When I was invited to write this article, two games stood out: Southampton away when we effectively won promotion at the title at the expense of our nearest league rivals, which was arguably the most enjoyable game of the decade for me, and Cardiff City away in May 2018 when we secured our status as a Championship team.
I’ve chosen the latter for largely negative reasons. Actually, scrub that: it’s for completely negative reasons. The season itself was a complete and utter disaster. Having got to within a whisker of the Premier League the previous season, we were faced with turmoil on and off the pitch the following season, culminating in a ‘do or die’ finale against our M4 neighbours.
Jaap Stam was dispensed with earlier in the season and replaced with Paul Clement, easily the most inept, boring and stagnant manager we’d employed over the decade and possibly even over the past 20 years. He was dreadful. A failure to capitalise on the success of last season ultimately cost Stam his job and the lack of any decent recruitment had led Reading to stumble through the season and leave it to the last game to officially secure survival. Had we got relegated, I honestly feel it would have been the biggest disaster in the club’s history as a mass exodus of the high earners and the inexperience of the youth players would have possibly seen us relegated once again the following season.
The week leading up to the game had seen me go 360 with my predictions. At the start of the week, having been utterly savaged by Ipswich Town 4-0 at the Mad Stad, I was sure that was it. Relegation was coming. Midweek saw me perk up a little but by the weekend, I’d gone back to full pessimism mode. I’d actually given my tickets for the fixture away as I was so nervous about the outcome and the last thing I wanted was to travel back from South Wales knowing we’d be League One come August.
At least if I were at home, I could take myself straight to bed and stay there for the rest of the bank holiday should the worst happen. In the event, I decided to head to my dad’s to watch the game. On route, I felt so nervous that I had to stop at Chieveley (probably the second-best service station on the M4) and throw up. Literally. Upon arrival at my dad’s on the outskirts of Newbury, I was a sweaty mess.
The team sheet showed that Clement had decided to match Cardiff’s formation. They themselves needed a result to secure promotion and had been decent that year, especially at home. With Aluko and Barrow out wide and Jon Dadi in the middle, there should have been goals in the team. There wasn’t. There never was. The main issue was that Clement had decided to play three defensively minded midfielders (Edwards, van den Berg and Bacuna) so the gaps between the three across the middle and the three up front were cavernous - not just in this game, but across the latter part of the season. Swift wasn’t yet a mainstay in the team and Kelly’s form had dropped off under Clement, hence the reason both were on the bench. In essence, the team sheet was crap and screamed “let’s not lose” rather than “let’s try and win”. Typical Clement.
I remember it being absolutely boiling on the day and the players on both sides struggling to cope with the conditions. We were absolutely battered in the first half. I mean really battered. I don’t think the front three touched the ball once in the first 45. The second half saw things improve for us, but only because Burton and Barnsley were losing. No disrespect to either of those sides, but this was a real indication of how far we’d sunk: needing both these teams to lose to have any hope of survival.
The players seemed to sense the news from the travelling Royals and sat back even more, happy to soak up the pressure even further. A quick Google search tells me we had one shot on goal in the entire game, compared to Cardiff’s 16. In a game that, in theory, we needed to win, we could only muster one shot on goal. We’d been able to play out the game with no real attempt to win it and hope that other teams would lose. Utterly pathetic.
Cardiff fans became jubilant when they discovered Fulham were losing. They stopped trying. We stopped trying. The last five minutes played out like a testimonial, with no real pressure on any goal. The ball stayed in play and Mannone was able to play a bizarre game of keep ball with both Moore and Elphick with Cardiff’s front players happy to watch. It was the most absurd end to a game I’d ever seen. No tackles were made as both sets of players ran down the clock.
Upon the final whistle, the locals quite rightly invaded the pitch upon confirmation they were promoted. The Royals fans also rejoiced and the players got off the pitch as quickly as possible. After the game, Clement did the usual tactic of talking about how much work there was to do and how he’d reshape the squad and how things would be better next season. They weren’t better, they actually got worse. Nigel Howe came back and promptly laid waste to the status quo, dispatching both Gourlay (ugh) and then Clement. Gomes came in before Christmas and pulled the club back together again, both on and off the pitch.
This game should have served as a warning to the owners of things to come. It didn’t and relegation was avoided once again the following season, albeit slightly sooner than the previous one. It’s hard to believe that the Cardiff game was a year and a half ago. The squad is unrecognisable now to then and the team have begun to remember how to win.
That said, the malaise that set in towards the end of the 2017/2018 was something that took a while to shake off. The Cardiff game saw the lowest point of the decade for me and I thank my lucky stars that the Bluebirds were unable to punish us by scoring. Had results gone against us too, the consequences for the club both on and off the pitch would have been disastrous and would have seen us still recovering from them to this day.