27 March 1999
Reading 1 Man City 3
Howie, Gray, Barras, Casper, Maybury (sent off), Parkinson, Caskey, Houghton
(Bernal), McLaren, McKeever(Scott), McIntyre.
This was without doubt the most important game of the season so far - Reading five points outside of a play-off spot, and Manchester City being that team we needed to catch. A real six pointer in which nothing but the win would do. With both teams in form, Reading unbeaten in six - a run including four straight wins - the scene was set. The game was vital, the opposition was Manchester City, Reading included four of their five new signings in the line-up and on the bench, and it was a beautiful day. It was therefore, no suprise that people turned up in their thousands. Twenty thousand to be precise - to record the Madejski Stadium's highest ever attendance, without doubt the largest gate receipts in the history of the club, and the biggest crowd to watch the Royals at home for decades. Before the game kicked off, predictably 30 minutes late, the atmopshere was amazing with the whole East Stand in fine voice, and the away end sold out. All of this was too perfect. It had to go wrong, and so it did.
However there were great signs from the off, with Reading having the upper hand for at least the first 30 minutes. With Murty injured in came McLaren, a 100,000 quid signing on Thursday, as a straight swap down the right wing. After Bernal's shocking performance at Luton mid-week, on-loan signing Maybury came straight in at right back to give us a whole new look down one side. More good news was Parkinson starting in midfield when I was convinced he was suspended. Barras, who made his move to Reading permanent this week, partnered Casper in the centre of a four man defence. With Scott on the bench, the only missing new signing was Sean Evers, signed from Luton for half a million - but currently injured.
Reading looked determined - it was clear we were up for winning this game. Very quickly McLaren showed promising signs down the right wing. McLaren, a solid looking player, certainly had the speed and skill needed for a winger, but unlike many was also very direct. Serveral times he set off down the wing almost generating chances. Twice he put over crosses to McIntyre in the middle which were just too close to the keeper and were caught. However the third one was just that bit better - a perfect cross out of keeper's reach but onto the head of McIntyre. McIntyre connected well with the ball but it sailed over the Man City crossbar.
Being roared on by the East Stand Reading continued to keep the pressure up. Parkinson was playing in true Parkinson style to maintain possession in the middle and Houghton was dispensing the ball with some accuracy. Reading were playing some great "Tommy Burns" style football that forced City to defend. Unfortuantely it was probably the best defence that Reading have played against all season. We continued to whip crosses in but the defence was more than equal. Where we have scored recently has been straight down the middle, but these balls were picked up every time. Sensibly enough we were using the wings a fair bit, but it seemed impossible to find a way through, despite the obvious effort. McKeever had the best chance of the half just inside the area left of centre. It looked like we was going to score but he didn't.
Instead, on the half hour, Man City won a free kick a fair distance outside the area. The ball was curled round the wall towards the left side of the net. Perfectly on target but not massively powerful I thought Howie would probably make the save as he started his dive to his right. But moments later the ball was nestling in the back of the net. 1-0 to City. With the game approaching half time it could have been two. Howie came racing off his line and did well to head the ball away from the forward just outside the area. Unfortunately the ball dropped to another City player who, with Howie way off his line, lobbed the ball toward the goal. With Houghton racing back to cover the ball was just high and wide.
Although we'd looked the best side for the opening 45 minutes somehow we didn't look like we could score. Full credit to Reading for some fairly pacey football - always moving the ball forwards. City, however looked well equipped for it. Everything was going to the away side's plans.
Right from the start of the second half Reading began to fade badly. With each minute ticking by Reading dropped more and more out of the game, and it was quickly clear there was to be only one outcome. More passes failed to reach targets, and the players appeared to accept there was no way back.
Man City sensing victory was theirs stepped up a gear. At the same time Reading's defence began to display some of the inadequencies shown at Luton. Casper was clearly struggling playing in a back four. He's superb at marshalling a five man defence as sweeper, but looked unsteady at times as City swept forward.
The game was put beyond doubt when new signing Barras was caught out at the back. He failed to close in on the man he was supposed to be marking and the player ran loose leaving Barras in his tracks. The ball was fired home from the edge of the area.
Not longe after there was more trouble for Reading. In a similar situation loanee Maybury was outpaced. He ran together with the forward for a bit, with it looking like a fifty-fifty situation. However as they came closer to the edge of the box Maybury found himself the wrong side of the man and ball, and with the City player about to shoot was forced to pull him back before he broke into the box. A definate professional foul. The referee had been slow with decisions all afternoon, so it was no suprise to see him consult the linesman before showing Maybury the red card, and awarding City a free kick in a central position right on the edge of the box.City found a huge whole in a badly contructed wall and fired a low free kick goal bound. Howie couldn't reach it and it hit the bottom right corner of the net. 0-3. All of a sudden after our bright first half it looked like a case of how many more City would get with the Reading defence all over the place.
Three goals down, and a man short, Bernal came on for Houghton. City almost made it four with a shot against the Reading bar from inside the area with Howie beaten. The rebound came out and looked like a certainty but was blasted over from close range. Moments after that the away side hit the post as in came shot after shot.
With at least a third of the ground empty as fans trailed off to catch the start of the England game, on came Scott to make his debut for the Royals. Scott, regarded by almost all as a disappointing signing for a new centre forward, had been booed by some stupid elements of the home crowd when the line-ups were announced, and must have felt he had a point to prove. To be fair he did cause some problems in the City defence even before he scored. In the dying moments of the game Gray or McIntyre drove over a low cross from the left. Scott, outside the area, had done well to lose the defence to give himself plenty of time on the ball. He took his time and finished well to pull back a consolation goal for the Royals. 1-3.
At the final whistle Reading had been well beaten. But thankfully it wasn't for a lack of trying. The effort and determination was there for all to see during the first half. However, the second half performance wasn't really up to scratch. If we'd have grabbed the first goal it might have been a different story - but as it was the away side were just a better side and easily deserved the full three points to almost book their play-off spot. McLaren looks like a great winger and was hard to fault and Scott scored on his debut. Maybury I thought was disappointing after getting caught out badly - he was good coming forward, but not a convincing debut. The prospect of Murty and McLaren down the same wing is pure excitement. We're not going up this season, but there are things to look forward too.