Cast your minds back to a pre-golden period for our club. The year? 2011. The month? May? The exact, actual day? May 17 2011. The game? Cardiff City away, in the second leg of the NPower (where are they now?!) Championship play offs.
An absolute thunderclap of an end to the season saw us storm into the playoffs to meet the South Welsh Bluetits (or birds or whatever). A tense home draw four days earlier failed to yield any kind of momentum for either side which meant it was all or nothing heading into the midweek tie. The home side were without the services of talisman (love that word) Craig Bellamy after he limped off early in the first half at the Mad Stad. Make no mistake though, Brian McDermott’s side had their work cut out to get past a purposeful, confident outfit.
The nervousness from the previous game made itself known early doors at The Cardiff City Stadium and, as the rain lashed down, the travelling Reading support made their voices heard. Shane Long, the young Irish prince, had enjoyed what would be classed in America as a “rookie sensation” type of year.
Except he wasn’t a rookie. Firmly embedded in the culture and ethos of the squad and club at the time, a return of 25 goals from 52 appearances across all competitions had elevated him from “reliable and hard working” to “first name on the team sheet” status.
Long was picked up front for both games and on 28 minutes in the second leg, he made his presence felt. A long throw from Andy Griffin was knocked on by Ledge in midfield, Noel Hunt nipped away at the defender trying to clear and the ball was played back towards goal. With Long lurking, Stephen Bywater inexplicably came rushing off his line to clear the ball, which ended up pelting off his own defender McNaughton and up into the wet sky. Long, who was still lurking like a crocodile in a swamp, pounced on the ball from outside the area and lifted it into the empty goal.
Cue delirium in the away end and Long smugly tucking his hands behind his back and smirking greedily. Karacan and the rest of the squad ran over to him to celebrate, with the Cardiff fans looking on in disbelief. 1-0. The commentator’s view?
“If anyone was going to change the course of this tie, it was Shane Long. He reacts so quickly - he doesn’t put his head down at all. He always thinks he’s got a chance!”
His evening wasn’t done there, however. On 43 minutes, the ball was crossed in from a corner put in towards a melee of players. Matt Mills (ugh) was pulled down and Howard Webb, the referee (resplendent in his pink shirt, I might add) gave no hesitation in awarding the Royals a 12-yard death kick. A tally of six converted penalties for the season was turned into seven as your boy Shane Long (with chewing gum in his mouth I might add!) stepped up to place the ball into the bottom right of the net.
A much more purposeful celebration from the lads meant that everyone from Berkshire could just about see the Wembley arch coming into view. Fans? Shoes off if you love Reading. Players? In control. Brian Mc? Face like a forlorn spade.
We’d go on to win the game 3-0. An imperious performance from the boys, but Long that night was a number nine in every sense of the word. Annoying, fearless, clinical... and destined for a move to the top league a few weeks later after our defeat to the other South Welsh team that shares their nickname with a posh duck.
2010/2011 was his best season for the club, no question about that. Did he deserve his move? Absolutely. Should it have been to West Brom? Hell no! But then we’ve got used to losing talent to them, haven’t we? I personally don’t think he ever hit the heights of that season for us and I feel lucky to have seen him do what he did back then.
That game in mid-May was his pinnacle for the club and easily one of my favourite away days ever. It helped elevate him with the fanbase, leaving us with fond memories before he set off to the Promised Land. The lad from Gortnahoe who used to play hurling had stepped out from the shadows cast by other players and had finally earned the right to call himself a number nine.