For the first time since 1927, Reading Football Club are in an FA Cup Semi-Final.
The Royals, currently managed by ex-Chelsea assistant manager, Steve Clarke, find themselves in the last four of this season’s competition, courtesy of a 3-0 Quarter-Final replay win over Bradford City on March 16th.
Safe from relegation in the Sky Bet Championship, the FA Cup provides hope for the Royals faithful in a season that otherwise promises to peter out.
Standing in their way of an FA Cup Final appearance are the current holders, Arsenal. Arsene Wenger’s charges will be looking to brush aside Championship opposition on their way to a second consecutive Final – but the Berkshire outfit will surely have other ideas.
Regular contributor to ‘The Tilehurst End’, Dave Harris, takes up the task of detailing the history of Reading Football Club…
”Reading FC was formed in 1871, as a result of a meeting held at the Bridge Street Rooms in the town centre. The meeting was chaired by J.E. Sydenham, who is the name most synonymous with the inauguration of the club.’
‘After 24 years as an amateur club, Reading turned professional in 1895, as a result of joining the Southern League in 1894. In order to enable larger crowds to attend the new league matches, Reading FC moved to a purpose-built facility at Elm Park in 1896. Prior to this, the club played at a variety of locations across the town, including Reading Recreation Ground, Reading Cricket Ground, Coley Park and Caversham Cricket Ground.’
‘Reading’s Southern League history was – as is typical with the rest of the club’s history – undistinguished. We did win the Second Division in 1911, but failed to really make a mark. Becoming founder members of the new Division Three South in 1920, we did have two distinguished players at the time – Johnny Holt and Herbert Smith – both of whom won England caps whilst at Reading. Reading’s first promotion in the new league system came in 1925/26, when the club won Division Three South. The following season, the club gained their first FA Cup Semi-Final appearance. Sadly, it culminated in a 3-0 defeat to eventual winners Cardiff City at Molineux. Reading were eventually relegated in 1931 back to Division Three South, finishing runners up twice, inspired by club record league goalscorer Ron Blackman, but failed in their promotion bids as only the Champions were promoted back then. Reading stayed at Third Division level for 40 years, when they were eventually relegated to Division Four for the first time in their centenary year.’
‘The 1970’s saw Reading yo-yo between Divisions Three and Four, whilst the 1980’s was a turbulent decade. Financial trouble in the early part of the decade saw the infamous crook, Robert Maxwell, audaciously attempt to merge both Reading and Oxford United to create the ‘Thames Valley Royals’. He nearly succeeded, but the intervention of Roy Tranter and former player, Roger Smee, saw the merger defeated in the High Court. Reading’s first ever visit to Wembley in March 1988 saw the Royals triumph against Luton Town in the Simod Cup final; a 4-1 scoreline totally reflective of Reading’s dominance that day.’
‘The 1990’s was a period of change. The decade started with Reading in more serious financial trouble, with the club being purchased by Auto Trader magnate, John Madejski. Madejski appointed former Scottish international striker Mark McGhee as his first manager. McGhee took time to settle, but season-on-season improvement culminated in the Division Two title. Unfortunately, 1994/95 was the season the Premier League was reduced in size from 22 to 20 sides, so only two promotion places were available to the Champions and Play-Off winners. Reading triumphed in the Play-Off Semi-Final, 3-1 on aggregate against Tranmere Rovers, but succumbed in devastating fashion at Wembley in the Final, 4-3 against Bolton Wanderers. The 1997/98 season – the final and 101st season at Elm Park – ended in relegation after a disastrous campaign.’
‘After moving into their new home, the Madejski Stadium, in 1998, the Royals were defeated in the Play-Offs again in 2001, as Alan Pardew’s side suffered another heart-breaking defeat, this time 3-2 against Walsall. Promotion was achieved the following season, before the 2002/03 campaign saw Reading reach the Play-Offs once more, falling at the Semi-Final stage, losing 3-1 to Wolves. 2006 was a glorious year, with a record haul of 106 points seeing Reading win the Championship, before taking the Premier League by storm the following year, finishing in 8th position, just outside the UEFA Cup qualifying positions. Reading were sadly relegated back to the Championship on the final day in 2008 and yet again experienced defeat in the Play-Offs, losing 3-0 on aggregate to Burnley in the Semi-Finals in their first season back in the second tier in 2008/09. 2010/11 saw the Royals finish in the top six once more, but suffered Play-Off heartbreak once more, losing 4-2 to Swansea City in the Final.’
‘The following season saw Reading win the Championship for the second time, but the subsequent Premier League season was a disaster, as a lack of manager-sanctioned investment saw the majority of the budget spent on free transfers and high wages, on substandard players like Pavel Pogrebnyak and Danny Guthrie, as Reading finished 19th.’
‘2014/15 has been the worst so far at the Madejski, but a run to the Semi-Finals of the FA Cup, courtesy of new manager Steve Clarke, has glossed over the league campaign somewhat.”
As mentioned above, the Royals are in the final four after defeating League One side, Bradford City, 3-0 in a replay at the Madejski, after a goalless draw at the Coral Windows Stadium in the original tie. Reading fan, Alex Everson, stated how both games ‘lacked quality’, citing his sides’ ability to rest players as a factor in their victory.
”The two matches against Bradford were typically ‘English’ affairs’ said Alex. ‘The first game especially typified the tradition of hard hitting, fast paced, frantic football. Sadly, the games did lack quality, but both teams left nothing on the field in either game – ultimately, I think that’s what cost Bradford.’
‘The game before the replay, Reading could afford to rest ten players, whilst Bradford could only rest five or six. To me, this showed how much Reading had given up on their league season. 3-0 in the replay flattered us, in the sense that with a fully fit squad and not 48 hours after an away league match, Bradford would have given us a closer game. However, going 1-0 down after less than ten minutes must have seen their heads drop very quickly – after that, with Reading having the fresher players, they were fighting a losing battle.”
With Aston Villa and Liverpool contesting the other Semi-Final, neutrals may see the draw as the ‘bigger’ sides – Arsenal and Liverpool – avoiding each other before the show-piece occasion. When asked about the draw, Royals fan, Michele Mead, spoke of how she wanted the ‘weaker’ side in Aston Villa, but is pleased to just be in the Semi-Final, nonetheless: ”I’m just happy we are there; getting to the Semi-Final is something I never really expected before this season began.’
‘I did say before the draw that I would have liked Aston Villa – they knocked us out at the Quarter-Final stage a few years ago… it would have been nice to get a different result!”
For a club like Reading, the Semi-Finals of the FA Cup is usually uncharted territory. Roger Titford, member of STAR (Supporters Trust at Reading), told me that expectations were low with regards to progression before the season kicked off: ”Third or Fourth Round would’ve been the expectation with the team we’ve got. There is always the faint chance that a) the manager decides to take the competition seriously and b) we manage to avoid serious opposition in the draw as long as possible. Both of these things have happened – hurrah. Now we need a great result to go with them!”
For many football fans, the FA Cup is a special competition. It is THE competition. So, for a club like Reading, who haven’t tasted Semi-Final football in it for nearly 90 years, what does it mean to make such an occasion?
”From a personal point of view, it’s great to be part of a moment in history for Reading’ said Alex. ‘However, at the end of the day, we all strive to watch our clubs play in the biggest games. Reading have been lucky over the past few years to play in some big games – two FA Cup Quarter-Finals, a Play-Off final, and a Play-Off semi final, all in the space of the last decade. The club is ‘used’ to playing in big games – I think it’s sad, but unfortunately, it does feel like sometimes our fan base has come to expect Reading to be competing in these types of big games on a more regular basis.”
Roger stated how the cup run had felt a ‘bit flat’: ”On one level its brilliant and I’m delighted that I’ll see a piece of history. Being realistic, the fact an Arsenal fan drew Arsenal – our ultimate bogey team – out of the hat has rather killed the hope in the whole enterprise. We haven’t really had any heroic victories on the way to Wembley either, so it’s a bit flatter than I would have expected.”
The Semi-Final appearance for Michele, however, means a lot for family reasons: ”It’ll be wonderful to be there – to witness part of our history will be fantastic. Personally, it means that I have been part of something that my Grandfather – who was a Reading fan – never got to do. Sadly, he passed away before the start of the 2006/07 season, so he didn’t see us in the Premier League either, but he knew we’d been promoted. He always wanted to see Reading do well in the FA Cup, so I’ll be thinking of him against Arsenal!”
Finally, Dave echoed the thoughts of Roger, agreeing that the run to Wembley had lacked excitement. ”Every season, we go into the Third Round draw hoping that it will be our year. Having had to witness the likes of Chesterfield, Wigan and Wycombe get a glorious run to the last four, knowing you’d love to have a go at it yourself, well, it makes you more than envious!’
‘I have witnessed every minute of this season’s competition – it’s not been quite as exciting as one would have hoped. It certainly hasn’t been as exciting as our run to the Quarter-Finals in 2010 and 2011, when we beat Premier League teams for fun (Liverpool, Burnley, West Brom and Everton), but we still haven’t had it easy, having had to play every round away from home. I feel an immense level of pride that we’ll finally get to pit our wits in this famous old competition at Wembley – sadly, we’re playing a side we have never even drawn against in 12 attempts!”
Should Reading progress to the FA Cup Final, they will need performances of the highest quality from everyone involved. When asked about his sides’ ‘ones to watch’, Alex pointed out the need for the defence to be on their guard for the ninety (or more) minutes: ”I would love to say the ones to watch for Reading will be playing up front. However, the players I think will be making the difference for us (fingers crossed!) are going to have to be Chris Gunter at right back – who has to keep Sanchez quiet throughout the game – and alongside him, it’s imperative that Michael Hector and Adam Federici are both at the top of their games.’
‘Going forward, Arsenal will have to keep an eye on Jamie Mackie, who has worked wonders since Steve Clarke came in. He would probably be in the running for Player of The Year had he not had a poor start to the season under Adkins. Along with Mackie, I would hope that Danny Williams has a strong performance in midfield, although, injury concerns may rule him out.”
The view from the opposition comes from Arsenal fan, Kieran Daly. When asked about the draw and his teams’ chances of retaining the FA Cup, Kieran was in a confident mood: ”I’m very confident [that we can see things through v Reading]. We are playing so well at the minute; the Liverpool game at home was testament to that.’
‘I feel confident enough, however, having always supported Arsenal, we’ll make hard work of it. It’s what we do!”
So, from Spartan South Midlands Division One side, Baldock Town, to Wembley, Reading and Arsenal. Who’ll be my FA Cup Final team?
It’s Reading v Arsenal in the FA Cup Semi-Finals, this Saturday, April 18th. Kick-Off at Wembley Stadium is at 5:20pm, with the tie being shown LIVE on BBC One.
Dave Harris’ Predicted Reading Line-Up (4-2-3-1): Adam Federici (GK); Chris Gunter, Alex Pearce (C), Michael Hector (if not fit, Zat Knight), Jordan Obita; Daniel Williams (if not fit, Hope Akpan), Nathaniel Chalobah (if not fit, Jem Karacan); Garath McCleary, Oliver Norwood/Jamie Mackie, Hal Robson-Kanu; Pavel Pogrebnyak.
Alex Everson’s Predicted Reading Line-Up (4-5-1): Adam Federici (GK); Chris Gunter, Alex Pearce (C), Michael Hector, Jordan Obita; Jamie Mackie, Oliver Norwood, Daniel Williams, Nathaniel Chalobah, Hal-Robson Kanu; Pavel Pogrebnyak.
Roger Titford’s Predicted Reading Line-Up (4-5-1): Adam Federici (GK); Chris Gunter, Alex Pearce (C), Michael Hector, Jordan Obita; Garath McCleary, Nathaniel Chalobah, Daniel Williams, Oliver Norwood, Hal Robson-Kanu; Pavel Pogrebnyak.
Kieran Daly’s Predicted Arsenal Line-Up (4-5-1): Wojciech Szczęsny (GK), Hector Bellerin, Per Mertesacker (C), Gabriel Paulista, Kieran Gibbs; Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Francis Coquelin, Danny Welbeck; Olivier Giroud.
Score Predictions: Dave: Reading 1-4 Arsenal. Alex: ‘Heart? 0-0 and a Reading win on penalties. Head? Reading 0-4 Arsenal.’ Roger: Reading 0-4 Arsenal. Michele: ‘Unfortunately, as one of the best teams in England, it will be a very, very tough ask to beat Arsenal, but, I will predict we will do everything we can to win – if we don’t, then it has been historic, if we do, then what a result!’ Kieran: Reading 1-4 Arsenal.
Check out the rest of the FA Cup journey here: https://marklitchfieldblog.wordpress.com/fa-cup-20142015/
See how Arsenal got on in the FA Cup Final HERE.