Issue BfB watches the play off finals: Part three, Reading v Swansea

As told by Jason Mckeown

Football is regularly referred to as a soap opera and, as Reading and Swansea today battle it out for a place in the Premier League next season, one can take comfort in the fact that, for all the cliff hangers we go through, it apparently will never end.

Aside from the occasional doom monger declaring there are too many teams in the Football League and it should be cut – plus the very real threat at times of some clubs going bust – the ongoing narrative of football, with its up and down snakes and ladders system, keeps us enthralled and keeps us believing in the sentiment “there’s always next season.”

The idea that Bradford City could be one day back in this position, looking to return to the Premier League, seems ludicrous after the season just gone. Yet when we were enjoying our brief spell among England’s elite a decade ago, Reading and Swansea fans would scarcely have expected to be in this position today.

10 seasons ago, the Royals and the Swans were playing each other in England’s third tier. Whereas this afternoon both clubs completely fill Wembley, the attendances for the two league meetings that season were 11,003 at the new Madejski stadium and 5,073 at the old Vetch Field. Reading lost the play off final to Walsall that year, while Swansea dropped into the basement league. In the following two seasons, the Welsh team were almost relegated from the Football League.

Only 3,000 or so fans were turning up at their low point, but in their attractive new stadium they are now looked upon as a big club. Although they’ve gone through a number of managers climbing back up the leagues, they’ve maintained a certain philosophy of always playing attractive passing football which has shaped their management choices. While City seem to change what they’re looking for in a manager every time they get rid of the last one, the Swans have worked out a plan that today sees them on the brink of the Premier League.

Reading too have done superbly. Making it to the Premier League in 2006 and successfully reversing the decline so many clubs can’t get out of when they are relegated from the top flight. The internal appointment of Brian McDermott – ironically replacing now-Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers – has worked wonders and their overturning of Cardiff in the play off semi finals was joyous. Especially given the less than ethical way Cardiff have gone about their business this season.

As the two Premier League hopefuls march out into a deafening Wembley stadium, it’s worth pausing to consider how unlikely this all – City in League Two included – would have seemed a decade ago. And, as motivating as the Reading and Swansea stories should act to us and others now, how much their ascent might have initially been inspired by the manner City had made it from Division Two to the Premier League at the end of the millennium. The soap opera never ends.

Today’s instalment unsurprisingly begins in cagey fashion, and the tension is aided by a certain amount of needle between the two clubs that sees fouls reacted to angrily and referee Phil Dowd routinely surrounded by complaining players. One such incident five minutes in sees Reading’s Zurab Khizanishvili harshly go in the book, following long and loud Swansea protests. It would become an interesting talking point not long after.

Reading start the game better, with winger Jimmy Kebe causing plenty of problems down the right flank and some panicky defending seeing Swansea players uncharacteristically hoofing the ball down the pitch. Reading are clearly more pragmatic and physical in style, and you begin to wonder if they will bully the Welshmen into defeat.

But then a rare Swansea foray forward ends with Khizanishvili flooring Scott Sinclair in the box, leaving Dowd with an easy choice in awarding a penalty. More difficult is what to do about the already booked Reading defender. It could be argued it’s a straight red offence; at the very least it should be a yellow. Dowd elects to take no action; perhaps balancing out the dubious early booking for Khizanishvili. Still Swansea don’t seem to mind as Sinclair converts the penalty to put them in front.

36 seconds after the re-start, it’s 2-0 and might already be game over. Stephen Dobbie bursts down the right, exposes Ian Harte’s lack of pace as he drives into the area and Sinclair is eventually left with a tap in. The club’s record signing, at £1 million, could have – depending on which over-hyped media story you read about the value of this game – earned the Swans between £60 and £90 million with his double strike. Three quarters of the game to go, but it’s a long way back for Reading.

Their reaction is limited, with the occasional attack lacking in purpose and belief. The Swans fans “ole” every pass from their players, who now look in control. The game goes quiet again, but then five minutes before the break Nathan Dyer races past the immobile Harte before pulling the ball back for Dobbie to stroke home. Reading’s misery is compounded by sub Jay Tabb and assistant manager Nigel Gibb being sent off on half time following arguments with the officials about a penalty claim rejected. They might have been second best for 20 minutes, but at the interval it’s difficult to begrudge Swansea their 3-0 lead.

Reading need a response, and immediately pull a goal back in the second half through Noel Hunt’s deflected header. Seven minutes later the always impressive Matt Mills heads home another corner and the game wakes up from its dreamy like state into a nerve-wracking hum-dinger. While Tabb and Gibb argued with Dowd for no obvious reason, McDermott was clearly giving the team talk of his life.

The physical and height advantage Reading enjoy is finally proving a factor, though they can play football too as Kebe and Jodi McAnuff attack down the flanks. Jem Karacan’s shot hits the post, with Hunt’s rebound effort brilliantly blocked Swans defender Gary Monk. Royals corner follows Royals corner as the pressure builds, but in time Swansea’s fluster is replaced by composure and they begin re-gain control.

A daft and unnecessary challenge in the area by the experienced Andy Griffin floors Fabio Borini, leaving Swansea and Sinclair with a second penalty of the afternoon to kill the game off, with 12 minutes to go. Sinclair’s effort is almost kept out by Adam Federici, but ends up in the back of the net to seal a hat trick. Reading pile everyone forward in the final stages, but Swansea’s defence has seemingly sorted itself out and they keep clearing the ball. Reading are defeated by the better side, but have been too much the architects of their own downfall to avoid a summer reflecting on what ifs.

So Swansea will become the 45th different club to play in the Premier League – for which next season will be its 20th following its formation in 1992. For all the justified criticism the top flight receives for keeping all the money and not caring about the rest of English football, that almost half of the 92 league clubs have played in it demonstrates it’s not the closed shop so often portrayed.

That, however, is more due to the enduring competitiveness of the Football League rather than anything Richard Scudamore is responsible for. And for all the glamour and success the Premier League isn’t shy of congratulating itself for, the numerous great stories newly promoted clubs – City included – have provided is still an essential backbone to the top end of this sport.

Whether Swansea can take Blackpool’s place in the heart of neutrals next season remains to be seen; but whatever happens, the majority of the 72 Football League clubs can dream with conviction – rather than delusion – of one day emulating them.