Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Royal family down by four thousand

As Steven Thompson's shot looped over the head of goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann to seal Burnley's victory and with it a trip to Wembley, the Reading players sank to their knees, a beaten side. But their supporters had given up long before that. As the match kicked off, to a backdrop of blue plastic bucket-seats, Sky commentators Bill Leslie and Garry Birtles remarked that the Royal county of Berkshire was a relatively genteel backwater of English football - and never was a truer word spoken. For this was no ordinary game, but the second leg of a Championship play-off semi-final which hung in the balance following Graham Alexander's penalty at Turf Moor three days earlier. And clearly Berkshire's residents had better things to do than cheer their side on to one final fixture at the home of football.

Things, after all, were so different just 12 months ago when an average of 23,532 watched the Royals battle unsuccessfully to stay in the Premier League. Are football fans really so fickle, I wondered. Are there really so few loyal Reading fans that the Madejski Stadium should not be sold out for a game of this magnitude? For only 19,909 were there to see what turned out to be Steve Coppell's last match as Reading manager, and 2,000 of those had made the 440-mile round trip from Lancashire. I appreciate that football isn't cheap. I also appreciate that Reading - as Leslie and Birtles continually reminded us - last won a home game on January 27 and have scored just three times in the interim. However, would it have been such a struggle to find the funding for a Wembley ticket? Do fans of all clubs not constantly refer to the play-offs as a lottery, and as such, a place where the form book is shredded?

Those from the North West started singing before the game kicked off, and were louder throughout - it clearly rubbed off on the eleven in claret and blue, and the right team, surely, will face Sheffield United on May 25. As for the Reading fans who stayed away, I'm sure they'll feel their apathy has been vindicated. Because, clearly, that's how football works.

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