Over recent years these clubs have faced each other many times but never at such levels of comfort as this meeting, both on and off the pitch. Did the game itself reflect current contentment? Roger Titford went along to find out
Reading’s first season in the Premiership has been a sweet dream so far. Back in October we did a double-take as Sky announced “three big games for you this weekend: Man United v Liverpool, Reading v Arsenal and Real Madrid v Barcelona”. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to the attention and by February the blandishments of the broadsheets had become commonplace. Europe, rather than relegation, was our struggle. Premiership foes, who looked so big, fast and fit in early autumn, had shrunk in the face of our sustained teamwork and intelligence. We could even travel to the Emirates in hope.
But the season has not all been fresh and new and the visit of Portsmouth brings back memories of misery and menace. It’s almost exactly 30 years since I first saw this fixture; an afternoon of utter mayhem at the bottom of the old Third Division. It was impossible then to imagine that these clubs would one day be battling for a place in Europe. Minds were rather more focused on staying alive for the next 30 minutes, as one poor Reading fan was kicked into a coma.
Since 1977 the fixture has taken place in all four divisions, but Reading haven’t won it since 1982. Digital switch-over is in the news today, but this fixture went digital years ago. From 1994 to 2003 the run of results – 0-0, 0-1, 0-0, 0-1, 0-0 – looks like a string of binary code and has been about as memorable. Even the comparatively short distance of 50 miles does not lend this one the air of a local derby.
There’s no spark, no clash of style. Fratton looks like west Reading, where the Royals spent a century at Elm Park. Two clubs in blue, too similar in some respects. Maybe Portsmouth are like an older brother to Reading: bigger, more famous, noisier, harder, prone to nicking your best stuff (Neil Webb, Linvoy Primus, Jamie Ashdown). There’s no point in arguing, best to wait and outgrow him. Today Reading are two points ahead, in better form and in the mood for throwing off the shackles of history. The last game saw our first home FA Cup fifth-round tie since 1935 and even Gary Lineker noticed we beat Villa for the first time since the Titanic went down in our previous home league match. To score a goal today, therefore, is not unambitious.
It’s a warm spring afternoon and Pizza Hut in Reading Gate retail park is packed with “families at football”. All is peaceful and normal. The wistful Koreans who hung around earlier in the season to cheer on Seol Ki-Hyeon have ceased their now futile quest. Pre-match beers are in the plush hotel built on the back of the West Stand, where an un-usually avid cheering greets goals on the telly as our “European rivals” Bolton take a lunch-time pasting from Man Utd. Here’s where we fans put in our hard work, using ingenuity and patience to pass two sets of security guards, needing muscle and deep pockets to get to the bar. A knot of middle-aged friends assembles, with teenage daughters iPod‑ing away at our feet, each of us the very measure of a modern English football fan. And naturally enough some opposition supporters rant on about how the new Reading are the soulless curse of the game today. Sorry – we’re just products of our environment. Society is to blame. It’s not 1977 any more.
We have another capacity crowd of 24,000 and plans are advancing to extend the East Stand with a further 6,000 seats. Telling friends “no, I can’t get you a ticket for a Reading home match” has been a major culture shift. But you still can’t help thinking, will it be like this for the foreseeable future or will there be tumbleweed blowing through those new concourses?
The pitch markings shine belligerently bright and white, no doubt designed to remind those at tomorrow’s rugby match of today’s game. Under a cloudless sky Reading kick off with a rush towards their “wrong” end. Three Reading corners in a couple of minutes put pressure on Glen Johnson at right-back for Portsmouth, possibly haunted by the sight of Europe’s largest B&Q just outside. Within five minutes both sets of fans are engaged in historical debate, chanting “Where were you when you were shit?” at each other and moving on to the somewhat more telling points of “Where were you at Elm Park?” and “Shit ground, no fans”. Honours, if you can call it that, even.
Reading persist with their attacks on Johnson, with some slick passing. Portsmouth are edgy and unambitious but Gary O’Neil puts in the first serious shot, just over the Reading bar. Half an hour gone and frankly it’s getting tedious. Nicky Shorey picks it up at left-back, quickly into Sidwell, Kitson, Lita, Hunt, crossing to Kitson eight yards out and… Sol Campbell rumbles into the way. Best move of the match. Only one minute of added time, no bookings. It’s all gone tepid. Two teams fresh back from mid-season breaks and still in the comfort zone. It has been five weeks since we played a home league game and it’s three weeks before we’ll get another. Fans, too, have become detached from the Premiership’s visceral and passionate narrative (to borrow a phrase).
Portsmouth usually feel like one of those teams that are either hugely powerful or a complete rabble, but rarely anything in-between. Today they are in-between. Campbell and Primus (nice guy, nicely not booed on his return here) know what they’re doing, but upfront there’s not the edge you would expect. Michael Duberry, newly plucked from Stoke, is doing a good job on lone attacker Kanu. Andy Cole and Lomana LuaLua are on the bench, their reputations presumably stronger than their form.
Second half, we’re defending the North Stand goal, which is a comfort because it’s virtually a Forbidden City for opposing goalscorers. Great games often really take off in the first ten minutes of the second half, when inhibitions fall away and the atmosphere rises. This one sadly meanders and dies; a typical March game on a dry, crumbling and windy pitch. Reading start to use their most potent weapon. This is the old-fashioned wing-craft of Glen Little, getting round the left-back and sending decent crosses in from a patch of dirt and sand on the touchline. No end product. There should be a preservation order on Little. His brand of all skill and no pace is now unique. But it’s Portsmouth who become stronger and actually have some shots at goal. Marcus Hahnemann saves well from Benjani Mwaruwari, Niko Kranjcar hits the side netting. With ten minutes left Richard Hughes seizes on a loose clearance and slashes a 30-yard drive against the left hand upright of the Forbidden City. Ha!
Kevin Doyle and John Oster come on for the seemingly fit and in-form Leroy Lita and Little. And with the 90 minutes up, Steve Coppell gives a long-awaited debut to Greg Halford, our £2 million record signing from Colchester. He fails to touch the ball at all. The kind of debut that fits in brilliantly with our low-key approach. With seconds to go, Sidwell is a foot shy of reaching a lobbed Dave Kitson pass to score an unjustifiable late winner and that’s it: 0-0, two more bits of binary code to add to the string, the worst home game of the season so far and not even the Premiership’s near-standard “penalty claim controversy”.
Outside, a group of Pompey supporters are thanking a car park attendant and lions are lying down with lambs. The only vitriol to be heard is in the messages texted into the local radio station by a new generation of fans who seem to think “voting out” the weakest player on the day is the best way of expressing your support. There are worse ways. Eventually, while we’re still getting out of the car park, the ever-wise words of Coppell penetrate this dross. “We almost played a lot of good football… Sol Campbell was man of the match.” I can’t disagree with any of that.
As for Europe, my sweet dreams of Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup semi-final next season seem rather further away. Coppell pretty bluntly states that the prospect of European football is a potential disaster for Reading (“not equipped” and “not the Holy Grail” were the actual words). Harry Redknapp, who does have a clutch of expensive internationals, is still sufficiently keen on the idea that he mentions the word most dreaded by the holiday-conscious thirty-something pro – “Intertoto”. Though Reading finish the day seventh and Portsmouth ninth, on the evidence of this neither will be making their European debut. So no Seville, Marseille, not even Riga. Still, at least there will be another visit from Pompey next season for us to look forward to.
From WSC 243 May 2007. What was happening this month