After the 2-2 draw at Gryffindor Park/The Hive, Reading headed back down the M4 to face their day of reckoning. I say that like it was an instant turnaround. It wasn’t and I’m concerned you may have felt that was the case, as play-offs tend to be stretched over a few days or so. Indeed, Bowen’s boys had to wait until the Sunday afternoon to take to the field once again.
After the game, all the talk was around Lucas Boye and his revival. There were clamours from the local press to involve him from the start in the second leg. This was mental and never going to happen and summed up the reporting standard of those “journalists” throughout the season. When asked about the possibility of starting Boye in the second leg in his pre-match press conference, Bowen simply replied with “no”. This led to an awkward silence as the opening question went down like a cocktail sausage tumbling from an over-piled buffet plate. After a few moments of conversation barrenness, the next was equally as bad:
Reporter: How will you win the game?
Bowen: By scoring more goals than they do.
Bowen: By putting the ball in the net.
Reporter: Can you describe how you’d like them to go in?
Bowen: Is this guy on work experience?
Hideous question-and-answer session over, Bowen promptly left the room, jumped into his Audi A8 and turned his attention to not talking to idiots and plotting the downfall of those overrated monsters from West London. The key, as was to plain to see, was not allowing Brentford to score so early.
Indeed, in the media build-up to the game, Liam Moore admitted they were terrible goals to concede but praised the mental strength of the team, something that was a theme of the last few games of the regular season. He went on to say that he had implored the commercial department to not produce those clapper things that blighted the first leg, which led to all marketing and sales executives at the club being called in on their day off to hold a giant bonfire outside the stadium on Saturday night to destroy all 20,000 of them.
As Saturday rolled into Sunday (as it often does), the big question remained on the lips of everyone in Berkshire (and a few in Hampshire and Oxfordshire): would Reading fans be celebrating come the final whistle, or commiserating like a failed child actor who grew too tall before the biggest part of his very young career?
As the game was scheduled for an evening kick off, the day itself seemed to drag. The social media accounts run by the club replayed chunks of previous successful play-off semi final campaigns to get everyone pumped up. The game against Cardiff in 2011, the Wigan tie which turned into Nicky Forster’s coronation, the smash and grab against Fulham in 2017... I could go on (I couldn’t), but by the time kick off came around, the nostalgia machine was in overdrive.
Both teams were unchanged (largely because I can’t be bothered to speculate who would and wouldn’t have played) and Bowen started the game as he ended the last one, on the attack. Both sides knew they needed something (I actually can’t remember if away goals still count in the play offs) and the home side began fiercely, backed by a crowd that had to make do with their clapper-less hands (thank God).
George and Yakou tested Martin in goal early and instantly, the Bees were on the back foot. This set the tone for the game and Reading, with their pure inconsistency and indifferent form throughout the season, pushed and pushed to force the first goal. As the first 45 rolled down, it became clear the scores would be kept at deadlock. Reading were in the ascendancy and had been for the whole of the half. They just needed a goal to really cement their superiority.
Swift, who had been quiet for his usual standards during the play-offs so far, picked up the ball just inside the Brentford half. The game was now into injury time in the first 45 and you could smell the half-time Lucozade (original flavour) on the warm breeze. He pushed forward with purpose and switched the ball out to Obita on the left hand side. Swift continued his run, unchecked, and hovered just outside the penalty area like a large bee (No! A moth!).
Obita had made a dangerous run which had made some space and distracted two Brentford players. Looking up, he could see Swift was in space. He played the ball back into the middle and without thought, Swift ran onto the advancing ball and hit it first time. Bazooka! To say the ball sailed into the net would be an understatement: it absolutely rifled into the top corner, leaving the keeper no chance.
The Mad Stad erupted; Bowen double punched the air; Rafael jumped into Club 1871. Reading had taken the lead in a game they had dominated and it felt like a sucker punch to the visiting team and fans. Half time was quickly called and the place was rocking.
As the second half started, the message from Bowen had clearly been “turn the screw”. Not content with the lead they now enjoyed, the Royals pushed on again. Wave after wave of attack flooded the Brentford defence like water from a leaking paddling pool. They were becoming weary and tired and Reading could sense blood/death/the win. Yakou, who had been instrumental in the first-leg revival, knocked home the second goal, rising highest from a well-taken corner on the 69th minute to make the score on the night 2-0.
The final 21 minutes were played to a carnival atmosphere, with cheers applied to every touch of the ball. Bowen made some subs in the dying embers of the game, and the message on the tannoy was “don’t get on the pitch”. Brentford fans made their exit early. As the final whistle blew, the visiting players made their way down the tunnel as quickly as they could, as the playing green was overcome with humans and scarfs and crisps. The celebrations on the pitch lasted for a while after the final whistle and rightly so: Reading were Wembley-bound once again.