A few things keep me awake at night; fear of death, the binmen that come at 2 am every ruddy night, and the 1995 Division 1 Play Off Final between Reading and Bolton Wanderers...
My dad had only started taking us to Elm Park to watch Reading the season before, when we won Division 2. Like a spoilt Manchester United fan, all I knew was success.
Reading had a 40-goal striker in Jimmy Quinn, a brilliant goalkeeper in Shaka Hislop and the archetypal lazy but fast winger in Michael Gilkes. We were great. Moving into Division One the team maintained momentum which took us all the way to second place, the highest Reading FC had ever reached since inception in 1871. Unluckily for us it was a glass ceiling as that season, that bloody year, was the time they reduced the size of the relatively new Premier League to 20 teams. This meant only one team - Middlesborough - went up automatically from Division One that season condemning Reading to the lottery of the Play Offs.
Mark McGhee had left mid-season for Leicester and the chairman initially put four senior players in charge before choosing Jimmy Quinn and Mick Gooding as joint managers. Sensibly they kept things as they were under McGhee but there was a sense we were running out of steam. No matter because, having beaten Tranmere in the semis we were on out way to Wembley to face a strong but beatable Bolton. On that day I was a face-painted 9 year old carrying a homemade Reading flag crafted out of an old pillowcase.
On a beautifully sunny day Reading steamed out of the blocks. Little less than five minutes in Lee Nogan scored a genuinely impressive solo effort. The Reading fans were in dreamland. Just seven minutes later Adie Williams slots home a Simon Osborne free kick. Just 12 minutes gone and two-nil up. This was our year. This was it. We are going to the Premiership.
The Berkshire faithful were already celebrating as Stuart Lovell confidently claimed the ball and placed it on its spot.
Then it happened. The moment. I close my eyes at the thought of it.
Just before half time Michael Gilkes went on one of his trademark runs into the box. Go on Gilkesy. He gets bundled over by Jason McAteer. The referee doesn’t hesitate in giving it. Two goals to the good and a penalty. This is bloody it! The Promised Land beckons. The Berkshire faithful were already celebrating as Stuart Lovell confidently claimed the ball and placed it on its spot. He opted for the left. It is saved.
Saved. He didn’t score. It’s not 3-0. All the excitement and hope was instantly replaced by reality and fear. Doubts crept in made worse by the Bolton players and fans who are suddenly visibly lifted. Half time comes and the Reading crowd are quiet and nervy.
Bolton come out in the second half confident and focused. The Reading players start to lose their way; all of the first-half slick passing and movement dissolves into nervy touches and wayward punts. In the 75th minute Reading concede to an Owen Coyle goal but to our credit Reading don’t collapse. We hold on for a little while longer.
With just six minutes remaining Bolton equalise to take one of the most entertaining play-off finals yet into extra-time. Entertaining that is for the millions of watching neutrals. For us it was nail-biting, feet shuffling, look-to-the-heavens torture.
It was over. We just knew it in our bones. With 120 minutes on the clock and the ref blowing an end to a breaktaking encounter Bolton had completed an incredible – credit where its due – fightback to win 4-3.
We were just one slightly different kick of a football away from winning and that moment haunts me still to this day. As I’m sure it haunts Stuart Lovell and thousands of Reading Fans. 2-0 up and a penalty. 2-0 up and a penalty in the Play-Off Final, how did we not do it? After watching the video back, I’ll be wide-awake tonight.
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