By Matthew Williams
I was later than most. It wasn’t until March 4th 2006 that I really believed. Whilst hiking up the snow-covered hill back to Burnley Manchester Road station it finally hit me. Yes, I had known for weeks that we had a staggering lead at the top of the Championship. I had known for weeks that this team was something special. But it was that afternoon, after witnessing Reading produce a comfortable win at Turf Moor, that it really hit me. We were there. The Premiership awaits.
Of course we weren’t mathematically there yet, and of course in football anything can happen, but I’d had weeks and weeks of friends and family telling us we were up and I dismissed them. But now I knew it too, I knew nothing could stop us. Not Watford, not Leeds, not Crystal Palace. Barring a meteor crashing down on the earth or football suddenly being abandoned, Reading would be playing in the Premiership in the 2006/07 season.
Some brave Reading souls started to really believe around Christmas time, some believed it was happening that dark Friday night on the 10th of February when the Sky cameras came to the Madejski and we beat ‘the biggest team in the world’. One romantic soul sitting behind me on Valentines Day at Bramall Lane chose that day as the one when he really started to believe it. And whilst we all would not admit to it until that amazing afternoon in Leicester 3 weeks later, anyone watching the Royals at Burnley on that February day knew that they were watching a team of history makers. A team that would lead the Royals into the Promised Land.
We had played better that season. I don’t think anyone would argue that those 10 league wins in a row in November and December (was it really 10!?) produced some of the best Reading performance of all time, but it was just something about that win at Burnley that seemed to typify our season. It was just, well, easy. The 5-2 win in 2003 aside, Burnley is never a nice place to go. It fulfils every aspect of the ‘grim north’ idea, you can always expect to face a tough, hard-hitting match against a boring side wearing boring colours in a boring stadium in a boring location. Oh, and we always seem to play them on the coldest, darkest, winter day possible. Combine these elements together and you have a Burnley side that always seem to take points off Reading.
This game had all the signs of that happening. We had recently lost our unbeaten run and we were going into this game with a semi-conscious top-scorer, who had been assaulted the previous week by Preston goalkeeper Chris Day. Even the weather had kept its promise, with fans setting off for the game knowing full well there was still a distinct possibility of it being abandoned. All I can say is that I’m thankful for those skiing lessons as I negotiated my way to the ground. But the game was far from slippery, it was far from tough, and it was far from grim for the travelling Royals. Reading were full of confidence, kept the ball well and scored 3 very good goals. We showed strength in depth with two substitutes coming on and immediately assisting in the final two goals, and the day was only marred by the horrific injury to Leroy Lita.
Whilst it was then that I really started to believe, and whilst 3 weeks later I had no choice but to believe when the words ‘congratulations Reading’ appeared on the Walkers Stadium scoreboard and sent me and 2,999 others into raptures, I still am not sure if I really understand the sheer extent of our achievements. I imagine it wont be until I see my team walk out at places like Old Trafford and Anfield and host teams like Chelsea and Arsenal that I can take a step back and say to myself “we’ve done it”.
That’s not to say that the feeling of excitement and sense of achievement has stopped pumping through my veins though. On the contrary, every day I read, watch or hear something that sends the shivers down my spine that only occur when something momentous happens. Every time I pick up the Reading Evening Post, turn on the computer or watch Sky Sports the tingles start and a broad smile appears across my face. It’s a feeling you can’t beat, it has never been a better time to be a Reading fan.
Which is why I believe this summer has gone so fast. As I write the start of pre-season training for the players is less than 24 hours away. Soon we will be back on the training ground, and before we know it we’ll all be at the Madejski Stadium for the visit of Middlesbrough. But there is so much to soak up before then. Whether we stay up comfortably, stay up on a final day decider or get relegated, this season is one to be savoured by the loyal Royals who have waited so long for it all.
So from this article my advice to you is simple; enjoy it! Yes, enjoy seeing all the stars, enjoy seeing players wear the hooped shirt who have more talent than any who have ever worn it before. Enjoy seeing Sonko kick Drogba and Ronaldo up in the air. Enjoy seeing Doyle and Kitson being given the chance to take on Terry and Ferdinand. But ultimately enjoy the little things. It’s these little things that will make this season special, the things that many fans of established Premiership clubs take for granted. The skill and quality of last season means that for at least one year we wont have to set the alarm for 9.20 on a Sunday morning in order to get up for the Championship. It means that every one of our matches will be shown extensively every Saturday night on Sky’s ‘Football First’, and it means that the casual football fan may know more about us than the usual ‘nice stadium’ and ‘that ginger fella in the midfield is supposed to be quite good’.
I’m sure there are tons of Reading fans just like me who got up on a Sunday morning, went down to the local newsagents or Tesco for their Sunday paper, and made the decision on which paper to buy purely on the fact of which one had more than 3 lines about Reading. I’m sure you even bought that League paper for a while, before realising that £1.20 was too much to pay for a paper to tell you about a match you’d actually been too. Well flicking shiftily through the papers uncomfortably whilst the local shop owner stares at you is now a thing of the past. Now think double page spreads, player ratings and a picture of Kevin Doyle that doesn’t read ‘James Harper takes a shot at goal’.
Think sticker books and fantasy teams! How many of us would have thought when completing our first sticker album when we were young that one day we could be opening a packet of stickers and see a Reading player staring back at you!? The prospect of finding a Kevin Doyle shiny probably fills me with way too much excitement for an 18-year-old student who stopped collecting at aged 10. Then of course there are the fantasy teams, something I’m a bit more at ease with admitting I’ll be excited for doing this season! No longer will I be searching the internet for one that uses football league players, (after hours of searching I’ve come to the conclusion there isn’t one) instead every paper will offer the purchases of Nicky Shorey and Graeme Murty, to put in your team alongside Ryan Giggs and Thierry Henry. (Actually, scrap Giggs, Bobby’s going in there!).
Fans of promoted clubs will relate to every word here I’m sure, I know they wont admit to it but I bet every fans mind drifted off to the sticker albums at one point! But what’s strange is that fans of those established clubs will probably read some of this and think I’m over-reacting. Call it over-reacting if you want, but I know for a fact I wasn’t the only one counting down the days until June 22nd when the fixture list was released. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who spent most of that morning at the computer gawping at the screen. ‘Look, our first game of the season is against the UEFA cup finalists, and the second is a trip to the ground that holds the FA cup semi finals!’ To think that we have all described these two opening games as ‘winnable’ and that the talk of being top at the end of August shows just how far we’ve come.
So don’t look at September and October and fill yourself with dread. Be excited for the fact we’re playing Man Utd, West Ham, Chelsea, and Arsenal in a row, because just 5 years ago in that same period our fixtures consisted of Cambridge, Wycombe, Bournemouth and Bury. Of those teams Cambridge our now in the Conference, Bury are fighting to hold on to their existence as well as their league two status, and Bournemouth is now just a nice place for Reading fans to go for a weekend away and not one of our main rivals.
At the beginning of February 2006 I had to change at Manchester Piccadilly station to get on a train to Crewe for our match at Gresty Road. It’s funny to think that at the start of February 2007 I’ll be getting off at Manchester Piccadilly again, not to change for a train to a Championship ground, but to head out of the station and towards the 60,000 seater ‘City of Manchester stadium’, for my Reading team have a date with Manchester City. It’s now not an interesting quirk to be a Reading fan, it’s a reason to be proud as to just how much our team has achieved. Enjoy everything about this season, forget about the shambolic ticket office, the inflation in ticket prices and all the corporate mumbo-jumbo that comes with being in the Premiership, and just enjoy the experience. Enjoy all the little things, from seeing a preview of our weekend match not just on Meridian but on Sky Sports’ preview show, to seeing the club be linked with every young player available at the moment. It doesn’t matter if the rumour doesn’t come true, for I remember last year that our record £1 million signing of Leroy Lita was a mere footnote in the Sun, where as already this year we have had a 4 paragraph article (with headline and all!), linking us with a £5 million move for Joleon Lescott.
Reading have arrived in the Premiership, and whether you believed it last Christmas, at Leicester, on the last day of the season, or are still in disbelief, make sure you savour every second of it. Back the boys all through next year, be loud, be proud, and enjoy our first ever shot at the big time.