It’s an age-old conversation topic for football fans that can easily fill an evening in the pub, or multiple for the die-hard. What’s your favourite ever away game?
Reading fans are pretty blessed in this regard. The obvious answers include Southampton and West Ham away in 2012, the play-off demolition of Cardiff a year earlier, and the Bryniesta inspired beating Liverpool in the FA Cup.
But every fan has their personal favourites, those perfect days that rest in the lower tiers of Reading folklore. Mine include the 3-1 promotion six-pointer win at Birmingham in 2008, the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford earned by our second-string XI in the 2006/07 FA Cup. And then there’s Bolton.
On April 21, 2007, 13 years ago as I sit here today, Steve Coppell’s side found themselves 1-0 down to Bolton at the Reebok Stadium with 83 minutes on the clock. On the face of it, this isn’t a particularly impressive prologue to a Lazarus-esque tale.
But Reading were dreaming of Europe in their first season of Premier League football, and Sam Allardyce’s side were a major rival with established faces such as Nicolas Anelka, Kevin Nolan and El Hadji-Diouf in their ranks. It was also a chance to see how the other half lives. A decade-and-a-half earlier, Bolton were not an intrinsically bigger team and their rise in that period set the blueprint for the Royals’ own ambitions - having featured something of a fork in the road 12 years earlier.
The hosts had generally been the better team for those 83 minutes. Anelka’s second-half opener came via an unfortunate attempted block from Nicky Shorey but couldn’t really be argued with. Reading’s best chance came in an agonising goalmouth scramble that suggested a typically tough day in the life of a small fish in a big pond.
Then the last six minutes happened. Kevin Doyle’s frankly rude insistence on running at goal brought an errant leg from Abdoulaye Meite. That was the thing about that Reading team, they didn’t care who you played for, they just turned up and beat you. They didn’t know they were born. The Irishman picked himself up to slot home the equaliser.
Bolton keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen prepared to take a goal kick a minute later and took his time, earning a hounding from his own supporters desperate to re-take the lead. If only they knew what he knew. In the 89th minute, a cross from the right floated over to Doyle whose brazen arrogance allowed time for the ball to settle perfectly on the six-yard line, Bolton studs stabbing at his heels, before belting it home.
Reading had the lead but the fun wasn’t over. Shorey tricked his way down the left wing and a perfect cross was only inches over the head of a hat-trick hunting Doyle. That left Shane Long with a free header to make it 3-1. Little did he know Stephen Hunt was barrelling in at 100mph, blinkers on, to headbutt the ball into the back of the net.
The atmosphere in the away end was next level. It’s best shown by the photo at the top of this article as Doyle celebrates the equaliser, I can see 13-year-old me and my dad celebrating, split by the fan in the row above whose somehow been lifted six feet in the air. The final whistle rang around a suddenly empty Reebok Stadium - sending the home fans back down the stairs early being one of the finest and most unique joys of following football on the road.
There was still one Bolton fan looking on in disbelief, as the boxer Amir Khan stood in his executive box near the away end, and received hundreds of playful taunts by joyous visitors singing of a dream European Tour. It was also our first win on their turf since a certain day in 1995, a memory no doubt resonating in the minds of many that day.
For myself, 2006/07 was my first season on the road with Reading and I’m sure I’ve never beaten the W3 D1 L1 record I witnessed that campaign. With our family connections up north, my mum had come up with us and visited the retail park next door during the game. All that loud cheering, she was worried we had received a battering... until we told her it was the away end going bananas.
It is also timely that the anniversary of that beautiful Lancastrian day lands on an equally lovely day in our very different world. On these football-less times, memories like these remind us why we all can’t wait to do it all again.