The Twohundredpercent Play-Off Jamboree: Reading 2-4 Swansea City
Swansea City stand firm as an example of how much the fortunes of a football club can change in the space of just a decade. They had been promoted from Division Three (now League Two) at the end of the 1999/2000 season, but tumbled straight back down into it a year later, and this was only the beginning of their problems. The following season, they finished fifth from bottom of the entire Football League and at the end of the 2002/03 season, they managed to haul themselves out of the relegation places with wins in their final two league matches against Rochdale and Hull City. Eight years on from that great escape, they have managed one in the opposite direction. Swansea City will start next season as the first Welsh club to play in the Premier League and the first Welsh club to play in the top division of the English league system since they were relegated from it in 1983.
Reading have been here before, though their supporters may choose to forget about their previous appearance in the final of the play-offs for a place in the Premier League. In 1995, they led by two goals against Bolton Wanderers before losing 4-3 in extra-time, and lost in the semi-finals two years ago and in 2003. They made it into the Premier League as champions in 2006 and lasted for two seasons before being relegated again, yet their potential remains clear in their selling of 40,000 tickets for this afternoon’s match in a crowd of just over 86,000. Such a crowd is proof, as if it were needed, of the importance of this match, but while the money-obsessed will witter on about how much this match is worth in monetary terms to the clubs concerned, for those that paid up to be there this afternoon, today was all about winning the match. Nothing more, nothing less.
What followed was a match to do the Championship proud, a match that deserved its billing as the final act of the season in the Football League and a match from which both sets of supporters can take enormous heart. By half-time, Swansea were almost home and dry, but Reading managed to claw their way back into the match and came within the width of the post of drawing level before allowing the match to slip away by conceding a penalty kick with ten minutes left to play. That it should have come this far, however, was a tribute in itself to a Reading team that refused to concede defeat when it looked inevitable. It’s difficult to imagine that they won’t have an excellent chance of promotion again next season.
Reading were dominant for much of the first twenty minutes, setting off at a pace which indicated they had no intention of allowing Swansea to settle down and play the passing game which has won them so much praise this season. It took Swansea twenty minutes to force any meaningful pressure of their own but they opened the scoring when they it. This required a clumsy tackle from Zurab Khizanishvili on Nathan Dyer to give Swansea a penalty, which Scott Sinclair converted. Two minutes later, their lead was doubled when Stephen Dobbie’s low cross was only padded out into Sinclair’s path by the Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici, with predictable results. Sinclair swept the ball into the unguarded goal to double their lead with his second goal within three minutes.
From being in a reasonable position, looking comfortable and as if they were making a decent job of stifling Swansea’s game-plan, Reading were now looking as if in disarray. Reading lookws as if they have been knocked almost senseless by this double-whammy, and five minutes from half-time their predicament went from bad to worse. Dyer got away on the right-hand side. His cross should have been comfortable for Khizanishvili, but the Reading defender tried to clear the ball out instead of behind. The ball fell for Dobbie who struck a perfectly accurate shot into the bottom corner of the goal. Reading’s sudden descent into chaos seemed underlined by the half-time dismissal of their assistant manager, Nigel Gibbs, and substitute Jay Tabb. With forty-five minutes left to play, Swansea City were well over half-way towards the Premier League.
That Reading were able to find a route back into this match is, of course, remarkable. What must have been coursing through their dressing room at half-time? They entered the match with every chance of winning and their performance throughout the first fifteen to twenty minutes indicated that they were plenty capable of this. By this time, however, their afternoon lay in ruins thanks to three avoidable goals. Four minutes into the second half, though, came a chink of light. Jobi McAnuff sent a corner to the near post and Noel Hunt’s flicked header was enough to carry the ball past the Swansea goalkeeper Dorus De Vries. With this goal, the tempo and timbre of the match changed, as if a season’s worth of insecurities came flooding back with the goal, and eight minutes later these insecurities might have been forgiven for becoming full-blown paranoia when Jobi McAnuff, who had come to life since half-time, crossed for Matthew Mills to head Reading right back into this game.
Reading had thirty-three minutes to manage a third goal, and three minutes later it almost came when a twenty-five yard shot from Karacan fizzes past De Vries and out off the post. The rebound falls to Noel Hunt, but his shot brilliantly was blocked by Garry Monk. It was possibly the critical moment of the game. After this, Reading forced a succession of corners without being able to manage a clear sight of De Vries’ goal, and with ten minutes to play they managed to put the result beyond doubt with their second penalty kick of the match. Borini ran into the penalty area before being tripped by a poor and careless challenge by Andy Griffin. Sinclair stepped up, and scored again – his third goal and Swansea’s fourth, and a goal that finally killed off Reading’s chances of a return to the Premier League.
Eight years ago, Swansea City were ninety minutes from relegation from the Football League. This afternoon, they celebrated promotion into the Premier League. With a new stadium, a club that is twenty percent supporter-owned has managed one of the great acts of reinvention in the recent history of modern football. Those days of the crumbling Vetch Field and what must have felt like perpetual days of a hand to mouth existence must surely feel light years away. This has been done with prudence and care, and it is worth also taking a moment to recognise the achievement of manager Brendan Rodgers, who has taken his team – at the end of his first full season in charge – into the Premier League, frequently playing cavalier football. They are the forty-fifth club to have played in the Premier League since its inception in 1992. The best team won on the day, and the third best team in the division has been promoted into the Premier League. It’s a fitting end to the Championship season.
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