Wednesday, May 04, 2011


The fear that haunts this town. The juggernaut popped into BP for petrol and the driver slipped on an oil spill. Automatic promotion is long since an Avenue of Pleasure that has been closed off. So, after an improbable run of form, it is the peh. It is the pluh. It is the the pluh pluh play-offs.

I can't say the word without an Arkwright-style nervous stammer. As Steve McLaren would no doubt himself reckon "these are how you shay, big gamesh?". And, as we know, RFC just don't win big, one-off, season-changing games. Our history is littered with big-game failures, our only FA Cup semi final in 1927 ended in a thrashing. We were 2 up last season with hopes of putting history right in an FA Cup quarter final and naturally stacked it. We are the footballing version of Tim Henman. Just with a posher, wetter fan base.

The feeling was oh so different in 1995. Halcyon days. Step haircuts. Fresh Prince. The Boo Radleys were in the popular hit parade. Steve Beddow wearing shorts, sweatshirt and a baseball cap was nothing to be scared of. John Madejski was so excited at reaching Wembley he left the Bentley in the garage and walked there. Giant foam hands were in vogue. Reading faced Tranmere Rovers in the play-offs, John Aldridge was at the very height of his cuntishness. Having been doubled by the Birkenhead boys in the regular season, we ran into them like a Thames Turbo. I watched this game from the comfort of my front room, with Year 10 exams the following day precluding me from joining the fun on Merseyside. We led through Archie-Lee Nogan-Lovell but Chris Malkin's funny face put them level. A score draw would be useful in those complicated days of away goals counting double, but Nogan-Lovell notched twice in the second half in front of the travelling faithful and back home I became so I excited I threw the remote control at the wall which smashed into two pieces. The remote control that is, not the wall.

Contextually, the reader would do well to recall or realise that televised RFC games back then were rarer than hen's teeth or a Mark McGhee slimfast diet. Prior to demolishing Tranmere, only 2 RFC games hd ever been broadcast in their entirety on network television. Now (most of) the country could see that we were in fact by far the greates team the world had ever seen. John Helm and Ian St John on commentary were purring about the Reading performance. Ian St John! That is 50% of Saint and fucking Greavise! The second leg couldn't, and happily, wouldn't live up to those heights as we clung on for a niller at EP. On an evening where everyone expcted Tranmere to suddenly score twice and take things into extra time, John Aldridge just wandered around with his hands on his hips and Chris Malkin's face appeared less ugly than usual. Wembley.

Wembley. 40,000 Reading fans! The average home gate that season was a little over 9k. Hello! Family affair, coach load of us on a bus run by my brother's football club. Radio 210 roadshow pumping out Young At Heart by The Bluebells as some Pat Sharp wannabe implored a perplexingly large crowd of onlookers to chant Shaka's name. Shaka. Now there is the ultimate man-crush. Shaka Shaka what's the score? Reading to win by four. I hope you can read this, Brian Moore. Nogan-Lovell twisty-turns Stubbs - they should have hired O'Reilly - and even down the far end we can tell that is a special, special goal. Captain Adie toe pokes an Osborn freekick wide of Branagan. Reading are going to be promoted to the Premier League.

But the players are tired, injuries catch up, Bolton are lifted by the penalty miss and yet even then they can only score twice late on. Blood sweat and tears literally in the stands, as during extra time claret pours down my wrist from fingernails literally chewed off. De Freitas scored lateus and caused a hiatus. I look down the aisle for a loving smile from my dear mother, attending a rare football match in her capacity as matriarchal day-tripper. I got a pained frown back, an expression forever etched on the inside of my eye-lids. More about my family in trauma at a Reading play-off final shortly.

In 2001, there was a touch more wariness all round, having experienced that hurt. But when you score twice in the last three minutes to turn around a play-off semi final it is hard not to go hatstand and get caught up in the tsunami of belief and emotion. When Fozzie went down to win that penalty, I couldn't cope with the enormity of going from emptiness to ecstasy within about 180 seconds so I burst into stress-induced tears. The rebound was tucked away by the hero of the hour and I laugh-cried, my brother made a beeline for the pitch, police horses ran into each other, James Harper shook a marauding hand. Cardiff.

Cardiff. 30,000 Reading fans! The average that season was a little over 12k. Hello! Family affair again, STAR desperately appeal for coach stewards so my father and I take up the responsibility and I rather sourly warn a young child in face paint how stupid he is going to look if we lose. Cues for the toilets at the Millennium, people pissing in the ink. Kingsley. Terry and June on the tannoy, to the joy of around a third of the 'Reading support' for the day. What seemed like three coachloads of Walsall fans at the far end. We lead through Curo as Walker lets a shot squirm under him, maybe we will be repaid for the luck that deserted us 6 years before. Not so; Don Goodman nets early in the second and goes on to taunt us by featuring on SKY commentary for years to come.

Butler scores in the first minute of extra time, around 180 seconds after the bloke to my left asks whether it is golden goal. No need now, we've won I beam, like Grandpa Joe on discovery of a Golden Ticket, after Butler's flick nestles nicely. I can track that as the precise moment when any shred of optimism about anything ever to come departed my soul. Rougier's own goal was so ridiculous it should have been chalked out as a once-a-lifetime fluke, not befitting such a big stage. Then Byfield sprayed the ball home from distance into the only part of the goal which Whitehead couldn't reach to win the game and go home to smash through Jamelia. The faint echo of Walsall fans in the corner was like a ghostly ripple of Bolton cheers from a far away nightmare. My Uncle at the end of the row was in tears. Why cry when a football team fucks up? You should just be full of empty, frowning, head-shaking contempt. I leave the ground pronto, shouting something unecessary at a police officer. Yeah, big man. And in the background we can hear fireworkers and even fainter cries of Walsall fans.

Not going through that again. And in recent years RFC has thankfully spared us play-off final heartache. By losing in the semis. In 2003 we led Wolves, Fozzie got injured and we were finished - echoes of a Kebe-less 2011 future I fear? - and we left Molineux covered in spit and shrapnel. In the second leg we largely dominated, but without our talisman we couldn't convert and Alex Rae notched near the end and celebrated like Mr Punch enjoying a spot of domestic violence. Out of the darkness cometh light. Vomit. And again 2 years ago; Coppell's tired team finished 4th in a 3 horse race, dominate Burnley for three hours and lost 3-0. We're actually getting worse at this aren't we?

There is of course no reason for the current side to be haunted by the spectre of the past. But the supporters of course will be nervous, remniscent, edgy and that may transmit to the team. Perhaps. The play-offs, we are told, are a lottery and just as there is never any reason to expect to win a lottery, I do not expect us to win these play-offs. Whilst it would be therapy indeed to squeeze out Cardiff, Swansea, Forest or maybe Leeds it is probably too dangerous to let hope in. For it is the hope that kills you.


Blogger Bradley said...

Perfectly put Floyd - the emotions evoked by memories of the 95 and 01 playoff finals fill me with dread, and remind me that the mistake I made both times was in fact, allowing hope, and even complacency to sneak in. I will not be making that mistake again..... Unless we're winning 2-0 and get a penalty.....

3:15 PM  

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