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Reading And Oxford United: Reunited At Last

Sim previews a first local derby between Reading and Oxford United in 19 years.

“Please let us get Oxford. Please let us get Oxford.”

Cup draws in Reading’s Championship era (a depressingly past-tense phrase to write) pretty much always came with that one wish: fans hoping en masse that they’d finally get to see the Royals take on local rivals Oxford United in a competitive game. Time and time again a cup draw was made, time and time again Reading and Oxford were kept apart.

This season though, fate has brought the two teams together, the Royals finally dropping to United’s level after years of on- and off-field decline. Tonight’s the night when Reading take on Oxford United.

It’s been a long time coming. This was last a competitive fixture in 2004, when the Royals ran out 2-0 winners at Oxford United in the League Cup thanks to second-half goals from Shaun Goater and Andy Hughes, now 53 and 45 respectively. Five players to have appeared for Reading this season - Basil Tuma, Dom Ballard, Tyler Bindon, Caylan Vickers and Taylan Harris - were born after this game took place.

Back then, Reading fans weren’t short of fixtures - or indeed wins - against Oxford. The Royals won all five of their 21st-century match-ups: 3-1 and 4-3 in 2000, 2-0 in 2001, 3-1 in 2003 and then 2-0 a year later. That followed seven meetings in the 1990s, yielding two wins for Reading and five for Oxford.

After the early noughties the clubs’ fortunes diverged. Drastically. While Reading hit the heights of the Premier League - twice - and a trip to Wembley for an FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, United languished in the lower leagues. First a couple of years in the fourth tier, then four in non-league, six in the fourth tier once again, followed by seven in the third tier.

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t inevitable that the two clubs’ paths would cross once more. Reading could have stayed higher in the pyramid, Oxford could have stayed lower. Then again, there have been near-misses too. Reading tap-danced on the edge of relegation into League One a number of times before finally tumbling in May 2023, while United almost made it into the Championship a couple of years earlier, only to be thwarted by Wycombe Wanderers in the third-tier playoff final.

19 years is a long time to wait for a local derby. The absence of one makes the heart grow fonder.

That’s perhaps most true for Reading fans who’ve never seen a match against Oxford: the younger supporters not old enough to remember the two sides’ last meeting. Watching the build-up and reaction to those recent cup draws, it’s been apparent that those fans are the ones who crave a meeting with Oxford the most. Tonight however, they - and every other Reading fan with any kind of grudge against That Lot Up The Road - finally get their wish.

So why does it all seem a bit... hollow? This fixture was supposed to be one of the two standout moments of the season, alongside the reverse fixture scheduled for early February, but it’s been hard to get all that excited.

Well, in short, because the club as a whole feels hollow right now. Reading Football Club has increasingly become a shadow of its former self in recent years: unable to maintain its Championship status, unable to retain the patience of angry and disillusioned fans, and nowadays unable even to properly pay the taxman and its own staff.

Local derbies are supposed to be a matter of pride - when our best goes up against their best with bragging rights at stake - but what is there to be proud of about Reading these days? The beleaguered, hard-working staff who keep going at this mess of a club are a commendable exception, but all in all, it’s a list that gets shorter and shorter by the day. This is hardly the version of Reading Football Club we want to be taking on Oxford United.

So, understandably, there’s rather a lot of dread in the home end about this fixture. Reading sit 23rd in the table after five wins all season while the visitors sit sixth after 11; all the odds and all the evidence point to United making it 12 on Tuesday night. The Royals have endured some sucker-punches this season - on and off the pitch - but being beaten on our own patch by Oxford United would surely be the sourest feeling of them all.

And yet, writing off any side in a local derby is never a good idea. As the old cliche goes, the form book gets chucked out of the window in matches like these, and for all the well-earned pessimism you’ll find among Reading fans at the moment, it’d be foolish to rule out a surprise.

It’s a game when Reading get the opportunity to set a better tone for the rest of the season. Three points on Tuesday night wouldn’t come close to solving the Royals’ wider problems - it wouldn’t even lift us out of the relegation zone - but the potential boost of a local-derby win can’t be understated.

Up the Royals.