last decade, we’ve not been on each other’s radars and to be honest, I’ve been ok with that.
Stretching my memory further, I remember a spate of evenly fought and gritty affairs around the turn of the new millennium which saw us both eek out results against one another. Not pretty viewing, but standard fare back in ‘those days’, when teams in Division Two were filled with aggressive men and failed superstars.
Talking of fare, regular readers of this column will know that I have recently dabbled in a vegan diet at the footie. It’s an experiment that may well be tried again, but one that, for this game, was abandoned completely. More on that later....
After the Millwall game, I was struck with the honesty, directness and simplicity the team showed to beat those little rotters from The New Den. Indeed, Bowen spoke glowingly about the things we did well in the game post-match, mainly by not losing the game itself.
Pre-match I reverted to type. A simple breakfast of frosted wheats was complemented by two wonderful slices of wholegrain bread and peanut butter. As I meandered through the morning, my thoughts turned to refreshments pre-game. The Monks Retreat (which is easily the most convenient, cost-effective and ambient pub in Reading (and if you don’t agree, I’ll fight you) was the destination to calm those pre-game nerves with like-minded football scholars/friends.
The rain (which I’d describe as torrential and frankly disgusting) was a reminder that winter was here and that we were rapidly approaching the midway mark of the season. Every point mattered. What also mattered was keeping my hair dry. Call me demanding but being in my mid-thirties means that I’m not quite sure how long my hairline has left, so keeping my locks in great condition is a really important aspect of my grooming routine.
Thank God then that the megastore has released its ‘winter range’: a hearty mix of large coats and tremendously detailed bobble hats. The quality on these items is, I’d say, second to none. I cannot be the only fan who danced around my living room like a drunk uncle at a family reunion on hearing the news in the summer that Puma were no longer making our shirts and other clobber. The fine people at Macron have (apart from making us believe we are all grossly fat with their ridiculous sizing system) provided us with something wonderful to wear at last.
And so it was the purchase of a very fetching bobble hat that saw me approach the folks at Anonymous Coffee with a renewed skip in my step. But disaster was just around the corner, waiting to squash my excitement like a large tyre crushing an easily recyclable bottle on a petrol-stained road. Anonymous weren’t there. No sign. No apology. Nothing. Just a large empty space where coffee goodness should be.
Shattered and emotionally drained, I took myself back towards Gate 5. And then I did something I haven’t done in years: I ate before the game. I’d heard stories of John the Greek, a lovely chap who I assume is actually of Greek origin, who served souvlaki. And that’s what I went for. I opted for the single portion: a balanced meal of chicken, salad items and sauces inside a flat bread. On the side, some chilli spiced fries.
As I bit into this Mediterranean dish, I realised that he’d placed oregano inside the dish itself. This may not be significant, but oregano is actually my favourite herb and the one I’d deem to be the most underrated of all herb items. After the meal, I was satisfied and pleasantly full, ready for the 90 minutes of total football I’d promised myself.
Upon entering the stadium, I sensed the feeling of arrogance surrounding B13. Recent results had been kind to Reading and this reflected in the ‘flippant snacking’ that was occurring before my eyes. I saw one cozily wrapped lady take a swig from a coffee cup purchased on the concourse. Nothing arrogant about that perhaps, except to say that nestled next to her was a home-bought flask, no doubt containing some sort of hot liquid.
I’d never seen that kind of behaviour in the Dolan before and was very close to calling a steward as she was clearly a visiting fan. But then the game kicked off and I calmed myself, safe in the knowledge that Our Saviour Mark Bowen had put out his strongest team once again and we were just 90 mins from gaining another much-needed three points.
Reading forced themselves ahead through a well-timed header from Morrison. And then Ovie decided to play ‘anything you can do, I can do’ after his effort mirrored Obita’s last week to put the Royals 2-0 up for the second week running. Among the crowd, things got silly. People of the ages 18 and above feverishly reached for their mobile devices made by various companies (who for legal reasons I can’t mention here) to place ridiculous bets: 2-1, 4-0, 6-0 in Reading’s favour - the list was endless.
Towards the end of the first half, a lovely moment where Miazga and Yiadom held hands for a brief period was only bettered by Rafael asking the ball boy to slow down his return of the ball. Wonderful vibes. A two-litre bottle of Pepsi Max was cracked open by a gentleman wearing a tartan bucket hat two rows in front of me. Half time = party time.
The interval rolled into the second half (as it always does) and the sky above us turned a strange, purple hue. Reading threatened in spells and let the game play out, having effectively smashed the spirit of the visitors in the first 45 minutes. McCleary completed his redemption from outcast to nailed-on squad member by slotting home a goal he created himself and celebrated with a muted lift of the shirt. At least 45% of the Dolan was on its feet now as they sensed the end was near. Sure enough, seats began to empty and the punters made their way down the steps towards the rain and out into the night as the digital clock ticked towards a completed 45 minutes.
At times, the football was delicious. There was urgency around the passing and a desire to create rather than stagnate. The Royals should have scored more and in truth, 3-0 flattered the Hatters. However, Reading need to be much better in order to compete with the more accomplished teams in the league. The only negative is that we now head into an international break when in reality, it would be better to keep playing to keep the momentum going.
Personally, I now have yet another dish to call upon on match day and the switch from vegan to carnivore proved dividends for this game. It seems that, for now, the same could be said of the managerial change too, with the team now unbeaten in four.
I feel my new bobble hat is in for an interesting ride over the next few winter months down at the Mad Stad.