Did you ever have a Furby in the house? Annoying little toy that wouldn’t shut up? Well I bought one for my kids a few years back and it turned out to be a pint-sized ruiner of lives. On and on it went, getting louder and louder. So I ripped out its battery, packed it off to the basement, and naively believed I’d seen the back of him. Until this week.
The epic rant from Jose Mourinho that we’ve been exposed to in the seven days since his team of super-sized me’s lost its two most famous goalkeepers on our nice little ground at Reading has managed, miraculously, to increase in volume as the week progressed. If you weren’t at the match, and believe what the Furby has been jabbering, you must surely have an image in your mind of a ruthless pogrom of visiting goalkeepers organised with deadly accuracy by a team of super assassins, new to the Premiership, SS Reading, led by the Jackal in charge of goalkeeper destruction, Stephen ‘Hannibal’ Hunt. Hah!
In truth, every football team reflects the ethos of their manager. And if you placed our man, Stevie Coppell, next to a white seal pup the seal pup would look aggressive in comparison. Anyone who has watched Reading in the past couple of seasons will tell you they are energetic but not dirty. Right now, they stand second in the fair-play standings in the Premiership, and would wish to be first.
Yet this same friendly family club has suddenly been imprinted on the national consciousness as a bunch of vicious goalie killers. And little Stephen Hunt, who must have one of the hardest bums in Berkshire given how much time he has spent on the bench in the past two seasons, is now the most famous Reading player in the land. Welcome to the Premiership.
Those of us who weren’t hallucinating in the Furby’s technical area last week witnessed a very different set of events unfolding to the World War III described in Mourinho’s angry dispatches from the far side. The horrible injury to Cech in the first few seconds of the game happened so early that few in the ground grasped its seriousness. Including Stephen Hunt.
And since Cudicini’s bang came moments before the end, 99.9% of the match was played in conditions of striking normality. Chelsea were diving about like ducks in a bath. Shevchenko was fumbling. Lampard was out of touch. The two sendings-off were not especially dramatic. Reading were unlucky to loose. And only after this real game ended did the fantasy football begin.
Thankfully, Furby and Chelsea have now returned to their nightclubs and their bank accounts. Hallelujah. And Reading are able to welcome a proper football team to the Madejski Stadium today when it’s Arsenal up next.
When Henry and his cavaliers stroll out of our tunnel this afternoon and clamp eyes on our team for the first time, they are in for a mighty surprise. Because what they’ll see is themselves - about ten years ago, before Wenger redesigned them. Because Reading are the new old Arsenal.
Consider the similarities. First, there are the results. Apart from the strange blip that was the opening game against Middlesbrough which ended up 3-2 to us after all manner of weird Premiership nerves set in, look at the scores we’ve had since. Manchester City, Sheffield United and West Ham were all dispatched 1-0. Then there was the 1-1 draw against Rooney and Ronaldo. The Chelsea playboys scraped a win in the Battle of Furby’s Mouth, but only by 0-1. You have to admit, those are Arsenal figures.
In goal, instead of Safe Hands, we’ve got Safe Feet, the bald and fearless Marcus Hahnemann. All goalkeepers have their eccentricities. Seaman had his pony tail. Hahnemann is a fan of extra-loud American heavy metal. It isn’t just his nerves that are made of steel. So, too, are his ears.
The full backs, Murty and Shorey, are Dixon and Winterburn with their clocks turned back. Watch the two of them bombing forwards on the break, their little legs working like Singer sewing machines, and you’ll get all nostalgic and hear Barry Davies in your ear.
At the centre of the defence, instead of Adams and Keown, there’s Sonko and Ingimarsson, a two-man mountain-range that’s impossible to pass. You should have seen Sonko dealing with Rooney a couple of weeks back. Who knew Rooney could bounce that well!
The Reading midfield doesn’t just play like an Arsenal midfield, it is an Arsenal midfield. Both Harper and Sidwell were on the Gooners’ books before Wenger decided he didn’t want any Englishmen in his team. Sidwell had his best game of the season against Chelsea, popping up everywhere. He’s our Ray Parlour, just a bit more ginger.
Arsenal always had one genuine creative embedded in their 4-4-2, a mercurial little guy with twinkling feet. And we, too, have a Merson. He’s called Bobby Convey, and he usually plays where Hunt was playing last week.
Up front, when Kitson’s fit, there’s a big guy and little guy, though at the moment we’re down to two little guys with Kevin Doyle as Ian Wright and Leroy Lita as the bottom half of Alan Smith.
So, when Arsenal emerge from the tunnel today, and see us arranged against them, they’ll feel as if they’re looking into an old mirror, and they’ll be scared. Very scared.
At the end of the game, I expect that fine chorus, ‘To the Reading 1-0’, to echo grandly around the Mad Stad, as it so often does.