A big day for Bradford and Reading turned into a bit of a letdown in the end, with the two teams battling out a scrappy 0-0 draw. Jon Keen gives us his take on the action at Valley Parade.
Read the published article, hosted on The Tilehurst End
Full article text:
After all the build-up, all the hype (well, all the hype about Bradford’s route to the semi-finals of the FA Cup, at least) and all the discussions about kick-off times, TV scheduling and ticket allocations the big day was here. More than four thousand Reading supporters got up at ungodly hours and journeyed to Bradford for this game. With a quick calculation I make that more than 900,000 person-miles travelled – for that effort, the match had to be worthwhile.
Because today was one of those days that had potential to be a memorable one, a day that those present would be able to tell their grandchildren about – “I was there when Reading beat Bradford City to reach the FA Cup semi-final for the first time in 88 years, you know…” The number of supporters who took to Twitter to proclaim just how much they were “buzzin” was testament to how high expectations were, although when you get to my age you realise that the only time you’re likely to be “buzzin” is when the medics strap the paddles on and say “stand clear,”
But although everyone knew just how much this represented Reading’s best chance to progress for many years, no-one was taking anything for granted. Everyone I spoke to said it was too close to call, with Bradford on a run and at home, against Reading a league higher but in dismal form and visibly lacking confidence, creativity and just about every other noun that would be a good quality for a football team to possess.
And so all except the most wildly optimistic were no doubt aware that the travelling might all be in vain – another of lovely days out only spoiled by the 90 minutes in the middle that we’ve experienced so often with Reading FC. And it was a nice day out, with the boisterous but good-natured crowd at The Bradford Arms pre-match in good voice, and so large that it was quicker – and much cheaper – to cross the road and buy cans from the off licence opposite than to join the scrum for the bar. One person who did this was Royals legend Dylan Kerr, who didn’t do things by half as he came back with a whole tray of 24 cans, rather than just an odd one or two!
As kick-off grew closer, the crowds gravitated down the hill to Valley Parade, with Reading fans filling the East Stand down one side of the pitch, and the other three sides of the ground packed with Bradford supporters – most of them in suspiciously new-looking scarves and shirts. Bradford’s cock-up of letting each season ticket holder buy ten tickets for this game has been well publicised, and I wonder just how many of those there today have been many times before.
But apart from the crowd, and the noise, the thing that most caught the eye was the pitch, which was in very poor condition. That’s being kind to it, though, as I’ve seen kids’ games on the local park played on better surfaces, and that was before the game started – even the pre-match warm-up was making this pudding of a pitch cut up more and more.
And once the match started, it became obvious just how much impact the pitch would have on it. If close control was hard enough at the start it was virtually impossible by the end of the game, so what we ended up watching was a match of very high intensity and maximum passion and commitment, but one of desperately poor quality – more a scrap and a battle of attrition, much of it played in the air, than a game of football. Depending on your viewpoint you could say that Bradford dragged Reading down to their level, or that Reading decided to match Bradford at their own game – but I think the reality is that the pitch made any other type of game impossible.
This was pretty basic stuff, to be honest. Lots of long balls forward, lots of physicality and lorry loads more passion than finesse. It was clear how physical this game would be virtually right from the start, when Danny Williams went crashing in to win the ball with total commitment, leaving a Bradford midfielder in a heap on the ground. Nothing illegal about the challenge, though – just pure passion and motivation.
But that pattern was repeated through the match, with lots of fouls, lots of injury stoppages and lots of grappling and holding – from corners the scene in the penalty area looked more like a wrestling ring than a football pitch. This was a stern, physical test for both Alex Pearce and Michael Hector, who found themselves time and time again needing to rough it out with Bradford forwards. Clearly the spirit of Dean Windass, who was years ahead of Suarez when it came to biting opponents, is still alive and well at Valley Parade.
But both the Reading centre-backs stuck to their task well, and gave as good as they got in this battle. I’m not sure what damage was incurred, though – I’m sure many players will be feeling the after effects of such a physical game for a while, not least Pearce who required lengthy treatment after receiving a knock in the face in second half injury time. And a note to Bradford supporters – you don’t do yourself much credit by booing and catcalling a player for “time wasting” when the club doctor is called on during his five minutes of treatment and the player has bled so much they need to change both their shirt and their shorts by the side of the before continuing!
But sadly in terms of pure football this game had minimal incident to speak of. In the first half Jamie Mackie had some decent runs, as much as that was possible on this pitch, and Danny Williams had a good game in midfield, trying to calm things down and drive Reading forward whenever possible. But there were few chances. One of the best was after 28 minutes, when Mackie made a good run down the right and pulled the ball back to Pavel Pogrebnyak on the penalty spot. The big Russian had time to turn and shoot, but could only hit the outside of the Bradford post.
Five minutes earlier, though, we were given a great illustration of what the players were up against. In a lovely piece of skill, Pogrebnyak played a lovely back heel to Stephen Kelly on the overlap by the corner flag. But that area was exactly where the Bradford ‘keeper had been practising pre-match, and as Kelly played his cross in the ball took a wicked bobble and the cross went out.
That was one of a few lovely touches of skill by Pogrebnyak today, but the vast majority of these seemed to be out wide, and that summed up all that was wrong with Reading today. With just one up front, Pog was always up against it, with three massive Bradford defenders always shadowing him. When he did win a header there was no other Reading player for it to fall to, and when he came wide and used his skill to beat a defender there was no-one in the middle for him to release the ball to. Hal Robson-Kanu was only rarely glimpsed in attack, and Pog on his own was simply outnumbered and overwhelmed most of the time. Interestingly, in the course of typing this report out on my phone I’ve discovered something curious. If I type in “Hal Robson-Kanu” the auto-suggest feature gives me the next two words, from past experience, as “largely anonymous.” Yes, I can’t argue with that!
On balance, Bradford had the better chances in a game with precious few of them. Five minutes before the break a free kick into the Reading box was curled in towards the far post and missed by everyone – including Adam Federici, who was rooted to his line as the ball bounced off his far post. That could have been very embarrassing for him!
Two minutes into the second half Bradford had probably the best chance of the game, as Filipe Morais found himself with the ball at his feet just inside the corner of Reading’s six yard box. His shot beat Federici but Jordan Obita was able to block the ball on the line and scramble it away.
In fact, in the second half Bradford always looked more the more likely team to score, with some desperate Reading defending at times, including one superbly timed last-ditch tackle from Kelly to stop a Bradford breakaway. Andrew Davies should have done better with a free header after 75 minutes – just about the only time Reading’s marking from set pieces let them down.
I only remember one incident when Reading looked threatening in the second half, five minutes from the end after Steve Clarke had brought on Gareth McCleary and Yakubu. A free kick was floated in and prompted a classic goalmouth scramble, but no Royal was able to put the ball in. The best chance fell to Hope Akpan, on just two minutes earlier for the injured Nathaniel Chalobah, but his air shot was almost comical as he missed the ball completely.
As the match petered out, we had a couple of long injury breaks and a moments of comedy with a Bradford pitch invader who got to the middle and didn’t really know what to do once he was there, sheepishly waiting for the stewards to get their act together and haul him off. A couple of blue smoke flares in the stand were the only other incidents of note in a game that didn’t live up to its billing and turned out to be eminently forgettable.
Yes, it was a good old fashioned cup tie, and I’m sure Steve Clarke will be more than happy to have got over this potential banana skin by bringing the game back to the MadStad where the pitch won’t be such a leveller and there’s a possibility of playing the ball on the ground.
And let’s hope that the replay is a better game than this scrap was, and that it gives us the right result and something to remember. Because for all the passion, this was a pretty dire match to watch. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to watch if you didn’t have an emotional connection to either of the teams, but I can’t imagine it was much of an advertisement for either Bradford or Reading, and it was certainly a FA Cup tie with no magic in it. Perhaps after their mistakes in previous rounds the people who pick which cup ties should be scheduled at which times have got it right this time!