For my money, it is the best goal ever scored at the Madejski Stadium.
It was May 3rd 2014, the final day of the Championship season. Reading hosted already-promoted Burnley, knowing they would secure a top six spot if they could equal or better Brighton’s result at Nottingham Forest.
With the Royals 2-1 down in the second half, a high ball dropped to Garath McCleary in a crowded area 20 yards out. The winger kept his eyes on the ball, adjusted his body and swung his right boot out to produce one of the most magnificent volleys you will ever see. It flew into the top corner, a replica of Zinedine Zidane’s goal in the 2002 Champions League final, but better. The technique was sublime. Sky Sports’ Don Goodman looked on in disbelief: “It does not get any better than this, I promise you. This is special. Really special”. Quite frankly, words do not do it justice.
For a while, it looked to be the goal that had secured a play-off place for Reading, up until the point Leonardo Ulloa scored a 92nd minute winner for Brighton to condemn the Royals to seventh place via a premature pitch invasion.
The season may have ended in disappointment for the team, but for McCleary it had been a campaign in which he set the league alight with his skill and creativity. Having settled into the side in the Premier League the year before, the winger came alive back in the Championship. He could have held his own goal of the season competition, with the volley against Burnley following superb strikes home and away against QPR.
McCleary’s first goal of the season had come against Doncaster, a game in which he also got a trio of assists as Reading won 4-1. In the 7-1 victory over Bolton, the winger may not have scored but he had a hand in three of the goals. In total, he registered 12 assists that year - a tally only bettered by two other players in the division.
What made his season even more impressive was the fact that he played the final two months - when he featured in all but one of the last 13 games and scored against Leeds and Burnley - with a broken back. As Reading fought for the play-offs, McCleary’s dedication was epitomised.
Surgery on his back ruled the Jamaican international out of the first three months of 2014/15, and led to an underwhelming season. McCleary’s only league goal of the campaign came on the final day, but he did strike twice during the historic run to the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
The winger played a key role in one of the Madejski Stadium’s greatest nights, the 3-0 win over Bradford City in the quarter-final replay. He assisted Hal Robson-Kanu’s opener before getting on the scoresheet himself with a deflected effort from outside the box to put Reading two goals up after just nine minutes.
Then in the last four fixture against Arsenal, his second half equaliser to take the Gunners to extra-time will live long in the memory of Royals fans. That goal means that McCleary is the only Reading player ever to score in an FA Cup semi-final, and one of only two Royals to net at the new Wembley Stadium.
There was still a slight spark missing in 2015/16, despite McCleary matching his 2013/14 tally of five goals. His strikes against Bristol City and Cardiff City in particular were trademark GMac stunners, but he increasingly became used as a substitute rather than a starter, before playing the final six games of the campaign as a makeshift right-back. As a winger, he completed 90 minutes just five times all season.
However, the arrival of Jaap Stam as manager in the summer of 2017 rejuvenated McCleary and he would go on to have the best season of his Reading career as the team reached the play-off final. Nine goals and nine assists would be his best return in a Royals shirt and the second highest goal contribution in the squad that year behind Yann Kermorgant.
McCleary was back to his sumptuous best - nutmegging, flip-flapping and flicking his way past Championship defenders like they weren’t even there. Highlights included a five-minute brace against Wigan, a curling effort from outside of the box to beat Blackburn and a quite superb back-heel assist against Cardiff. It was mesmerising to watch.
That season proved to be McCleary’s peak, and the last three campaigns have been difficult for the winger as he has moved into his 30s. Injuries have again been a stumbling block, as he spent eight months of 2018 on the sidelines with a broken ankle, while he also had to deal with being ostracised from the first team squad by Jose Gomes last summer.
McCleary marked his return to the side under Mark Bowen with an assist against QPR last October, prior to scoring against Luton in his next appearance as he snatched the ball off a defender before finishing coolly into the bottom corner. It was his first Royals goal for two and a half years, and he later admitted that he couldn’t help but cry on the way home, so hard had the previous few months been.
He may have scored that screamer against Burnley and the equaliser against Arsenal at Wembley, but “because I proved to everyone, after being doubted so much, that I can still do it”, that strike against Luton will go down as his favourite Royals goal. It also proved to be his last of 27 in total, achieved in 270 games. Only six players have made more appearances for Reading this century.
While he may not have been completely on song in the past few years, every so often the McCleary of old has emerged and provided a reminder that at his best, he was one of the finest wingers in the Championship. Scorer of the memorable and capable of the magical, his pace and trickery have been a match for even the division’s most accomplished full-backs. With the ability to play on the left and play on the right, Garath McCleary really did make Messi look sh*te.
Thanks for the memories, Garath.