Well, if you can say anything for West Ham, at least they’d score this time, picking up the same number of goals as they picked up red cards in the previous game. In the second of this two-part series, we’re revisiting the 4-2 victory at Upton Park in the 2011/12 season. A huge win that would validate Reading’s recent burst into an automatic promotion picture that had been dominated by now Premier League mainstays West Ham and Southampton.
While this game was hugely important to the promotion push, I feel as though it’s one that has been forgotten amidst more important games that season. Namely the promotion-winner against Forest, THAT game against Southampton, and indeed, the reverse fixture we looked at last week.
Curiously, as with the home fixture, this game also came after a match against Blackpool. However, in perhaps a good omen, that fixture at the Madejski was a 3-1 victory for the Royals: indicative of their snowballing form at this time in the season.
That unstoppable form hit a bump in the road at the start of this game though. West Ham’s early pressure kept Reading pinned in and the crowd was rocking: expecting the Hammers to brush aside Reading. On minute 10, it looked as though things were headed that way. Nolan drove the Hammers forward with smart play, and hit the post with a header. In the ensuing goalmouth scramble, the ball fell to West Ham stalwart Carlton Cole, who took two touches before giving the still rising Adam Federici no chance.
Shortly before half time, things weren’t looking great for the Royals. They trailed 1-0 to a good side who were playing well, and if that score held, they’d be looking up at two-point gap to the automatics. If ever a team felt like a fabled “team of destiny” though, it was this Reading side, and that destiny met them again just before the half.
Kaspars Gorkss could have probably taken the entire West Ham team into the net with his run for the equalising header. This was not a pretty goal, but it was a powerful one. Harte’s delivery to the near post looked as though it was Kevin Nolan’s the whole way, until Gorkss barreled through the box and blasted through Nolan to thunder the ball into the back of the net. 1-1, and Reading weren’t done for the half just yet.
You can still hear the fans cheering “The Royals are going up!” as Federici distributes a kick downfield that finds Roberts. It must have been terrifying to play in defence against Jason Roberts in the first half of 2012. After his January transfer, Roberts was a man on a mission, and it showed in the build-up to Reading’s second goal. While I’m not convinced he got one clean touch on his way downfield… it always ends up exactly where he needs it to go.
Eventually, Roberts is dispossessed, but his defender bounces off the target man and the ball finds Noel Hunt: Joey O’Brien’s favorite Irishman. Hunt uncorked a cracking finish into the bottom corner, and after a half in which they sure looked like the underdogs: Reading went into the break ahead!
With a rollicking from Big Sam still ringing in their ears, the Hammers started the second half much as they had the first. Federici was on great form as per usual though, making a strong catch from James Tomkins’ snap shot. After surviving until just past the hour mark though, Reading would deliver a sucker punch.
Leigertwood, collecting the ball in midfield, spotted Hunt in space, and sprung him loose: his ball taking the Irishman all the way to the box. The play looked to have broken down after McAnuff’s cross couldn’t find a Royal, but Abdoulaye Faye’s control was heavy, putting the ball back into Hunt’s path. Noel was able to tap the ball away before Faye could recover, and Hunt helped himself to the outstretched leg of Faye, going over for an obvious penalty. Ian Harte buried the penalty. 3-1 to Reading, and the game was getting away from West Ham.
A note here: it’s worth pulling up the highlights just to see Kebe’s absolutely thundering volley after the penalty was caused. It’s a shame there’s no advantage rule in the penalty box, because Kebe’s strike to beat a fully outstretched Rob Green was a tally he deserved on his resume.
It can’t be understood from looking back just how much it meant to deprive West Ham of an automatic promotion spot. Their squad boasted notable Premier League entities such as Mark Noble, they were managed by the chafing Big Sam, and their budget ballooned well past what we could manage at the time. That budget came into play between this game and the December game at the Madejski.
One of the Championship’s top scorers that year, Ricardo Vaz Te, was transferred from Barnsley to West Ham in January for a cool £600,000. Don’t laugh, that was a lot in the Championship in 2011. His 10 goals in half a season as West Ham pushed for promotion represented him reaching the peak of his powers though, with it being the only time in his career Vaz Te was sold for a real transfer fee. Still West Ham fans, at least he scored more than Sam Baldock did that year...
Vaz Te would show his worth in this game though, rising higher than previous goalscorer Gorkss to score a fine header and tighten up the score at 3-2. It should have set up a nervy final 15 for Reading but remember, this was our team of destiny!
Leigertwood would bury West Ham, proving to be destructor, creator, and executor all in the same move. Stealing the ball in West Ham’s half, attempting to put Hunt through 1 on 1, and then hitting a firm side-footed shot into the back of the net when the ball came back off Hunt. The game was sealed with West Ham players crying out for an offside flag that never came. If there was ever a lesson as to why you play until the whistle: West Ham learned it the hard way here. They gave up a goal, and with it any chance of automatic promotion.
Reading, meanwhile, were in dreamland. Despite McDermott’s insistence that it was just three points and that he was “cock-a-hoop” just yet, you might have found it tough to find a Reading fan who would agree that night.
After this victory, Reading would ride the wave of momentum all the way to the Premier League. Between the win at Upton Park, and the promotion-confirming victory against Forest on April 17th 2012, Reading did nothing but win. The Southampton win is often held up as the moment Reading sealed their promotion, but this West Ham win is the moment Reading provided themselves with the materials to win it.