‘Gutted, but proud.’ It’s difficult to find better-placed words to sum up a game in which the Reading fans could almost taste the Wembley air than the ones that Brian McDermott chose after a second-half capitulation saw the Royals surrender a 2-0 half-time lead. Complacency set in at the Madejski Stadium, both on the pitch and in the stands, after a first-half display so dominant and commading that every blue and white shirt let their mind wander to thoughts of a famous semi-final.
Aston Villa had other ideas though and came flying out of the traps, stepped up the pace and Reading were unable to cope with the immense pressure that our illustrious opponents put upon us. We had worked brilliantly as a defensive unit in the first-half, keeping the likes of Carew, Young, Milner, Downing et al very quiet, but they exploded into life in the second. The big Norwegian John Carew, in particular, tore our defence to shreds with his power. Although we fought back bravely after being heavily rocked in a 15 minute spell in which Adam Federici had to pick the ball out of his net three times, lady luck was not on our side and Villa hung on before winning a last minute penalty to make it safe.
Reading needed to keep it tight for ten minutes or so after the restart to make it more difficult for Villa, but the early goal gave them the confidence boost they needed. Martin O’Neill had clearly given them a rollicking during the interval and they were well up for it. As Henry Winter said on Twitter, the best managers earn their corn at half-time and O’Neill is a very good manager indeed. It’s easy to be wise after the event, but perhaps we should have gone 4-5-1 to squeeze the game a bit more after that first goal and congest Villa’s talented midfield. As I say though; it’s a lot easier to say that when you know the final outcome.
Let’s not dwell on the negative points though because, in truth, we lost a very good quarter-final to a very good team and there is no shame in that whatsoever. What’s more, we produced a first-half performance that will live in the memories for a long time to come. We outplayed our more illustrious opponents and were thoroughly good value for our 2-0 half-time lead. Jimmy Kebe was outstanding, Shane Long clinical and Jay Tabb a human dynamo in the centre of midfield, keeping Villa quiet.
The second goal in particular was a great piece of play by a team that Brian McDermott has given belief to. Sigurdsson’s ball through to Kebe was sublime and the Malian is playing out of his skin at the moment. The old Jimmy might have run into a blind alley, beat the defender and fallen over or overhit a cross past the back post. Not now though. He used his pace to soar away from the full-back, but also got his head up to pick out a pass to Long who had peeled off in the centre and made no mistake with the finish. A great breakaway goal and one that nearly took the roof off the stadium.
The atmosphere in the Madejski stands was probably the most bouyant since those heady days back in the record-breaking season and not just when we were winning. The fans were in great voice up until the point where Reading had the stuffing well and truly kicked out of them and it was great to see the stadium full again and fully behind the team. It’s not been an easy season, but the fans had something to cheer and be proud of once again.
Even though the result didn’t go our way, we can be truly proud of the performance the team displayed in our first quarter-final for 83 years and this years cup run altogether. We played good football throughout, scored good goals and made a few people sit up and take notice of this side. It won Brian McDermott both the job and his burgeoning reputation. It revitalised the team’s league form and gave several players, not least Shane Long, the confidence to hit form. It’s been a very welcome tonic.