In May, St Andrew’s and the Madejski were cloaked in relegation doom. Now the hope of automatic promotion – with the play-off anxiety that accompanies that prospect – suffuses the meeting between the teams second and third in the Championship. Are they about to swap places? Roger Titford was there
Only an idiot or a football manager would say this was just another game, just another three points. It stands like a giant sign post, the opening game of the second half of the Championship season, a potential turning point. Birmingham City have occupied one of the automatic promotion spots from the off but they are beginning to splutter, trailing Wolves by six points. Reading are now only one behind the Blues. Both clubs were relegated from the Premier League last season and both are desperate to get back up before the parachute money runs out and they fall to parsimonious ignominy with a dull thud. It is second versus third in a three-horse race where only the first two get decent prizes and it is being run at an exceptional pace. We’re all off to witness and feel “momentum shift”. If I just wanted to see what happens I’d be better off at home watching it on Sky with my cough. But I’m making a rare away trip, despite Sky, because Reading will need every voice and body we can get in the stadium.
Steve Coppell has, for a variety of reasons, had to do without Murty, Shorey, Sonko, Duberry, Little, Matejovsky, Convey, Lita and Kitson for most or all of the season so far. It took him several weeks faffing around rebuilding the Reading team on a budget of about minus nine million quid before he worked his miracle again and the Royals began to catch up. Birmingham invested wisely in Kevin Phillips, whose 94th-minute winner against Sheffield United in the opening game of the season set the tone of meaning business right from the start.
My only previous visit was half a lifetime ago – day five of a six-games-in-six-days Easter west midlands football orgy. Birmingham were second in a three-horse race for the top division then, too. It was an evening kick-off, the fevered, midweek rush of a capacity crowd. There’s a memory, possibly false or mixed up with a war movie, of sad, mean, brown terraced houses around St Andrew’s being demolished as we went by, dust hanging in the air, with streams of men marching past the rubble. We stood on the Tilton Road end, fellow-teenager Trevor Francis scored a thunderbolt to win the game, 45,000 packed in, and kept “right on to the end of the road”.
Villa Park, to me, has the air of the stately home and the Heart of England; but there’s still a whiff of gas and metal about the Blues – Small Heath Alliance of Muntz Street locked deep in their DNA. That was their best side of my lifetime, all hairy faces in their penguin shirts. A year or so later I was offered a place at Birmingham University, but in the end I went somewhere nearer home and spent three years worshipping Robin Friday instead.
There’s a 9am start for travelling fans at the Madejski Stadium. The Horsemans coaches, appropriately four in number, glide round the back of the East Stand. The supporters’ trust coaches are great for when you don’t want to have to make any decisions about how to go, when to leave or where to park. There is no excited talk of the game, however, and I fall asleep on the way. The coaches draw into a secure compound next to the away fans’ turnstiles. It’s possible travelling this way to stay in a cocoon of your own fans’ accents and opinions all day, but I strike out for a quick walk round the ground to see if I can reconnect with those teenage memories.
The Kop side of the stadium looks smart in a not-too-blingy retail way, toned down by neat shrubs, facts about City –“have reached 8 FA Cup Semi-Finals” – and a Subway franchise. The future has, in fact, brought salad sandwiches and electronic games and “First Division football”. EA have a display wagon, hosting all manner of console games, including a giant plasma screen showing an “Arsenal 0 Stoke 3” epic taking place in some parallel cyber-universe. Round the back of the Tilton End I connect with nothing. It’s all small, neat, modern, enclosed housing now. The Royal George pub affirms that not everything was invented after 1990 – it’s open, despite the doors being boarded up, and offers a “warm welcome” but to “home support only”.
The atmosphere is thin and quiet both inside and outside the stadium. Maybe it’s the lunch-time kick-off. But there’s no build-up report in my morning paper and the attendance isn’t going to reach 20,000. I take my place on the Railway End feeling a bit emotionally undercharged now.
The pre-match pitch is a mess of cones and logos and four sets of goalposts. The early-comers get to see the dress rehearsals, too. The rest are busy consuming on the concourses or parking. To the music of a steel band, Santa Claus, mascot Beau Brummie and someone costumed like an albino Bertie Bassett are moving from side to side. It conjures up the mood of a village fete under light rainfall. The stage is finally cleared for football a few minutes before kick-off as the chanting competes with the team changes for attention.
Reading start brightly enough for an away side in a big game. After ten minutes Franck Queudrue accidentally back-head-butts Noel Hunt. A few moments later James McFadden scythes him down needlessly on the edge of the area. Hunt loops a harmless-looking free-kick through the wall into the corner of the net and follows that up with a rather more accomplished somersault of triumph. Brother Stephen then air-shots at a James Henry cross from the right, Kevin Doyle volleys stylishly straight at Maik Taylor, Henry drives wide from a long run and on the half-hour Noel succumbs to his concussion and leaves the field. Coincidentally he seems to take the vibrancy of the play with him.
I’m already thinking this game is as good as over and we’re really going to regret this if we don’t win. Birmingham’s tactics appear to be nothing more than intimidation by team-sheet. It’s a terrific line-up at this level, full of great names, big blokes, top experience, clever loan deals, all in a Premier League setting. But it helps if players do still move around a bit as well before the half-time whistle blows and this half certainly hasn’t been the Blues’ finest 45 minutes of the season. They can’t be this anaemic every week.
It’s a grey, still, mild, sad and damp December afternoon. What could be more incongruous than a resumption of the steel band, painfully and loudly distorted by the PA system? The match programme reveals that “noise boards” have been given away to home fans as an atmosphere additive. This explains the sound, like co-ordinated crisp-packet scrunching, that occasionally drifts up our way during moments of Birmingham pressure.
The Blues players are sent back out early. Reading eventually emerge from the dressing room and resume control with a mildly frustrating pattern of play. It’s not missing chances, it’s missing the chance of a creating a chance. Nearly a good cross, then a good cross and someone nearly there. Stephen Hunt in a dangerous position cuts unnecessarily inside his man and calmly passes the ball out for a goal-kick.
In the row below me there is a thirtysomething jack-in-the-box, who stands up every couple of minutes, unwinds and throws himself backwards from the waist to begin a chant. It looks quite unnatural, highly trained, almost professionalised, perhaps the product of three years’ strictly come shouting with Alan Pardew (Pards wanted us all to be part of the team). He doesn’t look like the kind of guy who’d be an opera singer during the week. But it works and he’s linking up noisily with younger fans 20 yards either side.
Suddenly something awful happens. Kalifa Cissé tries one turn too many in the midfield, Lee Carsley barges him off the ball (foul, I’m alone in thinking) and Phillips has nutmegged Ivar Ingimarsson, sped straight into the Reading defence, fooled Michael Duberry into backing off, and drilled the ball home expertly from 25 yards. Absolute pure class, but don’t do it again. The home crowd finally get lively and I catch a single refrain of “keep right on”. Game on, with half an hour to play, and a chance for Birmingham to show their mettle, to use Phillips’s nous and Cameron Jerome’s speed.
Six minutes later the Blues give away another cheap free-kick. Hunt curves it into the near post. Doyle, yards away from the non-marking Radhi Jaidi, twists in the air and glances the ball so carefully that it plops into the corner of the net below us. A man announced simply as “Quincy” comes on for the Blues, and Mr Owusu-Abeyie executes some wildly exaggerated and ineffective step-overs. It’s not really the time for that.
Birmingham have only two shots left in the locker. Jaidi has a header from a corner that Jerome inadvertently blocks and Phillips forces a finger-tip save from Adam Federici. They’re already shot by the time Doyle swerves in an implausible, sumptuous, deep cross from very wide on the right and Cissé bullets in a far post header for 3-1. There are ten minutes left but hundreds of locals exit by doors left, right and centre, to a seasonal chorus of “you’re getting stuffed like a turkey”. It wasn’t exactly the anticipated tooth-and-claw, red-meat encounter after all.
“Zero significance” says Coppell. “Doomed to the play-offs” seems to be the verdict on the Blues’ message boards. “The Royals are going up” sung for the first time this season is the instinctive terrace view of a turning point apparently reached.
From WSC 264 February 2009