Crawley 1 Reading 3

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Crawley Town 1 Reading 3 (5th Jan 2013)

The lure of a new ground and a chance to relive the terracing and lower division life had me and 1599 other Reading fans round the M25 to the other side of the Gatwick flight path, to see this 3rd Round cup tie.

The romance of the FA Cup might have been replaced with seven-year itch we-might-as-well fumble with the lights out these days, but fans still don’t want to be on the wrong end of a cup “upset”, so news that Reading had dropped seven players for the tie hardly whet the appetite for the game ahead.

I had been looking forward to it too. It’s not often Reading go into a game as favourites these days, and having cut my teeth going to away games at grounds of this size, it was fun going back to one.

Of course, it’s not all perfect. When average crowds of 3500 are the highest in your history, coping with nearly 6000 can present a challenge. Not up to that challenge was an area of free parking down a side road near the ground. This seemed to be no more than a single lane looped track, which I managed to escape from just before it became hopelessly gridlocked.

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The ground itself fared much better. A bijou residence, as estate agents would stereotypically say, it actually does quite well to avoid the dreary flat-pack look such modern stadiums tend to have. Much of that is due to the lack of uniformity in the stands.

Saying that, both end terraces are very similar, covered, with about 8-10 steps of terrace, angling round the corner to snuggle up to the main stand down the touchline. Big enough to get boisterous, if not actually offer a great view.

Bookended by the end of both these terraces is the main stand. Nine rows of red seats from  the edge of one penalty box to the other, raised up enough to give a good view, but no so much that the wall at the front becomes the obtrusive breeze-block wall which ruins a many a stand.  Its red roof supports and red trim to the glazed screen ends give it a smart contrast, making it actually look quite cosy, rather than being a cousin of an industrial unit.

Opposite the main stand is a new stand, albeit a temporary one. The 2000 or so seat  scaffolding and red tarpaulin-roofed structure looks like it had escaped from a rugby ground, but despite the numerous supporting pillars at the front – 23 in all – it did enclose the ground far better than the stick-insect thin open terrace it replaced could have done.

The low floodlights completed a homely look for the ground, and even the optimism of the scoreboard operator, indicating Crawley were 1-0 up even before the game had kicked off, didn’t dent the feeling that this could be a decent afternoon, just as long as those seven changes didn’t have too much impact.

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As it turned out, the scoreboard operator’s optimism wasn’t so much misguided as slightly premature. With 14 seconds of the start of the game – completely against the run of the play I’d add – Crawley were indeed 1-0 up.

I’m sure the team talk must have focussed on the need to show Crawley, two divisions below, that we are a premier league team. Unfortunately we showed them that we are a premier league team – just one that’s only won twice all season – as we performed our trademarked ability to allow players as much time as they want to run and got a shot away. The Crawley player must have run 25 yards unchallenged before powering a shot from 20 yards into the top corner. I’ve seen Reading score quicker, but never concede so fast.

It could have been worse. Crawley were getting forward with ease, while Reading were shambolic in all areas. More shots came in, with one only just tipped over the bar. Had it got to 2-0, it could have been a long way back.

Mind you, it probably couldn’t have got quite as much worse as the scoreboard operator this time anticipated, with the shown score of Crawley 8 Reading 0 being slightly ambitious. This did drop to 1-0, and then to 0-0 inexplicably, before eventually managing the strenuous mental challenge of counting to one, and getting the score right.

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A bit of premier league class, which to be honest hasn’t been too much in evidence in the premier league this season, turned the game. In Reading’s first decent attacking move of the game, the ball was played low from the right into the middle of the area, and goal poacher Adam Le Fondre did what he does best, being in the right place at the right time to hit a low equaliser through the forest of legs.

If it didn’t exactly spur Reading on to greatness, it did seem to knock the wind out Crawley’s sails to a large degree. The game seemed to be stumbling towards half time, with a succession of balls clearing the stadium providing much of the entertainment, until Reading struck again just before the interval. Another low ball from the right was bundled in by Noel Hunt to give Reading a lead that only the most biased of fans would have felt we deserved.

Brian McDermott must have given the better of the half-time team talks, as Reading came out looking like they really wanted to get the job done as soon as possible. A 49th minute penalty, comfortably put away by Le Fondre again, pretty much ended the game unless Reading did anything silly.

Of course, Reading have done so many silly things this season that you half expect a uniformed Graham Chapman to walk on and demand it’s stopped, but for once the failings were up the safer end of the pitch. A series of offsides and wrongly timed through balls followed, which if they’d worked could have given the scoreline a look more flattering than an airbrushed and photoshopped Susan Boyle portrait.

Crawley had a few half chances, but the game felt safe, and the noticeably older away crowd had their nostalgic day out. Aldershot away next round?

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