Now I can’t really comment about the football side of things last night. That’s been done by journalists all over the land and, as I became aware due to twitter, even outside of it. What I can comment on is my experience as a fan during and in the wake of such a shattering defeat. For me these kind of defeats get right to the heart of what it is to be a football fan. It is just as much in loss that our fan community is born as in great victory.
For me as a Reading fan last night’s defeat joins two others that I have experienced in their sheer emotional impact. Incidentally my reactions in all three cases haven’t really changed that much. It certainly shows that football is indeed a cruel game.
The first crushing defeat was that of Reading-Bolton in the division one play-off final in 1995. Then as a 14 going on 15 year old I was a fresh-faced fan, excited about the prospect of my team Reading in the top league for the first time in their history. I managed to convince myself that the game was unique, that no other team had been in the same kind of circumstances before (well I was only 14). My father, brother (both Blackburn fans as it happens) and I travelled down to Wembley that day, rather naively, without tickets. When we realised the match was all-ticket we were only able to scalp one ticket off a Bolton fan. My dad and brother thus kicked cans outside of Wembley as I sat in the Bolton end.
The match itself started amazingly for Reading and we were 2-0 up in the first fifteen minutes. We even had a penalty in the 35th minute to go 3-0 up which was missed by Stuart ‘Archie’ Lovell. This presented the opportunity for Bolton to come back, and come back they did, eventually coming away with a victory 4-3 in extra-time. After the game I was completely distraught, indeed I remember sitting in a pizza hut in Leicester square practically in tears. I felt like I could never recover.
Of course recover I did and I eventually saw Reading in the premier league in 2006-8. The second crushing defeat however came in May 2011 as Reading took on Swansea City in another play-off final, again for a place back in the premier league. Here, as a 31 year old, it really wasn’t much different to when I was 14. Again I put huge amounts of hope into my preparations for the game, and of course I looked back to the Bolton game in 1995.
In stark contrast to that game, Reading started terribly against Swansea and by half-time we were 3-0 down. Standing in the concourse with friends I didn’t expect anything but quick goals just after half-time brought us back to 3-2. The celebrations for the second of our goals were some of the most cacophonous that I have ever experienced. Hope, I had my hope back. And we all know how dangerous hope is. Several minutes later a Jem Karacan shot struck the post and the game felt within our grasp. Unfortunately it eventually slipped away from us again and we went on to lose 4-2. In the aftermath of the match I was once again distraught and kept trying to explain what had happened. This massive disappointment was happily overcome when Reading claimed promotion in 2011-12.
Last night I, and we as Reading fans, went through it all again. Of course the game had far less riding on it than the other two I have mentioned. Indeed I didn’t really care about the result before the match. However as I watched us (admittedly this time on telly) rip apart Arsenal in the first half to take a 4-0 lead, I realised that I had once more poured all my hope and belief into a game. And this time I could feel the football world watching. When Walcott scored to make it 4-1 just before half-time it didn’t seem to matter. Unfortunately as the second half progressed belief began to drain from the Reading players, and from me as Arsenal began to fight back. I experienced a horrible sinking feeling. 4-2 in the 62nd minute,4-3 just before the full-time whistle and then tragically Walcott in the 5th minute of injury time. It was 4-4. I couldn’t take any more, I left for a walk, I already knew we had lost extra-time, there was no longer any point in watching.
The one positive thing I can think of from last night’s defeat is, unlike the others described above, our next match is only four days away. I certainly hope the crucial game against QPR won’t come close to the levels of drama we experienced last night.