To provide the Reading perspective of this weekend’s FA Cup clash, Width of a Post is very proud to welcome long-standing Royals support Robert Langham.
Robert is the co-editor and founder of the highly acclaimed, non-partisan Football League blog – The Two Unfortunates. He is also co-author of the excellent book ‘Falling for football’ and has contributed articles for The Blizzard.
Two similar but contrasting matches sum up my main memories of encounters between Reading and Bradford City; two clubs who haven’t met for over a decade now.
In September 1993, an afternoon off work allowed me to saunter up the motorway to Valley Parade for an early season meeting between the two sides. Both had started that third tier (I forget what the ‘correct’ title for the division was at that point) season well and after a kamikaze 3-2 defeat at Wrexham on the Saturday, I wasn’t confident.
Barrel chested Sean McCarthy had started the campaign auspiciously and ended up scoring twice, but the night was the Royals’ – Mark McGhee’s team are still perhaps the most pleasing on the eye that supporters have ever had the pleasure to witness and as a 4-0 lead was established, I was left with that all too rare realisation for a lower division fan – that we were good – really good.
My pleasure was also enhanced in that I was one of approximately 35 Reading fans there to see it – occupying the low roofed standing side of the stadium allocated for away supporters, I hopped from foot to foot in unseasonably cold weather and had plenty of space to run around celebrating a victory which was a major staging post en route to the league title the following May.
But perhaps the most significant fact to emerge that day was the identity of the scorer of the opening goal – one Philip Parkinson.
‘Parky’ was still at the club for the other match that permeates my memory – but he didn’t play almost exactly half a decade later when Bradford made their last ever visit to Reading’s old Elm Park ground in its final season.
With North London flatmate and Bantams fan James in tow, this time, I felt that victory should be within the Royals’ grasp – a new manager in Terry Bullivant and a new striker in Carl Asaba promised a new broom. But like the earlier game, and if season opening days are notoriously unreliable indicators, the matches that follow throughout a typical August and September can be oracular.
My pal was clearly echoing my thoughts about his team being good from the moment Jamie Lawrence angled a clever header beyond Steve Mautone. Two Nigel Pepper goals followed and, in the words of then Bantams manager, Chris Kamara (I wonder what happened to him?), “it was too easy for us…we could have scored half-a-dozen”. ‘Kammy’ was sacked in the January but the groundwork was laid for Paul Jewell to take the club into the top flight two years later.
As for Parkinson, a career that spanned 11 years makes him one of Reading’s more storied players and a true club legend. As well as that 1993/4 championship, he was to captain the club to promotion in 2001/2, displaying an old fashioned willingness to get stuck in that would always go down like a house on fire with the fans. His spell at Reading saw him fundamental to the plans of various managers and to display such consistency over such a long period marks him out as a special man indeed.
But throughout his time at the club, I recall many a debate about his ability and value to the team. One friend argued that it was because such a comparatively limited player was feted that Reading – and even English football – has the problems it has – tending as we do to praise effort over ability. Parkinson’s passing was often clunky and telegraphed compared to those around him and it’s perhaps telling that he missed one of the club’s most important days out.
For in a rare case of everyone being fit, Parky did no more than grace the Wembley turf in a suit as he didn’t make the 14 as the Royals went down 4-3 to Bolton after extra time in a failed bid to reach the Premier League – the subtler skills of Simon Osborn and Mick Gooding were preferred that day.
But these are quibbles. Parky’s industry often allowed better players to shine – most notably the likes of Darren Caskey who was prone to amble about the pitch and would have needed a walking stick without his colleague – while the winning of the midfield battle would allow Jimmy Quinn, Stuart Lovell, Nicky Forster, Jamie Cureton and others to make hay up front.
In an era of short memories, Royals fans still sing that godawful ‘Cantona’ song which adapts The Twelve Days of Christmas to worship Parky and you will hear it on Saturday.
Which brings me to the match itself. When the draw was made, most Royals fans were vocally delighted – a reaction I myself cringed at, aware as I am of the dangers of hubris. Before some of those triumphant tweets are posted up on the home changing room walls at Valley Parade, however, I’d state that they stemmed more from relief than any other emotion – the last time Reading reached this stage, a trip to the Etihad came out of the hat so a chance of progression was all we were looking for.
In the weeks since the match – I write this before back-to-back fixtures against Nottingham Forest and Bolton Wanderers – my horror at this optimistic reaction has only increased. True, Reading won well at Ipswich, but the defeats against Wigan at home and Huddersfield away have been among the worst that the campaign has had to offer and the cup match up looks very even indeed – in fact, with City flying high in the play off zone, they may start as slight favourites.
It has been a colourless season for the Biscuitmen. The rudderless tactics of Nigel Adkins, the presence on the wage bill of too many high wage earners, an only partly successful attempt to blood the kids and, above all, a general mediocrity and, in the words of Reading blogger, Dan Wimbush, a staleness have set in, one partly offset by the cup run and improvement under Steve Clarke but with much surgery still needed.
Reading’s plummet from the top division has been markedly less vertiginous than Bradford City’s but to even compete at a modest level, the wage structure has to be blown out of the water and that lone season 2012/13 was disaster for the club in every way – the Russian Zingarevich dynasty have much to answer for in their financial mismanagement.
On the field, Bradford need to hope that the numerous players who can conjure up one good performance in three choose not to do so on Saturday – Garath McCleary and Hal Robson-Kanu can display real class on their day, but too often head down blind alleys; while the promising Michael Hector has done well to establish himself in the team at centre back but is still prone to the odd error.
The team should be up for it – my word, we fans are. For me, this is one of the 10 most important matches in the history of the club. Reading last reached a semi-final in the Twenties (losing to Cardiff) and a position of relative safety in the league due to the absolute hogwash served up by Millwall, Wigan and Blackpool affords that rare luxury – ‘to concentrate on the cup’.
I won’t bang on about the pitch – Reading are hardly a silky side anyway and the likes of Danny Williams will relish the chance to get stuck in – but as ever – and to state the bleedin’ obvious – if Reading are at any level below their best and in any way lacking confidence, they’ll not only lose, but could go the same way as Millwall did in January and receive a battering.