If I were to write down a list of things I love in life, it would go a bit like this:
- My children (standard response)
- Cats (specifically my two cats)
- Reading FC
- Home FA Cup matches against lower-league opposition
- My wife
- Sir Patrick Stewart
Honestly, I adore these types of games. One of my favourites at The Whitley Bowl came in the shape of a first-round tie against Grays Athletic in November 2000. It was from then on in that I vowed to myself that, however big we got, I would always attend home games against inferior (no disrespect) teams in the cup. Because we are now a massive team, our cup games are fewer each year as a result of entering at the third-round stage. I must be the only football fan ever who desperately wants to see us drawn against a smaller team at home. My joy was massive when I saw we were scheduled to play the Seasiders. Oh yes.
This game not only afforded me an opportunity to indulge in my fifth-favourite thing but also avoid both a party that my children were attending and the annual battle of condensing the Christmas decorations into six small boxes - the 4th of January normally being when the Thomas family says goodbye to copious amounts of Crimbo cuddlies and the Michael Buble CD (God bless him).
Due to an admin error with tickets (I was served by what I believe to be a work experience girl on the phone) I was sent paper tickets for this fixture. What’s the problem Ben, I hear you say. Well, for starters I like to help the environment where I can and producing a ticket that doesn’t need to be produced goes against this.
Secondly, I like things in one place and taking two forms of ticketing material to the game seemed like absolute madness to me. Thirdly, I haven’t used a paper ticket at the Mad Stad since P**dew was in the dugout. That said, the ticket served as a nice little souvenir that I could staple inside the matchday programme (yes, I buy the programme at every game).
Having had two weeks off and what seemed like a never-ending wave of live football to either attend in the flesh or watch on TV, this game seemed to come around very quickly. The only disappointment about it was that we had to park our promotion juggernaut to one side for a week to concentrate on getting a cup run going. For the Royals, the haul over Christmas was quite spectacular. Forgetting for a moment that I did appallingly in the present stakes over the festive period, the best gift I received was the win over Fulham which was really quite something to behold.
I’ve written previously about not knowing how good we actually are, but the away results in particular have shown a real mentality shift in the team: they’ve forgotten how to lose. I’ll admit I’ve been insufferable about our recent form, dropping into conversation anywhere I can about how well we’ve been doing. An example of this from the footie team WhatsApp group on the day of our triumph against Preston is detailed below:
Andrew: VAR armpit gate strikes again.
Me: whatevs. Did I mention we are only 7 points off the playoffs with a game in hand? PROMOTION CHARGE.
Milan: I want VAR gone. That wolves decision is a complete farce.
Me: I’ll tell you what is a complete farce. Having to wait until Wednesday to beat another team. BLUE ARMY!
You get the picture.
A swift cappuccino and a #1 biscuit (effectively a larger, posher chocolate Hob Nob) from the chaps at Anonymous Coffee was interrupted by a severe and desperate call over the tannoy for fans to get into the stadium as soon as possible due to ticketing problems. As we made our way round to gate five, there were no such problems for us as we sailed through with our paper tickets while others around us struggled with their member cards (insert smug face emoji here...). The ticket chaos was clearly an unappetising starter for the carnage that was about to unfold on the green stuff against a team that was well drilled and well organised.
As we entered the Dolan, there were grumblings around the “stupid” KO time of 3:01pm. Listen: any charity/organisation that actively promotes people talking about their mental health is vital. Getting on my soap box for a minute, this initiative was a great one and I hope it will be the first of many ideas to generate the thought process behind improving mental health, so good on the FA for doing this for all third-round games. And besides, it’s not like a minute really makes a difference to the game itself in the grand scheme of things, is it?
With the first half only minutes old, the Royals made their intentions to take the game to the visitors clear by attacking with intent. Blackpool held firm and Reading continued to waste a plethora of early chances. Cue 28 minutes and the first real foray into our box saw Blackpool score. Of course it did. Why wouldn’t it? A series of comical acts of defending (that Walker in particular won’t want to see again) resulted in the ball nestling gently into the net.
From then on in we never looked comfortable or confident on the pitch which resulted in silence and agitation engulfing the Dolan and the rest of the sparsely populated Whitley Bowl. A chap in front of me embarked on a personal sneezing fit which very nearly saw him thrown out for making too much noise. Home-bought biscuits began emerging from deep pockets and fans began to trickle down to the concourses earlier than usual, no doubt in search of salvation in the shape of a meaty pastry item and wet, continental lager.
I was cheered slightly by the swift service I received at half time, making me feel confident that the bar staff had read my previous article which lambasted the slow service they often provide. As I tucked into my Amstel, this feeling of positivity was shattered like a glass bauble making contact with a tiled floor. Without being dramatic, it was like the lager had been replaced with organ-melting acid and was frankly undrinkable.
After finishing my pint, we returned to our seats. A quick check of my phone allowed me to catch up on the torrent of abuse I was receiving from the footie team WhatsApp acca group. I’d obviously picked us to win and was reminded that, if the result didn’t come in, I was in line to have lost my bet choices for the last six weeks running. 0% Ben, they said. Cooooooool.
Back on the pitch and we equalised 10 minutes after the break through Sam Baldock, who has quickly become my third-best Sam (after one of my best mates and Sam Quek). The goal, coupled with the empty seats, allowed me to run Jose-Mourinho-managing-Porto-at-Old-Trafford-style down our row, ending up 8 seats away from my own before encountering the first human obstacle.
Baldock was clearly scheduled to be substituted on the 60 minute mark, which awkwardly happened to be straight after he had scored. Danny Loader came on and scored a FIFA-style goal, backheeling it over the line. The ball trickled so slowly into the net that a hat could have been thrown over it to stop it. Not a day for goalkeepers, this. The goal of course came after we had chucked the lead away. Again.
A 12-yard death kick was awarded to the Tangerines shortly after and was cleared by what seemed like every member of the back five after the ball had clipped the crossbar. Thank god VAR wasn’t involved as it would have been retaken I’m sure. The clearance was celebrated like a goal and should have served as motivation for the team to kick on and get the job done.
Reading huffed and puffed towards the end but never looked capable of winning the game, the amount of changes in the team reflecting the performance which was jittery and nervy to say the least. As the clock ticked down, it was clear the game would end in a draw. Reading had their own penalty appeal turned down right at the death and as the final klaxon went, players fell to the floor to reflect on an opportunity missed.
A quick word on Aluko: was it his fault he was signed for a lot of money? No. Could he have tried more when he first joined? Yes. Does he have a future at the club? Don’t know. The bottom line is that he has put himself in contention to play, unlike a certain goalkeeper who may or may not have spent most of 2019 playing in the MLS and has since thrown his toys out of the pram. The down side for Sone is that he is coming back into a fairly settled side and it’s unlikely he will make the matchday squad anytime soon. That said, he was positive in his build-up play and had a few shots on target.
Both teams will tango (dancing reference!) again in Blackpool (a place famous for its dancing!) a week on Tuesday. Bowen must surely play a stronger back line to cope with the Seasiders’ attacking threat. If they can can keep the front players quiet, they should be OK. In the end, it was a draw which felt like a defeat and few if any of the starting 11 have staked a claim to dislodge any of the team that played regularly over the festive period. Let’s hope we can edge the replay and get another game at home. In the meantime, maybe it’s time for me to re-jig my list. And of course, try to correct my hideous group betting record.
Until next time.