The thing about football is that you never know. You never know how it will go, how it will make you feel, what the outcome will be. The only exception to this is that we all knew, deep down, that the game in midweek was going to go to 12-yard death kicks. It was inevitable.
The war of attrition which lasted for nearly two weeks ended with Sone knocking in the penalty to bring us back home for the fifth-round game against the Blades at the start of March. For some reason, even at 2-0 down, I knew we’d come back into it. I don’t know why, but I did. I had a face like an unvarnished bannister until we equalised and then I wrote the fifth-round tie in my diary straight after Rino’s goal. Game, set and Bowen my friends!
January was iffy to say the least. We’ve dropped down the form table but have held on to the league position we reached around Christmas. As a result of those iffy games, the play-offs are quite unlikely. Saturday brought us home again against a Hull City side bereft of their two star players, having had them leave the club like rodents jumping from a wooden sailing vessel during the transfer window. Quite where they will end up is anyone’s guess and it’s likely they will play out the season with nothing to play for except a bit of pride. The job Grant McCann has done to steady the club on and off the field has been admirable and he’s handled himself well in difficult times there.
I was fairly indifferent to the game. Having suffered from a fairly meaty cough all week and after self diagnosing myself with NOT having a Chinese-based disease, I decided to complain as much as I could to anyone who would listen. I’d announce my arrival to colleagues with a hearty lung burst and explain I was dying. This worked well at the beginning of the week, but by Wednesday the sympathy had worn off and the language used towards me was tantamount to work-place bullying. My wife was no better as she repeatedly explained that people get ill regularly and that they just get on with it. Suffice to say, my strops which followed these exchanges with her were massive.
The other issue with this fixture was that it clashed wholeheartedly with the Wales/Ireland Six Nations slug fest. Regular readers will know I’m of Welsh heritage and, having been in Cardiff last week for the Italy game, my hopes have been raised for another good showing this year. The earlier kick off allowed me to plan to enjoy a drink or two in the hotel prior to the match against the Tigers.
Upon arriving at the Sir John Madejski Colosseum, I initially thought I’d turned up to a London Irish game, such was the barren wasteland that greeted me. The car park, ticket office and surrounding eateries were devoid of human life. Had there been a secret apocalypse on my journey towards the ground? Had the game been called off? No. It seemed that the chance to watch Humberside’s premium professional soccer team had been passed up by the majority of Royals fans and I was ok with this.
I took the liberty of having a browse of the Macron products in the Fanstore before heading to the hotel. As I went to pay (yes, I bought the current away shorts at a reduced price, don’t go on about it) I bumped in to my old friend and mentor Mr Len Graham and we had a good natter about all things Reading. He explained that his journey to the game now is mainly made up of bus travel, which he gets for a fee of a £1 (return) from Crowthorne.
If you think about it, that’s phenomenal value! What can you get for a £1 these days?! I’ll tell you what a £1 (or even £10) can’t buy: decent bloody service at the hotel bar(s). Awful speed, terrible people management and downright hideous waiting times. After finally receiving our lagers (my dad was with me at this point) we settled down to watch Wales mess up the first 40 minutes of the game before entering the Dolan just before KO. Not a great start to the afternoon.
The Berkshire Arena was given its first scare in the third minute when Liam Moore made a desperate block to shield a well-struck shot away from Rafa’s goalmouth. Reading then settled and played some ok football with Ovie gliding around like a flamingo on ice and dazzling everyone around him, including his own teammates at times. Chris Gunter, the bionic man, was taken off due to injury midway through the first half and our newest Brazilian made his debut.
A reshuffle made Reading a stranger to themselves for a good six/seven minutes and Hull began to get a foothold in the game. As my brow began to furrow and my face dropped like a miserable raindrop from a full cloud, I noticed lots of besuited pensioners in the Dolan. By besuited, I mean lots of elderly fans wearing official Reading merchandise, which I found heartwarming in the extreme. Nothing pleases me more than seeing a chap over 70 with a club-branded cap, jacket and tracksuit bottoms on, completed wonderfully by a pair of Lonsdale (or the like) trainers. Truly delicious.
Half time approached and I managed to get the jump on the queue for Anonymous, snaffling their last ring doughnut. If you want to read my review of said doughnut, look at one of my previous articles. Exceptional (the doughnut, not my review). As I walked away from the kiosk/canvas tent, I smirked largely as the queue had developed into a fat snake of humanity which stretched back to the concourse. Well done Ben, I said to myself. The silky texture and the caramel-based flavouring of the beans in the cappuccino had left me suitably satisfied. Honestly, they really are the best coffee people in Reading (@anonymouscoffee). It makes me literally laugh from my belly when people tell me they like coffee whilst holding a Starbucks cup. I like water, but I don’t drink it from puddles...
The second half started brightly. Obita was making hay down the wing and the team seemed to have settled from the first half. Felipe grew into the game and did the simple stuff simply. Obita’s work rate paid off with a finely taken goal which he heartily deserved. To celebrate the goal, my dad reminded me that he had given me some Potter’s pastilles in the hotel before the game. If you’ve never had one, don’t. They look, smell and behave like solidified pieces of Dettol. Upon placing the brown-coloured “sweet” into my mouth, I realised quite quickly that they were indeed solidified pieces of Dettol, tasting like the popular antiseptic liquid. The disappointing thing was that, unlike any other pastille, it took an age to be sucked down to nothing.
My throat was numb, my tongue was burning and Reading were beginning to show signs of stress on the pitch, as if replicating the sensation that my mouth was experiencing. Obita was taken off and replaced by Richards, and the team lost impetus. Hull equalised with a looping monstrosity of a shot and both teams seemed resigned to their fate of sharing the spoils.
Reading had a couple of chances which they messed up. Bowen became evermore frustrated, as did the crowd. The fourth umpire held up the board to signal four extra minutes were to be added on and, with that, the sound of partially shiny plastic seats began to clank and clink as the punters (and besuited pensioners) made their way down the concrete steps and out into the evening. As we made our way towards the car park, the Canadian geese began barking and shouting as if to mock the disheartened Royals’ fans. Honestly if I could have been bothered, I would have walked down there and thrown some twigs at them but I was cold and emotionally drained and I didn’t want to get my trainers dirty.
To compound matters, my dad insisted on listening to those complete idiots (and they are complete idiots) on BBC Berkshire. Williams, Dellor and to a lesser extent, Gooding, really do need to change their narrative. They are reactionary in the extreme in their views and the kind of fans they interview sound like they’ve never left the county. No, it’s not for me.
The other frustration I have, which has grown exponentially over the last few weeks, is the constant noise around the attendance. Reading have a loyal following of fans, always have done and always will do, who will be there regardless. You can’t make people come. You can’t force them to support the club. The brand of football is the brand of football and, realistically, that won’t change until next season now and the attendance will continue to level out. Is this a problem? Not really. I’ve been in the stadium when it’s been worse. The atmosphere is actually better these days and the club have worked hard to improve the whole experience off the pitch.
Luckily, the games are coming thick and fast and Wednesday gives us a chance to “go again” as the old saying goes. Will Reading pull off an unlikely win against high-flying West Brom? In football, you never know.
Until next time.