Robson-Kanu 6, McCleary 9, Mackie 68
Bradford City 0
Monday 16 March, 2015
By Alex Scott (images by Thomas Gadd, see note below)
Things were not going our way, to say the least. As that ball floated, looped, as if in slow motion, the inevitability of it, of everything, was inescapable. It isn’t fair, really. Not that fair has much to do with it. But it was certainly cruel.
It’s not that I was expecting a League One team to beat a Championship team – away from home – with a Wembley trip at stake. But, if I’m being honest, I was expecting Us to better Them. As Garath McLeary cut inside, I was already in the midst of a haze. Numb. And then….
I’m not a soul who allows himself into optimism easily. I’m a pragmatist, or a Bradfordian, whichever sounds the least pretentious.
As the teams walked out at Valley Parade, over the pockmarked pitch, I couldn’t really help being optimistic. After Sunderland’s travails a few weeks previous, it was hard to think Reading weren’t about to be brought down to our level with a bang.
About two minutes after kick off, Nathaniel Chalobah careered through Gary Liddle in a – totally legal – aerial challenge, leaving the City midfielder horizontal, and that was the end of that. As a lower league team, you always want to get your more heralded opposition to play down to your level. Within one hundred and twenty seconds of kick off in that first tie, everything was flipped on its head. The following 88 minutes only reinforced this. Reading were not taking any of our nonsense. In fact, they were better at being us than we were.
After that first headed challenge, City never truly looked like threatening in that tie. Reading were a better team, playing about as well, if not better than we were. Maybe if we get them off that pitch, though? At home they couldn’t play that defensively? At home they must open up?
Before the game, Andrew Davies failed a fitness test as a result of the arm injury he suffered last week, giving way to Alan Sheehan. This was a bad omen. Not because of Sheehan, but given his talismanic nature, not having Davies there in game that was sure to be physical couldn’t possibly be a good thing.
As Gary MacKenzie had started in Davies’ stead two days earlier, it was clear that Parkinson was continuing to dance with the girls what brung him, as he did two years before, with MacKenzie reprising the Michael Nelson role to Sheehan’s Carl McHugh.
Other than that, the team was as expected, with Billy Knott forging away at the top of the diamond and City following the Chelsea model. As the game began, it was clear that Reading had indeed opened up, with two out and out forwards, and two wingers to boot. We had the extra man in the middle this time.
To say things didn’t go to plan probably undersell the next ten minutes. Firstly, after a dangerous break on City’s right, a corner was whipped in to the near post area to find Hal Robson-Kanu free to guide the ball into the back of Ben Williams’ net. The echoes of Gary Cahill’s goal were startling. Five minutes were barely on the clock.
The hammer blow was soon to follow, as Garath McLeary was show inside by James Meredith onto his left foot, and the charging Andy Halliday. Nine minutes on the clock, and City were on the ropes and all but out for the count. That tortuously looping ball will not soon escape my mind’s eye.
My assumption before the game had been that if Reading opened up as they would be forced to by playing at home and on national television, gaps would be opened for City to win the second balls they failed to win in the first game, and open space for Billy Knott to roam free at the tip of the diamond.
Steve Clarke, however, had different ideas. Not many people game plan better than Phil Parkinson does, and his teams have made a specialty of playing above themselves. Even tonight, as he was outmatched on paper, and he didn’t get any luck whatsoever, you don’t come away from it thinking he could have done anything else. But Steve Clarke worked us out.
In these two games, Reading have made us look like a slightly above average third tier team, as we are. We barely won a second ball in two full games. I can’t remember anything more than a half chance. Reading are about the first team to do that to us since Swansea.
City don’t lose big games, nor do they really underperform when the pressure is on. They have a real knack of masking their failings in one off games, instead exploiting those of their unsuspecting opponents. Tonight, and at times in the first leg, they were made to look all of the division below Reading that they are.
The rest of the first half followed the same pattern as the first game. City couldn’t get in behind their defence, nor could they hold the ball up, nor could they keep the ball at the base of the midfield, nor could they threaten at set pieces. Nothing they tried worked. And this is true of one hundred and eighty minutes against Reading, they never once threatened the Royals’ goal.
In truth, they were lucky to get in at nil-two. Pavel Pogrebnyak and Jamie Mackie were a handful, though Sheehan and McArdle battled manfully. The Reading widemen threatened again and again, though like their central defensive counterparts, Meredith and Stephen Darby battled hard. But the front six was where the game was up.
Despite City having that extra man, England Under-21 star Chalobah and American international Danny Williams dominated the middle of the field for the Reading, and the away team couldn’t get a foot in. Further beyond, Michael Hector and Alex Pearce were just as impressive as they were in the first leg, totally nullifying the threat of Jon Stead and James Hanson.
Though City weren’t playing well, it wasn’t like they were exceptionally poor either. The home team were just streets ahead of them; they throttled them. City were at an arm’s length.
Reading began the second half as they finished the first, on top and in charge, but the game was never really put to bed until the Filipe Morais’ red card after the hour mark.
Initially, my reaction was that it looked harsh, but seeing it again, the foot was probably high and out of control. There still wasn’t intent, but the card was there to be given. Even the manager quasi-admitted to the red card in his post-match interview after seeing it on TV. There’s a relief in that you don’t have to obsess about that in the future looking back.
It finished as it was for most of the game. Reading were dominant and totally deserved their place in the FA Cup Semi Finals. They outplayed us over the two ties, and took away everything we did well. It was so comprehensive that there was nothing even to look back on in regret. As Parkinson said after the game, “we looked like we didn’t have a response in us”.
They looked tired. They looked beaten. I never saw it coming. Not for a second. That after all that, it would end like this.
With Parkinson as hot a property he has ever been, and a number of key role players out of contract in the summer, a part of you wonders whether we are at the middle, the end, or the beginning of something at City. Obviously, the latter is preferable, but it is a daunting thought.
Jason Thornton in his post-match described this game as “a wonderful distraction” on more than one occasion, and whilst I get what his motive was for that question, I have to take exception with his reasoning.
This was one of the best trips I – or any of us – have been on. It was worth it in its own right. From the comeback at Halifax to the dominance over Dartford to the smashing of Millwall to the absurdity of Chelsea to the absurd mundanity of Sunderland to the battle of Reading, to describe this as a distraction is to totally miss the point of the journey. The lesson of these last two years has to be that concentrating on the league is a lie. Teams wait decades for cup runs like we’ve had these few years.
But the swords live to kill those who live by them.
As the Reading fans leapt for joy and sprinted onto the field, the final light went out on City’s cup run for another year. Since Swansea, I’d not really felt like I did at that moment. It was numbing.
But there was a light in the darkness over the pitch. Fighting through the waves of grey and charcoal coats of the delirious home fans were a group of claret and amber beacons, separated, but fighting toward us as one, battling through the darkness. Led by Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle, the City players fought through the ever-increasing number of home fans on the field; they refused to be denied in reaching the away end. This is still a special team.
After the game, Phil Parkinson was quoted saying, “the longer you stay in, the more it hurts.” Given how raw this still feels as I type this morning, that is certainly true. But given the choice, I’d rather support a team with him in charge, and with Darby and McArdle leading the way through the dark, than any other team in the country. Regardless of where the path ends, or however much it hurts on the way. This is still a special team.
Three points off the play offs with a game in hand. This is still a special team.
City: Williams, Darby, McArdle, Sheehan, Meredith, Liddle, Morais, Halliday (Yeates 59), Knott (Dolan 74), Hanson, Stead (Clarke 59)
Not used: Urwin, Routis, MacKenzie, Zoko
Categories: Match Reviews