Burton Albion 2 Reading 4 (6th May 2017)
I’m not sure the phrase “there’s some space down there, down by the horse” has been said too often at a football ground, but the last day of the season party atmosphere, with inflatables by the dozen, plus the odd costume, can make things a little different. Costumes were actually down in number, but the rubber horse’s head, worn just to the right of me, was a curious bit on inspiration.
It’s not often I go to Reading away games these days, but I’d always had my eye on a trip to Burton. It was not only being a new ground for me, but also something of a novelty to be playing Burton. They only joined the league in 2009, and were still in the 4th tier two years ago.
But that’s nothing. In 2002 they were still in the 6th tier of the English game. Their big local derby back then would have been the visit of Hucknall Town, whereas this season they’ve welcomed nearby Nottingham Forest and Derby County to the Pirelli Stadium – and beaten them both.
The Pirelli Stadium, opened in 2005, has no doubt been a key factor in Burton’s rise to League status, even if their further rise to Championship level, let alone their survival this season, has confounded everyone. Hopelessly outmatched by everyone else in the division, with crowds half that of the next worst supported team, and not far above only a quarter of the division’s average, they were supposed to be patronised, called “plucky”, smiled at, and waved goodbye as they finished bottom with a points tally that would have seen them relegated even if we were still in the days of two points for a win.
Instead they went into this final match of the season, on a gloriously sunny (if not quite as warm as it looked) afternoon, knowing their Championship future was secure for another season.
Looking to not be in the Championship were visitors Reading. Our play-off spot was already secure, and all we could really settle on this final day was to win and guarantee 3rd place. That would give us the slim advantage of being at home in the 2nd leg of the play-off semi-final, although it would also guarantee our semi-final opponents would be Fulham. Despite finishing five points and three places behind Reading, their free-scoring side has been made favourites for the play-offs. With them apparently being seen as the equivalent of having to play the grim-reaper at chess in some circles, a few did wonder what sort of team Jaap Stam would put out. There were suggestions that Huddersfield “rotated” their squad the previous Saturday, just to avoid finishing 3rd.
Jaap Stam has been something of a revelation as Reading boss. He came in last summer, inheriting a team that lacked just about everything, and with many fans unhappy about the sacking of the popular Brian McDermott, and about the general direction of the club as a whole. Prospects were not good. Nobody was talking about promotion. The thought was that if we avoided leaving the championship in the other direction, we’d have done OK.
Instead he turned everything round. The players clearly wanted to play for him, even if the (very) patient build-from-the-back “continental” style he wanted the team to play took a while to win over fans used to the ball getting forward somewhat quicker. It’s not been perfect. Defensive solidity lurches spectacularly between granite and custard, and Reading rarely batter teams, but they more often than not get the job done, even if sometimes David Blaine could watch and walk away scratching his head, wondering quite how we manage to do it.
None of which really mattered too much in this entertaining but tension free game, with the stands not too far short of the Pirelli’s tiny 6900 capacity. The away end had been bouncing leading up to kick off, throwing a variety of inflatables around – quite why anyone would want to buy an inflatable zimmer frame is beyond me – and there wasn’t a long wait for more joy. Within two minutes a half-cleared corner was turned back in, and Joseph Mendes was there to poke the ball into the roof of the net from close range.
Sometimes when you score early, you get a little nervous, wondering if it was too early. For me though, there was just something in the air, and even when Burton proceeded to dominate in terms of an attack threat for the next 20 minutes or so, I felt fully confident of a Reading win. Midway through the half, that confidence seem justified. Again, another half cleared corner. This time the ball was crossed in, but to the surprise of everyone, no doubt including Jordan Obita who put the ball in, it evaded everyone before bouncing into the net off the far post. When it’s your day…
Twenty minutes into the second half, with Reading having just survived a scare when keeper Ali Al-Habsi turned a shot onto the crossbar, Reading looked to have made it safe. With a chance that didn’t come from a corner for once, a ball was laid back from the left, and Yann Kermogant sidefooted firmly across the keeper for his 9th goal in 9 games.
Reading’s worrying ability to switch off reared a head even uglier than the rubber horse mask in the away end once again though, first allowing Burton to walk a goal in as if dribbling round traffic cones, then setting up a possible tense finish by heading in at the near post with 18 minutes left.
Again though, I just had a sense that it would be our day, and sure enough, with 6 minutes left, another corner duly delivered. This one featured a shot off the crossbar, a blocked shot, a saved shot, then on-loan Lewis Grabban lashing the ball in from three yards to end the game. It could have been five, with a shot from Danny Williams looking to have crossed the line before being cleared, but that would have been a bit harsh on Burton, who played a full part in the game. The football world might not have been able to patronise Burton like they thought they’d be able to, but that won’t stop me doing it.
The home fans, packed into the small but smart little ground, proud to be a Championship club for another season, probably weren’t too fussed with this little blip at the end of the season. Reading fans, mindful of the club’s terrible play-off record, will just hope for no more of the defensive “blips” they’ve suffered this season, between now and the end of May.