There’s something about the two words ‘Cardiff away’ that brings a big fat smile to my face. Whether it’s Jobi McAnuff dancing through the Bluebirds defence in 2011, Oli Norwood bending home a free-kick in 2015 or Yann Kermorgant netting a late winner in 2016, Reading have had some pretty good times in the Welsh capital in recent years.
For a long period of time, last night’s FA Cup fourth round replay looked to be heading into a rather more forgettable category, which also includes The Worst Game You Have Ever Seen™ on the final day of 2017/18 and last Friday’s equally uninspiring 1-1 draw.
But something stirred within the Royals team as the game grew older last night. Call it spirit, call it heart. Call it the magic of the cup. It was sensational. Not only did the team haul themselves back from 2-0 down to take the game to extra time, they then equalised again after falling 3-2 behind. By the time Sone Aluko scored the winning penalty in the shoot-out, I had to check I wasn’t in some sort of paranormal universe. The Reading vs Cardiff saga had ended, and the Royals had come out on top.
Having heavily rotated his side for all three previous FA Cup games this season, Mark Bowen found a happy medium by making six changes to the team for the second game in five days at the Cardiff City Stadium. He retained the 3-5-2 formation, as Sam Walker took his place in goal and Gabriel Osho started for the first time since August. Meanwhile, Omar Richards, Tyler Blackett, Charlie Adam and George Puscas were also recalled. Liam Moore and Ovie Ejaria were among those to completely miss out on the squad. Michael Morrison captained the side.
Reading began the game in much the same vein as last Friday night’s performance. They were sluggish, lethargic and offensively non-existent. Cardiff’s Josh Murphy was enjoying his time on the left hand side, and was the worst possible player that the Royals could have given the ball away to. But Charlie Adam did just that, playing a careless first time pass into an acre of space, which Murphy picked up before firing into the bottom corner. It could have been two shortly afterwards as Danny Ward curled an effort over the bar.
Reading did have their own chances towards the end of the half, but Charlie Adam’s ambitious long range effort, George Puscas’s tame header and Yakou Meite’s scorpion kick were never going to be more than wasted chances.
Clearly unimpressed by what he had seen, Bowen took off Adam and Puscas at half-time and replaced them with Garath McCleary and Sone Aluko, changing to a 4-5-1 formation in the process. Two 30+ players were hardly the most inspiring of substitutions, but the pair would prove to be game changers.
However it would get worse before it got better for Reading as Will Vaulks took a break from lining up long throws as he played a beautiful outside of the boot ball over the top to Robert Glatzel, who was afforded far too much space by the Royals defence to pick his spot and slot past Sam Walker. That appeared to be game over, especially as Cardiff nearly scored a third when Ward was played in only to be denied by an excellent last-ditch tackle from Chris Gunter.
Yet the Royals were a totally different beast for the final half an hour and finally became exciting to watch. Aluko had looked lively ever since he came on, and he forced a good save from Neil Etheridge before Sol Bamba blocked McCleary’s effort. Where there’s life there’s hope, and Omar Richards provided it with a powerful header as he met Tyler Blackett’s cross with the prowess of a centre forward.
Cardiff’s grip on the game was slipping, and Reading had pulled themselves level ten minutes later. John Swift’s cross found Michael Morrison at the far post, and the defender’s header back into the danger area wasn’t cleared by the hosts, allowing substitute Andy Rinomhota to arrive on the scene and smash home a volley from the penalty spot. Two goals. Two academy graduates. You love to see it.
Incredibly, the Royals may even have considered themselves unlucky not to have won the tie in normal time, as Richards saw a shot blocked and Etheridge had to be on hand to deny both Rinomhota and Blackett in the closing stages. In addition, penalty shouts for what looked a certain hand ball were waved away by the referee. As if Reading and Cardiff hadn’t played each other enough recently, another 30 minutes was on the cards.
Extra-time stifled Reading’s momentum somewhat and allowed Cardiff to re-organise, with the Bluebirds going back in front three minutes after the restart. Gabriel Osho slightly misjudged a ball over the top from Cardiff and didn’t put enough weight on his header back to Walker, allowing Murphy to nip in and score his second of the evening. It was a real shame for Osho, who had an otherwise impressive evening at the back.
Reading pushed throughout extra-time for another equaliser, but as two free-kicks came and went, it looked as though it just wasn’t going to be their night. Yet with four minutes to play, substitute Jordan Obita whipped in a cross from the left which was met by Meite with a superb volley, ensuring he had scored in all three recent meetings with Cardiff. After 120 minutes, the game had inevitability ended as a draw, and it felt as if the two teams could go on playing each other for eternity and still not be separated. Thankfully, a penalty shoot-out is a neat little concept in such scenarios.
McCleary scored first for Reading before Walker dived low to his right to deny Aden Flint (why put a 6ft 6in centre-back on your first penalty?). The Royals had breathing room soon after as Osho showed confidence to score before Vaulks smashed against the bar. There was a lovely moment too for Jordan Obita, who missed his spot-kick at Wembley three years ago, as he made it 3-0. When Marlon Pack scored for the hosts, it gave Sone Aluko the chance to be the Reading hero.
I’m not sure I ever expected to write the words ‘Sone Aluko’ and ‘Reading hero’ in the same sentence, but here we are. The 30-year-old fired into the bottom right hand corner to send the Royals through and set up a fifth round meeting with Sheffield United.
£7.5 million. What a bargain.