In this week’s Classic Game Spotlight, we’re revisiting one of Reading’s Premier League games from the 2012/13 season. In a heady run of form that turned out to be a false dawn, the Royals kicked into life after their sluggish return to the top flight, picking up seven points on the way to a Premier League manager- and player-of-the-month double.
It didn’t turn out to be enough, but for a while let’s revel in the feeling after that night, and the hope we had for staying up after we eked out of the relegation zone with a memorable draw.
Highlights for this one were tough to find. Finding Championship footage from “back in the day” is easy enough as the BBC provided highlights for the entire EFL during Reading’s salad days. Premier League highlights are protected by the usual rights and restrictions that come with a mega corporation though. If you’d like to follow along, this Facebook video from the Premier League account is the best I could find.
January 2013, the first month in the UN Designated Year of Quinoa, was cold and blustery. Snow was battering Britain, shutting schools and causing travel delays across the country. Just seven months earlier, Chelsea had won an unlikely first Champions League against Bayern Munich at the German side’s own Allianz Arena. They had done so with Roberto di Matteo at the helm, but the Italian didn’t last long enough through the next season to coach his side at the Madejski Stadium that night..
Di Matteo was fired with Chelsea going through a “rough patch”, crashing out of the Champions League in the group stage. Make no mistake though, this was still a top-four side that would go on to win the Europa League with Rafael Bentiez just a few months later. On this night they started Ashley Cole, Cesar Azpilicueta and even former Royal Ryan Bertrand against his old club.
The infamous Ron Gourlay, a man surely involved in the decision to fire Di Matteo, was in attendance that night in his capacity of Chelsea CEO. Perhaps it was this demoralising result during a topsy-turvy Chelsea season that birthed in him a hatred of Reading and a desire to ruin our finances that he’d… sadly realise.
Coming into the game Reading were finally riding some momentum, winning just their third and fourth games of the season in the two weeks previous - first in that raucous comeback against West Bromwich Albion and next against Newcastle United. Still, Chelsea would clearly be a tougher task.
You can explain how remarkable Reading’s comeback in this game was just by naming the Chelsea goalscorers: Juan Mata and Frank Lampard. Mata kicked things off for the Blues, showcasing the ruthless speed of the Premier League. Fernando Torres slipped a seemingly innocuous pass through Reading’s defence and Mata curved a beautiful run between the centre backs, burying the finish while Reading asked for offside. It wouldn’t come, and it would get worse before it got better.
In the first (but not the last) poor defensive showing from a set play, Reading’s defenders found themselves caught underneath a well-delivered corner. The ball found the head of Lampard as if it had eyes to guide it. Judging by the way in which he jumped up to celebrate, you’d guess he was just as surprised as anybody that the ball had found him. Much like Lampard himself though, the finish was top quality.
This game though, as filled with stars as it was, was all about Adam Le Fondre. Alfie could have been forgiven for thinking he would have been given a bigger chance in this season. He was integral to our Championship-winning season in 2011/12, scoring at St Mary’s in spring 2012 to effectively seal the title.
Caught behind Anton Zingarevich’s big purchase Pavel Pogrebynak though, Le Fondre’s opportunities had often been restricted to substitute appearances and the odd start. In January though, he began making those substitute appearances count, becoming the quintessential super sub. In fact, in the previous game against Newcastle, Le Fondre’s late brace off the bench had been the match-winning difference.
But as the clock turned to the 87th minute and with Reading not yet on the scoresheet, lightning couldn’t strike twice for the super sub... could it?
The first of Le Fondre’s goals is a proper striker’s play. Le Fondre spots a hole in Chelsea’s defence and points to exactly where he wants it as Hope Akpan receives the ball. Akpan finds Alfie with a gorgeous pass and Le Fondre wastes absolutely no time, burying a finish into the bottom corner. The celebration was brief, and Le Fondre headed back to the centre line in search of a second, and an equaliser.
That equaliser came courtesy of an absolute peach of a finish. It is remarkable to me to this day that not only is Alfie able to get his finish off with his leg at that elevation, but the power and curve he gets on a shot that he manages to keep down is unbelievable. Chelsea’s defending from this late, late free kick was rather suspect, as Reading were able to head the ball around the penalty box before it reached Alfie’s right boot.
Reading were level, and without a second to spare, four minutes deep into injury time. As the final whistle blew an almighty roar rang around the sold-out Madejski Stadium. The spirit of the club was well and truly alive that night, and the fans applauded their team off the field.
With this hard-won point, Reading climbed out of the relegation zone. It was the first time since a brief previous visit to 17th place after their first win of the season in mid November. They’d win the next game as well with a Jimmy Kebe brace against Sunderland. The Royals never regained form after that though, dropped back into the relegation zone and never came back out again. It was a painfully short taste of the Premier League, and in hindsight with Zingarevich and Gourlay both in the building, perhaps it was also a time in which the first signs of the state we find ourselves in now were beginning to show.
Still, for one fantastic month of the season, Reading fans finally got to enjoy their top-flight adventure and see their team compete until the end. This Chelsea match didn’t see us finish with three vital points, but it epitomised the heart that Le Fondre, Jobi McAnuff, Kebe and the gang put into keeping our Premier League dream alive. Almost a decade later, I would give anything to see that kind of passion return to Reading, on and off the field.