Our celebratory season that had threatened to sour roared back into life last month. The Royals did us proud, winning four of six, and proving there may yet be surprises in store for the historic 150th season. With the international break upon us again, now felt like a good time to revisit some of that history, and take a break from Swift, Laurent and co. What better way to do that than to shine a spotlight on some of the best matches the Royals have ever played?
To start, in a two-part series that will stretch across the break, let’s take a look back at our fixtures against West Ham in our Championship-winning 2011/12 season. You can follow along with the highlights here, but I warn you: don’t expect 4k realism!
Both of the wins against the Hammers in 2011/12 would prove to be crucial, given that the Championship-winning Royals finished just three points clear of West Ham in third.
At the time of this first fixture against West Ham though, nobody could have predicted such a close finish at the top. On December 10 2011 Reading sat in 11th place in the table, five points off the playoffs, and 15 full points off Southampton at the top of the league. West Ham sat just two points behind the Saints in second place, and featured a squad full of former and future Premier League talent. Given that Reading had just come off a dull 1-0 loss away to Blackpool, fans may have feared the worst.
The Reading lineup that day was full of now-legendary Royals. Captain Jobi McAnuff came back into the side after missing the loss to Blackpool. His trademark pace and finesse caused West Ham significant problems throughout. Meanwhile, up front, Reading started Adam Le Fondre and Noel Hunt, a duo that offered dynamic movement and not one man above 5 foot 10.
The Madejski was rocking, with over 24,000 in attendance, perhaps looking for their chance to gander (and shout!) at Match of the Day regulars Robert Green and Kevin Nolan. Reading would take their time before giving those fans something to cheer, riding out a first half in which they kept West Ham at bay but offered little going forward. A few minutes in though, a key moment took place as Joey O’Brien replaced the injured Demel. O’Brien wouldn’t make it 60 minutes.
Shortly after the hour mark, after a testy coming together with the always vocal Noel Hunt, O’Brien saw himself booked. From just the following play, O’Brien’s frustration got the better of him. He stuck out an ill-advised boot as McAnuff dashed by him, and despite there being mere seconds since O’Brien last received a yellow card, the referee showed no hesitation.
Reading would make the Hammers pay immediately. From a muffed clearance of the resulting free kick, McAnuff knocked the ball down and scythed past two West Ham players, finding the byline yet again. From there, McAnuff took his time to slot a fast-paced ball to obviously our greatest attacking option: Alex Pearce. Pearce made no mistake, slotting a hard side-footed finish through two West Ham players.
I was at this game, perched in the top corner of the Upper East, frozen in time with my not quite long or short haircut and my long-sleeved Reading shirt. Truly, the 2010s were quite a time in fashion. Given that the Pearce goal had just been scored, by this time, I was already in delirium. As Simon Church sliced an effort just wide though, I was back to bemoaning to my friend that he couldn’t hit a barn door. But for one afternoon at least, Churchy would prove me wrong, celebrating his birthday in fine fashion with a headed brace, and turning the afternoon into a rout.
The first of his goals came in the 80th minute. Reading had been turning the screw since Pearce’s goal, looking to kill off the game. Kebe began the move, playing a neat one-two with Karacan and burning Jack Collison down the wing (remember that). Luck played its part in the ball getting through to Le Fondre, but there was no luck in the beautiful lofted cross that Le Fondre gracefully lifted to the onrushing Church. Jury’s still out on whether Church could hit a barn door, but it’s tough to miss an open net from half a yard out.
2-0 up and cruising, the atmosphere in the stadium was electric. And then, the moment happened. The moment you’ve been waiting for while reading this article. Jimmy Kebe had the ball on the right wing and was comfortable in space. With no West Ham players pressing, Kebe was perhaps a little too comfortable... He then decided to make the most of his time and space by bending down, and pulling up his socks.
It’s a cheeky moment of questionable sportsmanship, but it was a moment that perfectly summed up the mood of the crowd: comfort. It’s a moment that has lingered long in the minds of Reading fans: it even gave The Tilehurst End podcast one of its cover photos! Collison, clearly not interested in legendary Reading FC moments, took exception.
Leaping in an eon after the ball had gone, Collison kicked and shoved Kebe to the floor, prompting an uproar on the pitch and in the stands. Multiple West Ham players made their way over to “sympathise” with the prone Kebe, but that couldn’t stop Collison becoming the second West Ham player to enjoy an early shower.
Karma is a funny thing, so naturally Reading scored from the resulting free kick. The second time that day such an occurrence had directly followed a West Ham red card. Ian Harte’s storied left foot stroked a curved ball into the box, and Church picked up his second of the day with a glanced header into the side netting. 3-0 Reading, job done, and pandemonium in the stands of the Madejski.
For a Reading fan, this match truly had everything. A healthy sense of schadenfreude at Big Sam and West Ham’s failures. Genuine excitement at the quality of Reading’s performance, and the always exciting experience of TWO opposition players being sent off.
Much has been attributed to the arrival of Jason Roberts that season when it comes to key factors for promotion, but this game was a key moment for me. It gave an inconsistent Royals team a win against a top-quality opponent to rally around, and proved that Reading could beat any team in the division if they needed to. A fun afternoon in isolation, sure, but a turning point in our 2011/12 season, and one of the best games Reading have played in the 21st century.
Next week, we’ll revisit the game that truly showed the league that the Royals were going up: the 4-2 victory over the same Hammers team at Upton Park.