At the start of the 2011/12 season I was playing in League Two with Rotherham, but I felt ready to test myself at a higher level. I wasn’t signing a new contract and was open to offers.
The move to Reading in August 2011 happened really quickly, probably within a couple of hours. I got in the car as soon as I heard of the interest and we didn’t even discuss personal terms, I just signed the contract. 12 months later I was playing in the Premier League.
The journey to get there wasn’t straightforward though. It was a big jump for me going from League Two to the Championship, but I think I acquitted myself reasonably well for someone who was adjusting to the league. But as team we never seemed to find a continuous winning formula in those first few months. We were sort of languishing.
We had a good squad, but the additions in January were vital and none more so than Jason Roberts. Robbo was absolutely incredible. He brought class to our team and something different that no one else in the league had. He was a battering ram and could take on a whole back four on his own. He inspired us to go on that incredible run which put us in a brilliant position going into the final month of the season.
The West Ham match is obviously famous, but I missed it after picking up a little niggle in training. I was bitterly disappointed, particularly as I’ve generally been pretty fortunate with injuries throughout my career. I think that was the only game all season that I wasn’t at least in the matchday squad for.
I was at home following the game on Soccer Saturday, doing everything I could to get fit. I was determined to get back as quickly as possible to help and be a part of the run-in. I came off the bench in the next game against Leeds and scored twice, but was then an unused sub against Brighton a couple of days before we played Southampton.
It was really hard because I felt as if I should have been starting more games, but I understood the situation and what my role was in the team. Of course I had personal aspirations to be impacting games from the start, but we were on a fantastic run and there was no way I was putting my ego above that. In football, sometimes you have to sacrifice individual goals for the better of the team.
My role in the run-in was simple and I knew what was expected of me. When we were winning, there was no need to bring me on. When we drawing or losing, I’d get thrown on, create a bit of havoc and try to score.
We weren’t particularly nervous going into the Southampton game as we were the underdog, as we had been all season. It was always ‘little old Reading aren’t going to do much’. Brian’s mantra was always ‘win the next game’. He would draw the number three on the whiteboard, circle it and say ‘that’s all we can get today’.
We never got ahead of ourselves, we just kept ticking games off. The gravitas of the Southampton game was obviously bigger, we were level on the points with them, but we didn’t approach it differently to any other game. There was a risk of playing the occasion, but we didn’t do that. The boys were always going to give absolutely everything, no matter what.
They were a very good team with lots of good players. Adam Lallana was absolutely brilliant that season. Ricky Lambert and Billy Sharp were probably the standout strike partnership in the division. On paper, they looked formidable. But we just had a real grit and determination about us. We were so well drilled in the way that we were set up.
We had really good leaders in the dressing room too, like Jobi, Robbo and Hunty. Ian Harte was brilliant and someone who was so accustomed to success. They all had real stature in the game and knew what these games were like. All the boys who had been involved in the playoff final the year before also had that determination to go one step further. As a group we were incredibly level-headed.
Watching on from the bench, I remember Southampton had a lot of the ball at the start of the game. You need a bit of luck in those types of matches and they missed some good chances. Feds made some good saves too, which is unsurprising as he was unbelievable that season and single-handedly kept us in matches.
But we began inching our way into the game and then Jimmy puts a pearler of a cross in – probably the best cross I ever saw Jimmy do – and Robbo meets it with so much power. The goal was probably a bit against the run of play, but we were great at making the most of our opportunities and punishing teams.
We managed to survive the onslaught until halftime, but then Ricky scored the deflected goal. You can’t really do much about those and Feds nearly got his hand to it. It was always going to be hard keeping a clean sheet against them when they had so much of the ball.
Going back to my role in the team, I knew at that point that I would definitely be coming on. If we were drawing or losing around the hour mark, I was always coming on so I went and got ready. Then Brian looked at me and said ‘go and get us a goal, make yourself a hero’. He didn’t really need to say much more than that.
It was a really open game when I came on and fortunately I didn’t have to wait long to make an impact. I took the ball off Dean Hammond in midfield and played a forward pass to Hunty, who laid it off to Jimmy. I carried on my run into the box, Jimmy laid it back and I was absolutely screaming for the ball, telling everyone else to leave it. I arrived right on cue and slammed it side-footed as hard as I could.
You can hear screaming as I’m running around the goal and I didn’t realise until I watched the highlights later that I think that’s me screaming! Hunty ran over and gave me the hardest slap of my life. Just thinking about that moment gives me goosebumps.
After that, the game was even more open because Southampton were desperately trying to find an equaliser. But in added time, Hunty won a flick on, which was a brilliant part of his game. I got myself onside and was basically just a pest to Jose Fonte, pretending to go either side of him.
As he went to head it, I nudged him off balance and managed to get the other side of him. I’m really proud of the finish, because I made it hard for myself by taking a touch around the goalkeeper and making the angle narrower. I could have hit it straight away or lifted it over him, but I think I was just running on adrenaline and my confidence was flowing after the first goal. I ran over to all the fans going mental and pulled out the ‘game over’ celebration, which was me being a little bit cocky but it was true. The game was done.
A couple of my mates were in the crowd at St. Mary’s and we drove home together after the game. The traffic was at a standstill, so they were just running up and down the road with my shirt. I was sat in the back of the car trying to keep my head down, but they were just shouting ‘Adam Le Fondre is in this car!’.
As a squad, we knew how massive it was to go to Southampton and beat them in their back yard. From that moment on it was in our hands to get the job done and we secured promotion against Nottingham Forest a couple of days later. It was nice to do that at the Madejski Stadium and share the moment with all the fans.
But the Southampton match is the best I’ve ever played in and those two goals are the best I’ve ever scored. My dad is always watching the highlights on YouTube. I’ll watch it with him if I’m back home and it’s still spinetingling to think of the impact I had on the game. I’m so thankful that I was involved because lots of players go through their careers without moments like that.
The 150th anniversary match is coming up and it’s something that I would love to be a part of. When I left Reading I never really got a chance to say goodbye to the fans and it would be great to see all the boys again. I’m speaking to the club, but things are up in the air because of the way the league season is structured here in Australia.
There’s about a month left of the regular A-League campaign but then it’s the finals and if we qualify for that it will be a real struggle for me to get back to Reading for the match. Selfishly, I want to win trophies with Sydney. But at the same time I would be absolutely gutted to miss the anniversary game.
The love between myself, Reading and the fans is a bond that will never go away. I’ve been lucky in my career to have a special connection with many clubs, but Reading is the biggest love for me because I had the greatest success there.
I still look out for the results and see how they’re doing. This season has obviously been difficult, but it’s looking like they’ll stay up now and I hope they can build in the summer and get themselves going in the right direction. It’s too good of a club to be near the bottom of the division.