Monday, 11 April 2011

Nottingham Forest v Reading

Goals, goals and sun

Nottingham Forest 3-4 Reading (09:04:11)

Alistair Hendrie is a journalism graduate who has written for In Bed With Maradona, EPL Talk and a plethora of local newspapers. He also went to one of the best games in the Championship this season...

I’m not really a morning person. Despite being an avid football nut, my Saturday mornings are usually a torrid affair involving dragging my fatigued self into work at the unholy hour of 9am. However, if it’s getting up for an away match at the weekend, I’ll catapult out of bed at any given hour as if I’ve just been electrocuted. This weekend, delightfully enough, I was granted holiday and eagerly awaited the gripping prospect of a top of the table Championship clash as Reading met Nottingham Forest away.

I’d arranged a lift for fellow Reading fan and work colleague Matt at 9.15am, before we’d meet our friend Ed at the stadium for the coach at 9.30am. So that meant I got a “lie-in” of about half an hour. And my word, was it satisfying? I woke up to blue skies and text Ed something along the lines “Oi, it’s nice, wear a Reading shirt.” I had an image in my head of a sea of blue and white overlooking a match played in glorious sunshine. Ed duly obliged and I felt quite pleased with my needless bullying.

The Royals began the day fifth and three points ahead of Forest in sixth. It was a huge occasion and the Berkshire club took three coaches to the ground, unlike our usual two. And yes, I can hear “big club” fans i.e. Leeds; Millwall; Cardiff, sniggering at the back. So you’d think with 1,428 fans making the trip – our third highest away following of the season – this play-offs tussle would be all Reading fans could think about.

Ed attempts to consume a Coke larger than his head at the service station

But no, this was not the only important sporting event of the day. A drum roll please for Grand National. One of the coach stewards proudly announced that there would be a sweepstake with horses drawn out of the hat, and whoever drew the winner would get the entire coach’s stake back. “The grand national?” I thought to myself. Here we are on the verge of gripping clash with promotion rivals and this guy is enthusing over midgets titting about on farmyard animals.

Oh well, Ed and Matt got into the spirit and both put a few quid in. After feeling like I may as well join in – I have been known to partake in the usually abysmal flutter – I only had a tenner on me, so thought better of it. Ed drew Golden Kite and Matt’s hopes were nestled with Bluesea Cracker - neither won. What a shame.

Bearing the sweltering early April heat – it was probably about 15 degrees – Ed and Matt both proposed few goals, keeping in mind Forest’s prowess at their own ground. Matt went for 1-0 and Ed went for 1-1. “Why are you so negative?” I said. Call me mental, but the sudden rumbling of optimism in my stomach before every away match is like no other emotion before a home match. You probably should call me mental though as usually this optimism is utter bollocks. In 12 away games I have attended since my first in 2008 – the brilliant “phantom goal” one at Watford, thank you very much – I’ve seen us win just twice.

Reading fans soak up the sun

Nevertheless, Forest’s rusty form pointed to a third away win for me when we parked up beside the Bridgford Lower stand at just before 1.45pm. This was my first visit to this historic ground – a stadium which Matt is well versed in after he spent three years in Nottingham at university.

The figurehead of the stadium, the Trent End, overlooks the River Trent in what was a glorious sight in the early spring sunshine and rising temperatures. Forest’s closest supporters to ours where situated to our right in the Brian Clough Stand. The City Ground stands smugly on the outside, brimming in the memories of European and domestic success in the late 70s.

Two relatively identikit stands form one half of the ground, with the Trent End housing two still admittedly impressive tiers. The Brian Clough Stand then links nicely in an arc with the Bridgford Stand, which again holds two levels of seats.

Moments after arriving, we were surprised at our treatment. We had to show off our nonexistent dance skills and awkwardly samba through a tiny gap between the walls as we presented our tickets. And even I, a mere skeletal man with a pathetic frame, had to breathe in just a bit. What do they think away fans are? The mafia? We then had to go to the annoyance of raising our voices slightly when ordering beer in the freezing cold concourses, due to Plexiglas separating the fans and the bar staff.

The beer on sale was pretty impressive for Championship. We paid £3.40 for a – wait for it – cold Carlsberg with... – don’t gasp – decent, ample head. Though Matt complained about drinking Carlsberg, after of course merrily supping pints of the stuff for over an hour before game, I was impressed by the service.

With the clocks rushing towards the holy grail of times, 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, we found our seats disappointingly near the front. Our view was not great and despite the grumpy stewards insisting all our fans sit, the atmosphere was pumping in the Reading end. We belted out the standard classics such as “everywhere we go...”, “by far the greatest team...” and the obligatory “blue army” chant.

I said on the way here how I was sick of Rob Earnshaw scoring against us every time we play them, and he was again a thorn in our side, going close a few times and looking to rush onto Lee Camp’s numerous hoofs upfield. Billy Davies clearly loves his sexy football, as Camp’s agricultural kicks looked to exploit our creaking back-line which featured three thirty-somethings.

But against the run of play after a frantic opening, our very own golden oldie Ian Harte swung in a free kick across the goal from 20 yards out which hit the top right hand corner of the net with aplomb. We followed Harte’s lead with the celebrations, and I was suitably knackered after dancing about like a fool in the mediocre yet stifling “heat.”

We then paid for missed chances when we conceded a dreadfully soft penalty after Lewis McGugan willingly crumbled like a paper bag after flicking the ball past a prone Mikele Leigertwood. Boyd, on loan in a bizarre move from a sinking Middlesborough side, struck home into the bottom left hand corner.

The second half then bore the goals the first half warranted. Are you sitting comfortably? You might want to keep up here. In an event which proves my excellent punditry, Earnshaw did indeed score to put the home side 2-1 up. He raced through our slack defence just outside the area, cut inside, and a sent in a shot which fizzed low and across Alex McCarthy into the bottom right-hand corner. I turned glumly to Matt amid the booming PA and gloating home fans and declared “I knew I should have put money on it.”

Moments later, we were back in it. Ian Harte, playing like a genetic hybrid of Pele and Ronaldo on this fine afternoon, sent in a deep, looping corner from the right, and Jam Karacan headed the ball which hung for an eternity then dipped joyously into the back of the net. It was 2-2 and our resolve was showing against a side usually so steely in defence.

The dazzling Kebe then put us ahead just after an hour. He was first to react as Zurab Khizanishvili’s effort was parried. The Malian rifled home with authority from close range and the roof of the net erupted. It was now 3-2. Do you need a hot flannel and a lie-down after this flurry of goal fused madness? The celebrations were nothing short of wild. Kebe, usually modest and bashful, threw down his shirt, raced over to us and flailed his arms about, shouting something unbeknown to me which was probably in French.

Just two minutes remained and many Reds had turned away as their hope evaporated. We were happily serenading their exits when Chris Gunter was bundled over by Hal Robson-Kanu. Penalty. This was it, make or break. The pesky McGugan shot left and sent McCarthy the wrong way as the sun went in for us Reading fans.

We were cursing our luck just before Andy Griffin, another old head for us Royals, hooked a hopeful free kick forwards. Karacan hurtled away to the right and booted a scruffy, bouncing pass into the box. Simon Church then stole in front of the unfortunate Luke Chambers and poked home a classic, scrappy winner right at the death.

Shirts and scarves flew into the air and were waved above heads. I hugged strangers in front of me as arms appeared from apparently nowhere. One young gentleman in front of me attempted a futile pitch invasion, but was met with a knowing look from a steward. He stumbled back after falling on his arse onto the covering of the front row. 4-3 now, I told you you’d have to be prepared.

 The shirts come off as the visitors go 4-3 ahead 

As it this wasn’t enough, Long then missed a penalty and couldn’t cap a virtuoso performance with a goal. What felt like half a week then passed in the next minute. The referee finally blew up to a chorus of roars from us. We stood on seats and sang “now you’re gonna believe us, the Royals are going up.” The players who we’d sung our voices away all afternoon for ran over to us at the end. Jobi McAnuff pumped his fists at us as if issuing a rallying cry. We sang manager Brian McDermott’s name to a later empty pitch. It’s days like these which remind me why I love football. Everything from the result, to the drama, to the atmosphere, right down to the weather was so perfect.

One Royals fan holds Long’s prized shirt, whilst McDermott somehow sneaks into the away end to text a friend with the good news.

Afterwards, on a coach reeking of sweat after such an energy sapping watch, the fan behind me said: “my wife wonders why I travel away. That’s why.”

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