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The Banter Era

This is a piece I wrote before the start of the season, when I wasn't expecting quite the start we've had. I was reminiscing about the good moments we've had - in amongst the years of not so great performance.

I saw a discussion on twitter recently about the start of Reading’s banter era. By now I put us roughly six years and four months in - with the start being Reading fans infamously storming the pitch believing the team to have made the play-offs when, in fact, Brighton’s ninety-second minute winner at Nottingham Forest had pipped us to the post. Some could argue it started earlier; The Russian multi-millionaire that had no money, drawing to an eight-man Yeovil side, Royston Drenthe. 2013/14 was particularly rife with moments that any masochist could enjoy.

Since then only one manager has lasted a year in the job, Yakubu has donned the blue and white hoops in an FA Cup Semi Final, we’ve been asset stripped by one set of owners who also released the World’s greatest football anthem, and had a sporting director appoint himself manager.

Life is never dull in RG2.

But among these moments of intense embarrassment are still some euphoric highs. Admittedly, some may cringe at the thought of beating Ipswich being the peak of our season, but beggars can’t be choosers.

In Steve Clarke’s first half-season the run to that semi-final had the town buzzing. And Yakubu didn’t just have a cameo in the final, his only goal in blue and white helped us past Derby in the fourth round. ‘Sprinting’ between the defence and finding the bottom corner from eighteen yards. Cartwheeling fans and police lines aside the Bradford game will legitimately go down in history as only the second time The Royals have progressed past the sixth round. 

Not only that, we played Arsenal - on their way to being serial winners of the cup, with a squad that cost multiples more than ours at Wembley, and we stood our own. Reading supporters aren’t known as the most vociferous, but the noise when Garath McCleary’s shot crept over the line will live long in the memory of those who were there.

Even into Clarke’s second season we had a good ride. Ten rounds in Reading were challenging for automatic promotion, having earlier dispatched Ipswich 5-1 in one of the most complete performances of recent times. It may have all fallen apart, with a highly Reading performance at Craven Cottage, but there were still glimpses. Who can forget Nick Blackman’s goal away at Hull after the double backheel? Or yet another run in the FA Cup, this time culminating in an unjust quarter final exit.

Skipping onto Jaap Stam, the next season was the clear high point of this phase of our history. Win after slightly fortuitous win propelled us up the table. It must be said, even here the banter era was present. Reading’s goal difference managed to hover around zero as they edged past opponents but were thumped by five goals at Craven Cottage, again an unhappy hunting ground, and then six at Norwich. At the turn of the year we had a match abandoned at half-time due to fog, but not before Callum Harriott picked up an injury that would keep him sidelined for two years.

But all that pales in comparison to beating Fulham in the play-off semi-final, after being written off by every pundit going. Jordan Obita’s strike across the goalkeeper seemingly banishing all those ghosts of previous encounters. The emotion as Yann Kermorgant coolly tucked his penalty home.

From then on the troughs become deeper and more prolonged. Mo Barrow’s late winner away at Elland Road the one standout of a dismal season that few could take any solace in. The same goes for the beginning of the next term. An easy home win over Hull felt like a turning point, but wasn’t. It would take until March - over a year and a half on from that Leeds game, to secure another result that buoyed the Reading faithful.

José Gomes’ seemingly genuine warmth toward the fans had already started to improve the atmosphere somewhat, and the five temporary signings from the January window definitely helped that. Ovie Ejaria and Lewis Baker arrived first. Then, in the space of four days toward the end of January Nélson Oliveira, Emiliano Martinez, and Matt Miazga joined them. Five loanees that may genuinely go down in folklore. You won’t find many players who have played fewer than twenty games for a club to be as beloved as Emi is.

And boy were they needed - Mo Barrow kicking the corner flag as he went to take a corner in New Year’s Days’ heavy home defeat to Swansea summed up a half-decade of mediocrity. Gomes’ turnaround culminated in that week in March as we played Ipswich away from home, before facing off against Wigan at The Madejski.

Nélson Oliveira scoring in front of the Ipswich faithful was sweet enough, but only the start. As Reading fans we often feel like the embodiment of ‘it’s the hope that kills you’. Starting to bring it back against Swansea in the 2011 play-off final, taking Arsenal to extra time in that FA Cup semi, going 3-1 up on penalties in 2017. It’s also true, though, that it’s when you’ve given up that hope that you can experience true ecstasy.

Ipswich’s goal that day felt so predictable. With less than ten minutes left the ball fell to Gwion Edwards, who fired past Martinez. The away end groaned - there was only one way that it could end. That was, until Yakou Meite just about managed to get the ball under control on the halfway line, and attempted a through ball for Barrow to run onto. The pass was deflected, but the Gambian international stuck his leg out behind him, and scooped the ball into his path - taking out the last man in the process. It’s hard to describe how good seeing the ball hit the back of the net feels when you’ve spent the last ten minutes planning away trips to League One grounds.

And a week later Reading managed to repeat the trick. Barrow and Meite were crucial again, this time both bagging goals to overturn a 2-1 deficit in stoppage time. Barrow had shown absolutely no sign that he could hit a ball from twenty-five yards, but with a minute left that’s exactly what he was doing - and Jamie Jones full length dive couldn’t stop it from nestling into the corner. Then a ninety-seventh minute corner was put right on the head of Yakou. Cue absolute pandemonium, and José Gomes running down the touchline.

Mark Bowen, too, won’t be remembered for the way he took over, or the way he was fired. Instead in the moments he gave us. Matt Miazga’s strike earning him a win in his first game in the ninety-eighth minute. That run in December where we burgled Deepdale and exacted a bit more revenge on Fulham. Watching in our homes as Meite scored four at an empty Kenilworth Road.

And that’s still where Reading are now. With an ever expanding list of reasons to be ashamed or embarrassed of the club, the place to look for comfort is in the snapshots of better times. The players chasing McCleary after he equalises, Mendes’ knee-slide toward the away end, Charlie Adam being mobbed by teammates, Gomes’ smile. Whatever happens this season, there will be new memories to save away.

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