By now, you should have read parts one, two and three. If you haven’t, there is literally no point you reading any further as you’ll think I’m some sort of mentalist who has just made loads of stuff up for no good reason. If you have read parts one, two and three you’ll know that fate (or rather my overly wild and inflated imagination) has positioned the Royals in sixth place heading into the last game of the season with destiny firmly within their over-achieving palms.
As double fate would have it, they were pitted against old foes Swansea City. It was very simple: win and it’s play-offs, draw and it’s probably play-offs depending on other results (of which I haven’t worked out, so don’t ask), lose and it will still be play-offs as that would make part five of this series redundant...
For an early May Day, the sun was vicious. So vicious in fact that the faint smell of factor 50 wafted round the Mad Stad and surrounding area. Children and adults alike enjoyed ice creams pre-match, the beer was flowing and the cargo shorts, often preferred by middle-class, middle-aged men, were prevalent on the concourses and in the seated bowl. And yet, despite all this, the fear of messing everything up hung in the air like an unwanted joke. Fans of 15 years plus knew that there was a more than likely chance (let’s say 60/40) that Reading would ruin all our hopes and dreams.
Heading into the game, Mark Bowen’s side had no new injury concerns. The players who had been secretly jettisoned were still unavailable and the core of the squad had stayed healthy and positive and, most importantly, in form. In the days leading up to the game, the local press had decided against going back to speaking to Sir John after the debacle the previous week (see part three), so instead spoke vigorously to Sir Steve and Sir Brian. The former admitted that the current squad weren’t a patch on his (fair) while the latter explained that Bowen’s squad was better than his (debatable).
Either way, there were no real scandals in what they said and did and the media department at the club were delighted that no apologies had to be made on their part. Bowen did say, however, that he was delighted that Covid-19 simply disappeared and allowed his side to carry on winning games: “It’s crazy to think that a few small weeks ago the pandemic threatened to derail our promotion charge, isn’t it?” he told the assembled press. “I’m just delighted that we didn’t miss any games, otherwise we’d still be stuck in 14th place having not played for weeks and weeks.”
A packed Berkshire Stadium (at least 20k), supported by at least 100 Kenyan football fans who had made the journey from Nairobi to support the Kenyan loanee Ayub Masika, were in fine voice. Indeed, The Swans had sold their allocation out and even though they were safely in mid table with nothing to play for, they were eager for a win to see their team into the summer. By kick-off though, the stadium was 100 people down, as the Kenyan supporters club learned that Masika wasn’t in the matchday squad and so, in disgust, took themselves into The Oracle for a Nandos.
As the game kicked off following the pre-match handshakes (remember, no Covid), Reading showed literally no signs of nerves. The confidence in their play was brimming like an overfilled mug with warm liquid chocolate in it and as such, took the lead within 10 minutes, a poacher-style goal converted by George Puscas. Results elsewhere were going the way of the Berkshire Boys and they were cemented in sixth place. But then: DISASTER!
On the 17th minute, Swansea equalised. A loose ball was turned home after a corner wasn’t dealt with by the defence and the visiting fans were in raptures. Results elsewhere still left Reading in sixth but nerves were beginning to become frayed. As half time approached, DOUBLE DISASTER! Bristol City scored to take the lead in their game, thus chucking Reading out of the play-offs like a badly behaved cat being taken out of the house via the back door. This made for an unpleasant half-time experience as the fear of failure blanketed the fan base and affected their spending power at the concession stands on the concourse.
Half time turned into the second half and Reading started nervously. Loose passes, terrible corners and wayward shots littered the game as Reading failed to make the necessary breakthrough. Results elsewhere stayed as they were, meaning a single goal for either Reading and/or Bristol City’s opponents would propel the Biscuitmen into the play-offs once again.
As the game wore on, Swansea seemed comfortable to see the game out, making three changes in one go and heavily distorting their original formation. The final ten minutes of the game suddenly appeared and Reading still needed a goal. By now, Bowen had deployed his ‘alpha papa’ formation: a top four of Baldock, Meite, Puscas and Swift. Without warning (as is often the case), the team that Bristol were playing (let’s just say Stoke) scored to equalise! The Reading Megaplex broke into light applause at this news. On the pitch, this filtered down to the players who knew now that one goal would cement their place in the end-of-season carnage festival.
On the 86th minute, a corner was won. Everyone except Yiadom and Blackett was inside the box. Rafa took himself up too to make himself useful. All it needed was a decent corner from Swift (something not seen since February). The ball was swung in, the flight of it putting it on course to land mid-box. As it began its final descent, Moore, Rino and Meite all rose like a salmon from a stream in mating season. All three missed the ball. It bounced once on the far side of the box.
Every single player turned their head towards it, like one of those slow motion things Sky do when you see the sweat from the players heads fall gently and softly on to the turf below. The white sphere was loose. It bounced again. Out of nowhere, Pele came steaming in. He connected with his left foot. It pierced through the air towards the Swansea goal. The keeper dived low but to no avail. The ball rifled underneath him and into the onion bag.
Cue absolute delirium. Programmes, flip flops, sandwiches and children were thrown into the air like paper confetti being thrown by an already drunk aunty defying the express wishes of a vicar who asked people not to throw the small bits of paper in his churchyard. Pele dived into the Dolan, along with every single player and substitute. By the time the delirium had calmed, the game was all but over.
As the ref blew his klaxon, the unthinkable had occurred: Reading were heading to the play offs once again! This topsy-turvy season just refused to flatline and fizzle out. More importantly, so did the players.