Once upon a time there was an athletics stadium. Despite the lack of roof, poor view and terrible atmosphere it regularly hosted professional football (and if it had been doing so yesterday then the RSC would have been dealing with cases of hyperthermia and trench foot). Three of its bigger stars were Glenn Murray, who would bang in the goals before sticking his hand on his head, Nathan Jones who would perform back heels and step overs, and Inigo Calderon who would give 100% every week and be a generally all-round top bloke. Yesterday the three of them combined to serve up some top draw entertainment (if poor quality football) in altogether noisier and more comfortable surroundings.
Let’s start at the beginning though, because all good stories do. Had we gone two down in 25 minutes, drawn and dropped a place under Sami this blog may have self combusted with anger. Yet here I am writing it in relative calm with a coffee and a jaunty air. Why on earth is that? I can’t honestly answer, except for that old cliché of a last minute equalizer being as good as a winner and to say that somehow, yesterday, something was different. Little things. We drove rather than getting the train, The Bridge car park providing ample evidence that BMW drivers are still James Blunts at Christmas. The home dug out had moved back to the North end and there was a man outside it in a suit, giving instructions. In the stands banners and accusation had been replaced with Merry Christmas, handshakes, songs and ticker tape. It was a damn fine day out at the football, much better than cold meats, television “specials” and Granddad’s farts anyway, even with the cold and wet.
I had written a preview for The Tilehurst End that had very deliberately not mentioned HIM. Partly it was the innest of in jokes (referring to the last line of Ulloa’s song “we won’t mention Murray any more”). Partly it was because HE hasn’t been tearing up any trees this season, having notched only six goals this season before yesterday. Typically HE dominated the first half. In fact within 38 seconds I had to mention HIM because HE scored. We came out looking pumped up but forgot to flick the “start” button. Hal Robson-Kanu waltzed unchallenged down the West Wing before crossing low for Simon Cox and while he couldn’t convert the chance the loose ball fell to Murray who literally walked it in. One nil Reading. FFS.
That was it. When we score early we almost always concede. But as the confidence drained from our players there was only one side who were going to score as Reading poured forward and we made individual mistake after individual mistake at the back, Halford playing an awful pass and mis-controlling a pass within minutes and Dunk barging Cox over in the box. Luckily, referee Graham Salisbury who had a baffling afternoon all round, failed to give it. It didn’t really matter though, Reading were bound to add a second and they did on twenty six minutes. This time we switched off at a set piece and Murray finished off a swift spot of head tennis. Five minutes later we lost Darren Bent to injury. And they said Sami was unlucky.
At this point a better side would have put us away three, four or even five nil. Luckily for us Reading are not a better side. They have had their own problems this season, losing 6-1 at Birmingham and losing Nigel Adkins soon after. Nathan Jones rallied the troops, soaking his best suit in to the bargain and glory be, we started to come back in to it. Murray was still having a cracker up front for them but the mobility of Craig Mackail-Smith worried a porous looking Reading back line much more than Bent had and we got about them down the wings. One such raid on forty minutes resulted in a throw. We never do anything from throws so I took the chance to answer one of The Boy’s many questions. When I looked up the ball was in the net. A replay showed we had utilised the long throw, as if Pulis himself was already here, Dunk had flicked on and JFC had converted at the back post while Reading stood and watched. No doubt the move had thrown them. I’ll get my coat. A couple of minutes later we should have equalized. The half time pie queue was therefore a lot more cheery, though thanks to Sodexo it didn’t actually yield a pie. Never mind.
We dominated the second half. Presumably Nathan had stood there in his wet suit and applied the hair dryer to the players rather than his clothing. CMS hustled and bustled. Halford looked reborn. Colounga was all over the place in a good way. JFC chased and harried. Even Gardner got involved. We made two excellent changes. March coming on for Benno before Sir Paddy arrived for Holla (but not before the latter had nearly equalized with a thirty yard piledriver) and twinkled his toes around the Reading midfield. Meanwhile Reading made the stupidest substitution of the day, taking off Murray who I can only think was injured or not 100% match fit to start with. Still we couldn’t score. In the season Reading got promoted they had beaten us 1-0 with an early goal after which Federici had a miracle game and he looked like repeating it again yesterday. One point blank save from a March diving header was so good I was nearly two rows forward before I realised we hadn’t scored. The Boy and his mate went red.
Jones changed it up some more, pushing Halford up front and leaving only three at the back. Luckily Dunk had recovered from his spell of pushitis and was doing the work of two men with ease. We were so close……
And then. It had to be Inigo. Captain for the day and, as usual giving every last drop of sweat he poured in to the box with a minute of regular time left to meet a low Colunga cross and drive in to the centre of the goal. Federici collapsed. The Amex went mental. We went mental. More tickertape. More hand shakes. It finished 2-2.
After the Millwall game I had wanted to give the whole thing up. Yesterday it felt good to be a football fan again. As we got soaked on the way back to The Bridge the boys agreed.