Go back to the 20th of April 2002, and the last day of the Division Two season, and there was nothing better than being a Reading fan. A victory for the home side at Griffin Park on that day would have seen the Royals condemned to another season in the Second Division, and at times it seemed that might well happen. When Brentford took the lead the play-off horrors of the season before flashed before us. It was up to Jamie Cureton to finally put those nightmares to bed and send Reading into Division One with a late goal in front of a jubilant traveling support. The manner of the victory sparked massive celebrations - the size of which were only matched by hangovers in Reading on Sunday morning.
It was a great moment in the history of the club. The celebrations were followed up by the team's bus ride round the town, finishing at a nearly full blue and white Madejski Stadium where fans applauded the team, the manager Alan Pardew, and chairman John Madejski. Looking round the stadium, which is clearly fit for bigger things, filled with such excitement, it was easy to imagine teams like Derby and Leicester visiting in just a few months time and Reading marching onwards towards the Premiership. The stage was set and no-one could wait for the new season.
The dramatic end to last season now seems a distant memory as the Royals prepare for the Division One campaign. The celebrations disguised the fact that we managed just a single win in the last ten games of the season. And that was in Division Two. You have to go all the way back to February 2002 to find Reading's last home victory - a 1-0 win over Stoke City. We' d picked up just enough points to squeeze into second place, and if the season had continued for another week or two we probably wouldn't have made it.
That poor run of results would point to the need to strengthen the squad for the new Division - after all it's taken us a long time to get promotion and the last thing we need is instant relegation. The collapse of ITV Digital has shown all football fans how delicate the sport has become - and shown Reading fans that John Madejski's pocket is not bottomless. The close season has seen the departure of Keith Jones, Neil Smith, and Matt Robinson - although thankfully all three of these players would have struggled to make an appearance in a Division One line-up. At the time of writing we haven't increased the squad at all and it's looking increasingly likely that there won't be any new signings of note.
The club continues to tell fans they have no money for new players, and if it wasn't bad enough they seem determined to squeeze the fans for every last penny. The party seems to have ended and it appears to be payback time. Loyal season ticket holders are being stung by a 35% increase in season ticket renewal costs. Pre-season friendlies against non-glamourous Premiership opposition (West Ham and Charlton) have been priced at a ridiculous £20 for tickets on the night of the game. With a series of decent sides visiting the Madejski this season in competitive matches, many fans may decide to hold out until the new season kicks-off.
Perhaps the club are doing a good job of lowering expectations (Reading fans are famous for expecting too much) for what is certain to be a much tougher season. Reading remain a club on the up but we need to stabalise before making the next jump forward. Attendances are certain to increase with the draw of some big clubs visiting Reading, and season ticket sales have reached record numbers despite the price increases.
The recently announced television deal will bring in some much needed money, so perhaps there may be funds for new players before the new season kicks off. We've got a good squad from last season and if we steer clear of injuries then we should be well capable of doing something in Division One. If we get a good start to the new season then the party will continue where it left off in April. Realistically, mid-table will do just fine - for this season at least.
This article appeared in the 14 July 2002 edition of Sport First