Call it absolute tardiness on my part or a fabulous twist of fate from the football gods, but this piece will be published just days before our restart begins. As avid readers of this series will know (and if you aren’t an avid reader or if you haven’t read the other pieces to this complex and intricate puzzle, what are you doing here?), I have spent the last three and a half months imagining what our season would have looked like had the promotion juggernaut (and it was a juggernaut) not been ground to a halt by an airborne virus.
In my last piece, which was probably published about a month ago (I’ve been lazy, what can I say?) I was accused of not being “realistic” and that the articles “weren’t believable”. If anyone is still in doubt, I will refer you to the earlier point of me “imagining what our season would have looked like”. WOULD. HAVE. IMAGINING. Key words here, Loyal Royals.
But enough about me and my internet goblins (I’ve gone all sensitive celebrity now), what about the play-off final that we have somehow found ourselves in? What will become of our heroes, their lasting legacy and our quest to reach the promised land? Would this team throw away the time-old tradition of Reading basically choking at the last hurdle? Would our play-off witches be banished forever? Would Sir John finally be able to dance on the pitch like a man who has thrown away literally billions (probably more like millions) on his local team?
Read on to uncover the answers of these pertinent and testing questions...
As you may recall in part six, Reading comfortably dispatched an overly inflated and overly hyped Brentford team. What you may have forgotten is that the other play-off tie was between Fulham and Nottingham Forest. Fulham were able to overcome Forest (I flipped a coin to decide this, don’t judge me) and so we were faced with yet another battle against West London opposition, a team who, like Brentford, were drunk on their own egos and in all honesty, if they were made of chocolate, they’d have probably eaten themselves. So yes, Fulham were the other team to reach the final and I shan’t be challenged or questioned on this because it’s my show and I can do what I want. Just accept it, move on and let’s continue...
In the aftermath of the semi final, the euphoria of reaching the final was replaced with the nervousness, desperation and downright fear of securing tickets for the game. Not because there wouldn’t be enough to go around, but because the club’s ticketing systems just wouldn’t be able to cope with more than 15 people logging on to the website at once.
Volunteers were drafted in to man phones. Barriers were installed around the stadium to allow people to queue orderly (a skill that the British public were grossly out of touch with). Fans frantically checked their royalty point amount, leading to the revival of the most underrated sport in sport: fans of football clubs whinging on social media about priority windows and allocation formats for massive games.
At least two weeks would pass before the showdown with the Cottagers (again, a really silly nickname) and the media had begun to set up camp in Berkshire. Mark Bowen tried his level best to keep a lid on the pandemonium that was beginning to breed like frogs in summer, but in the end gave up. He was pictured turning up to training a few days before the game wearing a “we are going up scarf” (which were on sale in the megastore for a princely but economic sum of £8.99) and a full replica kit. It was really genuinely lovely to see and the media (local) jumped on it instantly. In fact, that image was on the front cover of The Chronicle, the free Midweek News and the other one (can’t remember its name).
Tickets sold out once, but not twice, and the players looked sharp. 34,000 Loyal (*cough*) Royals made their way into North London (yuk), full of hope in their hearts, kebab in their stomachs and train beers in their gullets.
Side note: I have literally no idea how, when we get to Wembley, we take so many fans. How does this happen? Where do they come from? I’m not going to go off on one about where they are during the season - we know - but to have an average attendance of around 14,000 and to then take effectively 20,000 more just seems insane to me.
Would this be the day to end all days? Would Reading finally win a play off final? Would... you get the gist.
The two-week break had given players some time to recover from the niggles and jiggles that had cropped up over the latter stages of the season As a result, the Welsh Pep had a fully fit and available squad to choose from (apart from those players he didn’t rate). Despite this, he kept an unchanged starting 11. Lucas Boye and Lucas Joao, who had played bit parts in the semi finals with the former proving a huge game-changer in the first leg, were on the bench, as was Sam Baldock. This gave the team plenty of attacking options.
Unlike previous finals which I won’t talk about here as they are horrible and foul and really quite upsetting to think about, Reading looked like they were there to win - rather than contain Fulham. Indeed, Scott Parker’s men had made light work of Forest (ha ha!) and were in fine fettle.
About an hour before kick off, the muggy weather was broken by a large downpour, culminating in a surface which was slick and enjoyable to look at. The stadium was looking handsome and the noise was deafening, with both sets of fans expectant and in strong voice.
But of course, this wouldn’t be a play-off final involving Reading without some sort of horrific and appalling incident. Within three minutes (180 seconds) the optimism was shattered like a glass candle holder falling onto a freshly jet-washed patio. Fulham bundled the ball home after a goalmouth scramble to take the lead. It really was a punch to the lower regions and took the wind out of the sails far too early.
The team fell back into their old habits and sat in low blocks, allowing Fulham to have the ball and plenty of shots both on and off target. Around the 20 minute mark, Fulham struck again. A fine strike by Tom Cairney doubled the lead and at that point, silence befell the Reading end. Fulham backed off a little and the team tried to rally, but in truth they just hung on to get to half time.
The Berkshire folk practiced their thousand-yard stares and looked deep into the abyss as half time turned into the longest 15 minutes ever. Thoughts of another trip to Stoke filled their minds and Manchester, with all its glory and fame and Premier League-ness, now seemed a lifetime away.
There can’t have been a Reading fan out there who didn’t expect to see some sort of change after the interval, be it personnel or system-based. As the teams emerged for the second period, it looked as though no change had been made player-wise. Furthermore, the formation appeared the same. Nothing had been modified. Nothing. This brought about nervous cries and hysterical laughter among the Mad Stad’s finest. At 2-0 down and with the world (not all of it) watching, Bowen had chosen to stick to his guns and let the team who messed up get themselves out of it. What happened next was simply incredible.
Around the 50 minute mark, the ball was played out by Rafa following a save from a shot on target. The ball found its way to Morrison who in turn sent it on its way to Rino. Obita had begun making a run on the wing and a gentle ball over to him was met with a light ripple of applause. Swift had dropped slightly deeper by now and he received the ball from Obita. Puscas, who had been very quiet up until this point, made his way into the middle, spinning away from his marker. Swift spotted this and lifted the ball over the top.
As the ball dropped, George stuck out his leg and volleyed home from 12 yards. The ball shot into the bottom left hand corner. Royals fans erupted. The ball was retrieved quickly and placed firmly on the centre circle. The tide had swung. The roosters were travelling home to roost. Reading were battling.
Five minutes later, Puscas was the recipient of a clumsy challenge just outside the area and, unable to continue, was forced off. Joao replaced him and the free kick was set up by Swift. Joao made his way in to the box and began making a nuisance of himself. Swift was shaping up like he was about to shoot on goal himself. Instead, he rolled the ball to his left and the advancing Ovie Ejaria hit the ball first time. It sailed past Rodak and into the Fulham goal.
Absolute limbs from everyone. Reading had somehow pulled two goals back within 10 minutes of the restart to level the game. GAME. ON. Both teams became cagey like a toddler sharing crayons and backed off each other. As the clock ticked down, as clocks often do, both teams seemed resigned to head to extra time. This would have been fair, given the balance of play in the game had swung wildly and dramatically in each half. But life had other ideas!
Around the 87 minute mark, Reading won a corner (their first of the game). Bowen urged caution and so sent up both centre backs but kept the full backs and a couple of midfielders further back in the field to thwart a potential counter attack. Every Fulham player, bar Mitrovic, was inside the area defending. As the ball was swung in by Charlie Adam (who had earlier replaced an exhausted Swift), the Fulham defence appeared lead-footed. Morrison, who had made a late run into the box, jumped as high as a very tall, yet unnamed building and connected with the spinning sphere. He sent it smashing into the Fulham net.
Cue absolute bedlam from anyone connected with Reading. The Cottagers lay dejected on the turf as the Royals all celebrated in unison. Once the hysteria had ceased (on the pitch anyway), the team still had three/four minutes of proper time left and some injury add ons too. Could they hold on? Would the witches be banished? Would Sir John dance?
YES THEY BLOODY COULD! YES THEY BLOODY WOULD! YES HE BLOODY WOULD! All those years of play-off hell were gone. All those bitter memories were sent away like a curry being returned to the kitchen of origin due to poor flavour.
Tears of sorrow were finally replaced by ones of happiness in the eyes of the Reading faithful.
The Biscuitmen had ended their curse.
Sir John danced on the Wembley turf.
Bowen’s men had beaten Fulham.
Reading Football Club were Premier League bound.