Team: Howie; Gray, Bernal, Primus, Kelly (Brayson), Lovell; Parkie, Caskey, Meaker (Lambert), O'Neil; Fleck.
With Reading already relegated, the final game of the season meant nothing other than a party to say goodbye to 102 years of football at Elm Park. On the day the capacity crowd gave it their all. The party atmosphere was in full swing before the game kicked off - loads of singing, blue and white balloons swirling around Elm Park, everyone with painted faces, cameras, silly hats and lots of Reading fans determined to enjoy their final visit to the ground. The South Bank were in full song and everyone wanted to join in. With hundreds of bits of paper blowing around the pitch, footballs being booted into the crowd, and the youth and womens team running around the pitch the scene was truely set.
It was a shame then that the game had to kick off in an obvious attempt to ruin the day. Unfortunately it wasn't a fitting end to Elm Park - the game was getting towards one of the worst the ground has seen. We didn't deserve this kind of ending, thankfully the ground will be remembered for some of the great games seen here - and not this one. It was a brilliant day marred by a truely crap game.
The most annoying thing was that all we needed to do was give a repeat of the fantastic away performances at Wolves and Notts Forest recently. Playing like that would have easily turned over a Norwich team who made it very clear they had nothing to play for. Tommy Burns described Reading's performace as "flat" after the game - but they didn't go far enough. It was clear the players were all run down. Half of Reading's squad remained injured and those that were available looked knackered after the recent battle against relegation. Rather than play their guts out they made the most of a game where they could relax with - for the first time in the season - nothing to play for.
The game started in a slow stale manner and stayed at that level. Robert Fleck, as everyone had said, was God himself to the Norwich supporters. Fleck ran out to warm up and managed to get a warm reception from the whole ground but an over-heating reception from the away end. Fleck seemed keener than anyone to be in the starting line-up, after injuries to McIntyre and Asaba, but quickly looked like he wasn't sure what side he was playing for. Fleck did well to work his way into the box on a few occasions but more than not he was a yard or two off the pace. Reading's best chance of the half fell to Fleck after a low cross from the right by Michael Meaker. However Fleck continued his dash into the six yard box and somehow failed to connect with the ball at all. Moments later he was guilty of a "clever dummy" that saw the ball played thrgouh from Lovell to a Norwich defender.
The one player who quickly began to stand out for me though was Darren Caskey. For being thoroughly crap. Never have I seen such poor passing. Yes, this was true Sunday league football. Except there were nearly 15,000 people expecting a little more in terms of quality. Every time Caskey got hold of the ball he didn't look up - and moments later the ball would be looping forward into the biggest area of the pitch available that didn't contain a Reading player. Perhaps this was where Reading lost the game. Complete lack of imagination, ideas, and skill from the midfield - we were never going to create chances. Bearing in mind the occasion I'll forgive this once. Lovell seemed to be playing the wing-back roll. But without much success - a shadow of his performance against Wolves. Too many times we was too easily tackled. Kelly failed to impress either. Parkie seemed unusually subdued. Primus scored a few marks for some telling headers to keep it all tight at the back. 0-0 at half time then was no suprise at all.
Half time bought a few laughs with some extremely embarassing attempts by fans to hit the corner-flag from the centre spot. No chance. Kingsley confirmed his position of Number One Football Mascot by lifting up his Reading shirt to show a T-Shirt with "Reading FC Division Two Champions 1998-99" scrawled on it.
Just how bad the game was came apparant when the second half kicked off with the South Bank singing through the names of former Elm Park greats of recent times. And as the second half got away I found myself dreaming away of a huge hoof up the park from Martin Hicks in the centre of defence finding Trevor "God" Senior's head - and then the back corner of the net. If only. If not that - howabout some silky skill from Simon Osbourn and a perfect pass to the feet of Archie Lovell. In my dreams. The atmosphere was brilliant. If we'd have scored the place would have gone mental. Everyone was roaring the team on dreaming of that great final Elm Park result after all the great years at Elm Park. But the players just couldn't provide it.
The old Norwich favourite, Fleck, also had Reading's best chance of the second half. Lambert played the ball to his feet, just left of goal and just outside the Norwich six yard box. Fleck should have buried it but found the top side of the crossbar with his shot instead. Moments later Caskey suprised me by having a long range shot that wasn't too far over. But the ball was always more likely to go in down the other end. After bringing Howie into the game a few times, Norwich almost scored with a one-on-one but Howie dashed out to make the save. Eventually they were bound to spoil the party - and did so with a shot from the left after a simple enough pass forward into the box. 0-1 to Norwich and that was always how it was going to stay.
The difference in the teams had been Norwich's ability to pass the ball around. They won the midfield, and won the game. From the outset it was clear we weren't going to pick anything up from this one. We hit the crossbar but appart from that failed to get another shot on target all game. Lets hope that next season in Division Two we build on the Wolves and Forest games and not this one.
Moments before the final whistle there was a premature mini pitch invasion. And then on the final whistle several hundred legged in on the pitch despite repeated requests for everyone to stay on the terraces. "Stay on the terraces and enjoy them while you can" But some members of the South Bank quickly discovered that ripping bits of the pitch and hurling them was easier to deal with than lumps of South Bank terrace I guess. All of a sudden I found lumps of Elm Park turf flying above my head as a turf fight broke out. Soon everyone made their way back into the South Bank with the promise of Tommy Burns giving us a speech and the team coming out. However, I think Tommy was as disappointed as the rest of us, he gave us a weak clap, talked to a TV crew and then buggered off. The team came out, got applauded, and then left the pitch. And all of a sudden those sad feelings took a grip for the first time all afternoon.
In a cunning club plan to calm everyone down the Reading Womens team came out to have a kick around with the Youth team (who incidently played them off the park)- which resulted in everyone slowly filtering out of the ground. When we left the South Bank was two thirds empty. Rows and rows of terracing covered with paper and burst balloons. And somone walking out with the infamous South Bank "language" sign (so much for the club auction!)
A sad day - but lets look forward to a bright future next season, and onwards, at the Madejski Stadium.
Look out for a farewell to Elm Park special appearing on these pages soon - a full pictorial guide to the final Elm Park game. Also look out for a summary of the season and news - throughout the summer months.