In typical fashion, having looked forward to this game since the draw was made, I was ruled out from attending with a rather severe bout of flu. I make it sound so blasé at this point, but 24 hours ago I was staring down the barrel of an NHS shaped gun that threatened to obliterate any plans I’d made for the next month or so. Allow me to digress slightly as I take you on a journey which sums up the state of the country right now....
Regular readers of this column will know that I have had a cough for a number of weeks which, much like Reading’s nagging relegation fears, has refused to go away. Like Reading, some of it is self inflicted as I haven’t sought medical attention or indeed self medicated. During this cough, I took a trip to Denmark for three days. And here’s where the problem begins.
Over the weekend, the cough developed into more serious conditions (aching all over, hot and cold flushes, sinus pain, generally feeling awful). I made the decision early on Sunday afternoon to not go into work on Monday and get a doctor’s appointment. Having rung the surgery and got an appointment for that day, I was then asked if I had travelled abroad over the last four weeks, to which I said yes. Immediately her tone changed and she told me, under no circumstances, to leave the house, to call 111 and await instructions from them. She then went onto say that I may need to be tested for something called the Coronavirus (literally never heard of it). At this point, I got out my pen and paper and began writing my will, whilst making sure I had the essentials in the house (loo roll, baked beans and penguin bars). After speaking to at least three different NHS employees, it was determined that I had flu and that I needed to take at least a week off work whilst limiting my contact with the outside world.
This instantly meant that attending the game was out of the question. My first initial thought was that I would have to listen to the game on (god forbid) BBC Berkshire. This, to me, was the real sign of the apocalypse. As Monday turned into Tuesday (as it often does), I was alerted to the fact that the game would be shown live on The FA Cup’s Facebook page. I thanked my lucky stars that I wouldn’t have to listen to Dellor and Williams prattle on about Mick Gooding’s engagement (congrats though Mick) and spend my evening trying to decode their inside jokes. No, instead I would go to the ball from the comfort of my own isolated sofa, surrounded by tissues, Lucozade and copies of ‘Car’ magazine that I hadn’t yet read (this month’s edition features an article on ‘deals of the decade’ and if you are looking to lease a car in the near future, I STRONGLY recommend you read it before going any further in talking to dealerships).
Having shredded my ticket for the game earlier in the day (for some reason I’d been sent another paper ticket for the third consecutive cup home game this season) and perused the club shop’s website (50% off all Macron products!), I felt suitably ready to be a ‘distant fan’ for the evening. Watching a team you regularly watch in the flesh on a screen is a strange feeling, especially when they are four miles down the road. This happened already once this season against Leeds when I simply couldn’t be bothered to go. It’s useful but not ideal for away games, as before we had children, I would go up and down the country watching the Royals. This season though, I don’t recall having watched an away game on the TV, not even on the dreaded midweek ‘red button’ on Sky.
Going into the game, the chances of us winning were slim. Having played twice since Sheffield United last kicked a ball, their preparation seemed more ideal than ours. I had listened to Chris Wilder on Sky Sports News talk up their chances without mentioning us once which led me to believe that a) he was a very arrogant human and b) he didn’t really rate us and that United would only lose if they had an off day, rather than Reading playing well. Fair enough, I thought, but I vowed privately to myself there and then that if we won, I would send him the mightiest of all emails thanking him for doubting us and Our Saviour Mark Bowen and that I hoped he looked forward to watching us in the QFs in a few weeks time.
Indeed, to reach the QFs, we would have to field the strongest team for what Bowen called “the most important game of the season”. Yeah, thanks Mark. Just rub it in a bit more if you want. The question remained though, how seriously would he take this game? Did he set the team up to attack and take it to the visitors or try to contain them and hit them on the break (not that we’ve been spectacular at the counter attack this year, but you know what I mean).
At around the same time that my phone calendar decided to remind me that the game was close to beginning (I knew that already), the team news popped through. And oh my goodness, we were unchanged! That instantly meant that we had to be at least 10 times better than we were on Saturday against Barnsley, maybe even 11 times better. Moore came back into the squad after illness (wish I could) and the Kenyan Messi was still on the bench. A quick glance at the betting told me that we were 4/1 to win in 90 minutes and 9/4 to qualify, meaning that we were massive underdogs for the tie in general. Not for the first time, I decided that I would bet on us to go through and to hell with the consequences (losing £10).
I realised that before I could actually watch the game, I had to ‘like’ the Facebook page itself. Finding this wasn’t a problem, but I was still unsure how I would watch it on the big screen. Apparently, I could download the app onto the TV but I realised I didn’t have the energy or the patience for this and as I was facing some sort of government health backlash 24 hours earlier, I decided to just make do and watch it on the ‘small screen’ (although it has to be said, Apple have done a great job listening to customers by increasing the screen size of the iPhones to allow them to enjoy ‘streaming’ more fully) on my phone. As kick-off approached, my palms became sweaty and it was unclear whether I was having another hot flush or it was just the anticipation of the game beginning.
The game began. Negatives: we conceded within 2 minutes. Positives: we had at least 88 minutes left to do something about it. Reading began knocking the ball around well and a thunderous strike from Meite followed a slick passing move. As the first half wore on, I became aware I was being subjected to ‘live’ comments. Not me per se, but viewers were commenting left, right and centre on the Facebook and this was seriously annoying. I minimised those as they were absolute nonsense, but could do nothing about the biased and self indulgent commentators, who had clearly been spending far too much time watching Sheffield United this season and proceeded to give a glowing run down of every player’s career, heritage and favourite ice cream topping. It was utterly exhausting having to listen to them. What was also exhausting was the space left between George and anyone else wearing a hooped shirt. Sheffield United were in full control and he was completely isolated up front with no one around him. The final ball was woeful from the midfield and he was running channels that were going nowhere. What was worse was that we appeared to be utilising the zonal marking system (which I hate) for corners and it seemed only a matter of time before the score was doubled. Swift was far too deep both in and out of possession, meaning his most powerful attribute was as redundant as my match ticket.
And then something beautiful happened. A hopeless long ball was pumped forward towards Rino in the box (WTF, as the kids would say!), he was pushed (sort of) and went over. The referee blew his klaxon, contemplated a minor felony card and pointed to the white dot in the goal area. A 12 yard death kick had been awarded! Up stepped George (lovely, sweet George) and converted the sphere into the goal net. 1-1 on the score chart and a massive, massive boost which we desperately needed. A quick glance at the top of the screen saw the viewing scales tip over to 20k as the Royal County Megadome erupted (sort of). In the interval, I had my first shower since Sunday morning (don’t judge) and retired to bed, ready for the commencement of the second 45.
We began attacking a bit more in the second period, Olise fashioning a chance of some merit with a wicked first touch only to spoil it by lashing the ball high into the sparsely populated Dolan. The cameras cut to Bowen and I got to see up close the fashion disaster he was sporting: a quilted mess of a jacket, that looked more akin to a chap driving a Range Rover to the Co-Op five minutes down the road and struggling to park it rather than a man who was charged with managing Berkshire’s premium (and only) professional football club.
Sadly, the commentators made me feel no better, continually flapping their gums about United once again. It was almost an inconvenience to them to discuss us. Goal scoring chances were at an absolute premium, as was my normal body temperature. With the second half winding down, it became more and more certain we’d head to Spielberg time (ET). I was desperate for sleep and so obviously we were destined for another 30 minutes of turmoil. Jokes aside, we were the more confident of the two sides in the latter stages of the game and Bowen, along with the Whitley Bowl’s faithful, must have been delighted with the performance after the early set back. Indeed, for most of the second period we were organised, resolute and the better side of the two.
Extra time began in much the same way that the normal 90 ended. Reading continued to stretch their legs and do their best to keep me awake with some swift (no pun intended) passing moves. It looked more and more likely that the next goal would go the way of the home side until Sharp (bloody Billy Sharp) popped up right at the end of the first period with a deft header that put the visitors, undeservedly, ahead.
Reading continued to press into the second period, Bowen choosing to strengthen our attacking hand with the subs of Baldock and GMac. Some fine work by Henderson in the United goal kept Reading out until Pelé struck right at the death that for two thirds of the strike looked for the all the world to be inside the bottom corner, the ball somehow curling away right at the last second and wide of the post. Chris Wilder’s men were able to see the last few seconds out to claim the victory over a really spirited, determined and well disciplined Reading outfit.
I was delighted with the team and the way they slowly got back into the game after the horrible start. Meite and Swift in particular were outstanding in their work rate and application, the latter struggling to be creative in such a deep role. Obita was strong in the tackle and completed both his attacking and defensive duties with aplomb. He must surely now be worthy of a new contract (but then I’m biased because I actually love him). Masika looked like a man free of the burden and expectation that has at times hindered so many players at home this season. I was also delighted to be able to stay awake for the whole game and not succumb to the effects of my current predicament.
Reading must now turn their attention back to the league and getting as high up the table as quickly as possible. They are still in some very sticky form and wins are vital if they aren’t to get dragged into the drop zone. Much like me ridding myself of these germs, it’s very much within their hands as long as they do the basics. That way, they can once and for all put the thought of League One to bed and I can finally leave mine.
Until next time.