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View From The Dolan: Doughnuts And M4 Derby Carnage

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Ben takes us through the matchday experience as Reading welcomed fellow M4 side Cardiff to the Mad Stad in the FA Cup.

Look, if I’m honest, I wanted this game to be Carlisle. According to my records (Google), we haven’t met each other since 1982 in something called Division Three. In fact, Carlisle must be one of the only current league teams I’ve never seen us play. Without spending a day in the garage rifling through all my programmes, I can’t confirm that as I’m sure there’s others, but I’m befuddled as to who else could be on that list.

Anywho, it turned out to be our neighbours from down the M4 for this fourth-round FA Cup clash at the South Reading Megaplex. The M4 is legendary for football carnage, particularly in the Championship and, being of Welsh heritage, I always relish this game.

I’d written a rather serious article in the week about the current state of play at the club right now, which I wrote in light of the Millwall result last week. I didn’t actually say it, but I suggested/inferred/implied that we should just chill out, maybe take the petrol (or another type of fuel if you prefer) out of the promotion bandwagon and just enjoy not being crap for a bit and aim for mid table (specifically, 14th).

After the chaps then made me look like a right willy after another excellent result against my least-favourite Nottingham team on Wednesday, I quickly called my legal team and instructed them to ask Sim to take my previous article down with immediate effect. It hasn’t been taken down and it’s still up if you want to peruse it.

Editor’s note: After a lengthy legal exchange, you can read that article here.

We are getting promoted via the playoffs: this is a fact and I’m so sure of it that I’ve already booked a return cab from Reading Station to Wembley on the date of 25 May. I’m not using public transport, no way.

The game against the Bluetits (I mean Bluebirds) gave us another opportunity to see some of the younger chaps in action. On first reading the team sheet, two things popped into my head: 1) Sone Aluko is clearly too expensive to not play and 2) Lucas Boye just isn’t fancied. The latter point has been an open secret for a while now and I’m glad Bowen is sacrificing him to play players who are under contract and wanting to give it the beans.

The former point regarding Aluko is an odd one. Not featuring in league squads since returning from his indifferent loan spell, Bowen clearly wants to see him in competitive action to make his mind up. A lot has been said this week about Bowen’s trust in players with Michael Olise being added to his list (or rather, ‘The Circle of Trust’) and personally, giving Aluko a try seems like decent management from him. That puts the emphasis on the player to not be dropped rather than the manager having to pick him.

As I jumped off the train at Reading, I could literally feel the tension for this derby. Outside the Guineas sat a police riot van (mini bus). The pavement was littered with Starbucks cups and copies of The Western Mail (Wales’ premium paper). “Good lord” I thought to myself “what’s gone on here?” “A proper riot” was the answer I gave myself as I bounced down the steps to the chilling sound of silence and anticipation.

At this point, two travel options presented themselves to me: bus or taxi. I went with taxi because I needed a wee so felt it would be quicker and also because yesterday was payday, so I have a window of about four days where I pretend I’m a stock broker and chuck money around until reality sets in and I begin counting the days until the next pay BACS.

The scenes of heaving humans greeted us (me and Ziak, my driver) on Shooters Way. They all just looked hungry for a row to be honest. As I presented my card to pay, Ziak explained to me that his card machine was very temperamental. “It works on this thing Bluetooth, you see” he stated, “bloody nightmare out in the villages. We just have to take cash up front”, he added. With the chit chat interlude over, I said my goodbyes and wished him farewell.

The journey from the cab to the hotel was challenging. Dodging human traffic in the car park, avoiding the queue (!) that was escaping out of the fan store and then gliding past the disgruntled Cardiff fans who were arguing with the security at the hotel (told you it was ruck o’clock) made me need and then enjoy my Dutch lager even more. It became very apparent that the tickets for the game were cheap - plenty of families were hogging the tables whilst not actually consuming beverages bought on the premises. Hideous behaviour, which was clearly a sign of things to come from the afternoon.

Reading FC v Cardiff City - FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Luke Walker/Getty Images

Due to quite frankly archaic FA rules, all away clubs in this forlorn competition must receive 15% of the total capacity. As a result, Club 1871 was split up into some sort of bizarre football fan diaspora, resulting in four of the slightly ‘heftier language’ element ending up behind me. Not ideal, not welcome and something that, in all seriousness, the Dolan isn’t used to.

Even more annoying was the fact that Cardiff scored before we’d actually had a chance to settle into the game. Bowen stood on the sideline like a gloomy Welsh monument, no doubt aghast at the early setback his experimental team had suffered. He was gloomy for all of three minutes: Yakou levelling with a wonderfully well-taken goal, a fitting tribute to his late father who sadly passed away last week. It was clear from both his and the players’ reactions that it meant a huge amount and the lifting of his shirt in celebration and respect needed a common-sense reaction from the referee. It didn’t get one and he received a minor felony card for his actions. Absolute nonsense.

Halfway through the first half and the tannoy was activated. Cardiff fans had been using, allegedly, racist and homophobic language. Whilst wholly unacceptable if they had indeed been using said abuse, I’m not sure that issuing a tannoy statement about it actually solves the problem short term. For one, it just inflames the away fans more and, indeed, the news received a hearty and full reaction from the eastern corner of home fans which set the stewards on the far side into ‘hyper vigilant’ alert.

At this point, I genuinely felt the ref was going to shout “that’s crufts” and pull the game completely as the atmosphere took a bit of a sinister turn. A tannoy announcement, in the grand scheme of things, is water off a Swan’s (or Bluebird’s) neck for those supposed culprits as it was last week for the Millwall fans accused of the same crime. On a wider scale, it’s just very disappointing that language like that is becoming more and more prevalent at football matches.

On the 41st minute, I made my move downward (to the concourse) and out towards Anonymous Coffee who have pitched up outside the Dolan once again. To my actual joy, they were selling footie-themed doughnuts! Some had an edible badge of our wonderful club, others were coated in blue and white icing. Wow. I myself am a marketing department’s dream, but even the most sceptical of eaters would struggle to not be enchanted by these pastries. And what pastries! The even balance of dough and icing led to a taste explosion. The sheer fluffiness of the body of the doughnut was enough, but the evenly sweetened topping just sealed the deal. Truly wonderful.

Upon re-entering the concourse, I noticed that the catering department had moved into the speedy-ordering business and had dragged the whole enterprise into the modern world by installing those screens you get in McDonalds where you don’t have to talk to anyone to get a chicken sandwich - a bit like Argos but for food. I was genuinely flabbergasted by this development. Back at my seat, I told my Dad about this. “Well, they’d be useful if the food was actually worth eating” he remarked. So very true, Father.

Early in the second half and things had calmed down a bit - both on and off the pitch. Cardiff continued to frustrate the forward play of our frontmen and they struggled to make any clear breakthroughs. A really nasty looking injury to Matt Miazga saw the stretchers called on and, after a delay, he departed with the help of the medics. Lovely stuff once again from the Cardiff fans who jeered the use of the medical apparatus, which was just unnecessary and wholly unpleasant. I couldn’t quite work out if the medics were the actual NHS or the St John’s lot. Either way, they didn’t let him fall off and the control of the stretcher itself was first class from them, so fair play.

Ben House came on - a player I’ve admired from afar for a while, to become our 98th (or something) academic graduate. He showed some flashes of promise, but Tom McIntyre was sent off shortly after for a foul, receiving a second minor felony card which in turn led to a major felony card and he was subsequently ejected from the playing rectangle. House was then, quite harshly, subbed for a re-jig. I disagreed with Bowen on this and made feelings quite clear with a loud tut, a vigorous shake of the head and an eye roll. It was tough on the youngster and I hope he gets another opportunity soon.

Cardiff then flooded forward like water from a broken sink travelling towards the stairs, but couldn’t find a way past Sam Walker (who did himself no harm with Saturday’s showing). A miss of epic proportions resulted in mass hysteria from 3/4 of the ground and absolute despair from the other 1/4 as Sol Bamba headed wide from a yard out at an effectively open goal. The game ended in a stalemate which, to be fair, had been on the cards since around the 65th minute. It means both teams will meet again in February, but not before the more serious matter of the league game this Friday night (which isn’t on bloody Sky!).

Overall, the game was a frustrating one and the second time in a matter of days that Reading had given away the lead first before replying very quickly. We had some chances, Aluko looked good going forward but lacked confidence, Charlie Adam seemed to cope in the number 10 role, Teddy Howe redeemed himself after a dreadful showing against Blackpool earlier in the month and, despite an unusual defensive lineup, we coped well with the threats posed.

The replay will give the fringe players another opportunity to stake a claim and will expose them to another competitive fixture. The negatives are that it will result in another game we hadn’t planned on and the injury to Miazga could well see him depart back to his parent club as it looked, at the time, like a season ender. On top of that, Loader was very disappointing and looked like a duck in the ocean for most of the game. He can’t say he’s not been given chances to impress, that’s for sure.

We have very little time to catch our breath before a another battle against a second M4-based club in the shape of Bristol City on Tuesday night. All being well, Bowen will be able to field his best 11 for the game, which could prove vital in the context of this run of games. I’m also hoping that Anonymous are able to reproduce their fabulous doughnuts and that the team continue to make a mockery of my well-thought-out articles, swapping 14th for sixth. Who knows, we may even get to Wembley in the cup, too.