Play Off Nostalgia: Reading Vs Bolton (1995)
Reading have ever been a club that have relied on momentum; in 2003 and 2007, they followed promotions with trailblazing seasons, but 1994-95 was just as monumental. The silky passing side constructed by Mark McGhee, Second Division Champions in 1994, immediately launched a challenge to go one better. “And now you’re going to believe us…we’re going up AGAIN” was the refrain from the Elm Park terraces and not even the Scotsman’s Yuletide departure for Leicester, nor the initially underwhelming purchase of Lee Nogan – “no discernible attributes”, I remarked to a mate one March evening at the New Den – could stop the Royals reaching the play offs by season end. The injustice of having to take part in the lottery despite having finished second to Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough seemed not to matter as their eventual opponents fell to a goal from a rejuvenated Nogan in the run in and Tranmere were chased off the Wirral in the semi final.
Bolton’s season had been powered by a triumvirate destined to build on their promise. Jason McAteer, Alan Thompson and Alan Stubbs were already stars of a kind and the Trotters probably lined up as marginal favourites on the day, having gallantly lost to Liverpool in the Football League Cup Final on the same ground a few weeks earlier. An early kick off and typically blustery May conditions seemed to blunt the atmosphere somewhat as Reading’s followers outnumbered Bolton’s in the stands at the old Wembley. There was suddenly an air of unreality to Reading’s presence on the stage. After two seasons of untrammelled enjoyment, pounding up and down the motorways of the nation and supping pints in the Hobgoblin on the Oxford Road, getting oneself geared up for a lunchtime start seemed almost an intrusion. I, like Reading, felt slightly unready.
But early on, the clippers of Berkshire tacked in and around the hulking tankers of Bolton. Advantages in power and strength seemed nugatory as Nogan picked the ball up in the inside right position, shimmied and placed a cool shot past Keith Branagan. Soon after, Adie Williams was first to pounce from a corner and sidefooted home: Nirvana was in sight. Then, McAteer crudely hauled down Michael Gilkes on his entry into the penalty area, a challenge that would have been met with dismissal today. A pivotal moment in play-off history ensued with the Australian-born future Sky Sports summarizer Stuart Lovell seeing his shot saved by the Fulham-born custodian. The atmosphere suddenly seemed akin to one of those movie moments when the sound is eerily suppressed; a realization of squandered opportunity assailing us.
At the time, there was a blunt edged inevitability as each fresh Bolton goal went in. Fabian De Freitas, whose one noteworthy afternoon in English football this was, scored twice, with Mixu Paatelainen and a certain Owen Coyle netting the others. Not even a crashing finish from player manager Quinn, far too late in the day, could rescue a cause hampered by untimely injuries to Andy Bernal and Nogan. That Bolton’s triumph came at the onset of the big money era was telling. Boosted by Rupert’s millions and the occupants of a shiny new home, the win would provide the medium term launchpad to bring Jay Jay Okocha, Nicolas Anelka and…err…Johan Elmander to Horwich. Reading would have to wait another decade to produce their own revival act; their maiden top echelon fixture seeing them defeat Middlesbrough in a match of equal drama.