Days when even Royals had no riches

THE competitor in Shaka Hislop still winces at the memory.

But the man he has become knows now that there was more to life than Reading winning on that fateful May afternoon in 1995.

The last time the Royals played in Wembley for the prize of Premier League promotion, they lost 4-3 to Bolton Wanderers after an incredible extra-time contest.

Supporters still shudder at the memory — they were four minutes from promotion, having led since the fourth minute — but they also fondly remember the service put in by Hislop since his 1992 debut in the (very) old Division Three. Together they were promoted as champions from what had become the old Division Two in 1994 and they continued on towards second place in the old Division One in 1995.

Alas, they would cruelly go down in history as the last second-placed team to miss out on promotion to the big time.

Tragic though it may have been, losing was a blessing in macabre disguise.

Barely two months later, Hislop had made his own way up to the Premier League where he was signed by Newcastle United as a suitably exotic goalkeeper for Kevin Keegan’s wildly entertaining and eccentric squad.

And although Reading had to navigate the third tier again before finally reaching the promised land in 2006, the then Elm Park-based club (capacity: 12,000, capacity to host Manchester United: no thanks) would have suffered a case of the bends had they joined the big time that soon.

“Without a doubt,” agreed Hislop when I spoke to him last week.

“But you don’t care about that when you’re player or if you’re a fan. Anyone who was there that day, you don’t worry about the future. You just want to win and make history.

“Actually a couple of days before the game, John Madejski basically admitted the club wasn’t ready and that if we won promotion, he’d have to sell the club.

“I think that was a bad move. It was really defeatist. It was detrimental for the team. We didn’t want to hear that. He was right but he shouldn’t have said it. As a player you want to win. Leave the worrying for later. But he definitely had a point.”

Now, after a three-year hiatus, the club for which he retains so much affection is back in with a shout of promotion, a €100m exponentially rising prize dangled in front of Championship sides.

You could say the Premier League era was ushered in by Blackburn Rovers’ 1-0 play-off win over Leicester City on this day 19 years ago. Two days later, the top flight clubs resigned en masse from the Football League, however it was on this Day Zero that Rovers emerged out of the old Second Division into a summer of possibility beyond which lay the brand spanking new FA Premier League.

They and the other 21 inaugural members could never have imagined the riches and worldwide exposure that were waiting to fizz and pop out of countless bottles of champagne, some of which spewed their contents out in altogether seedier scenarios.

However, by the time the bus carrying Hislop and company snailed its way up Wembley Way, past gobsmacked Royals fans still incredulous as to what they were doing there, the lure of the top flight was precisely quantifiable.

Suddenly, it was all getting a little too real.

They were 2-0 up after 12 minutes courtesy of Lee Nogan and Adrian Williams while Keith Branagan had to save Stuart Lovell’s spot kick to prevent a 3-0 deficit.

Then, with 14 minutes to go, Owen Coyle rose high at the back post and destiny turned on a sixpence.

“I do still think their first goal was a soft one for me to concede,” Hislop recalls. “He beat me too easily to my right. That’s a big regret. I really should have dealt with it. What makes it worse is that they were demoralised. We were on top and cruising and suddenly they score and the momentum completely shifted. We were beaten the minute that went in. We had no answer.”

How does he compare the two teams? “We had a similar finish to the season. We weren’t expected to do anything so everyone was pretty surprised that we finished so high. The team now is full of Championship players who deserve to go up a level. We were just out of the old Division Two and we had a bit of momentum but I don’t think we had fully established ourselves. This team has been knocking on the door for three seasons. They’re ready.

“I really believe that no team can beat another side three times in a season. It’s really difficult. Swansea will have that weighing on them. Their fans will expect another victory so all the pressure will be on them. Which is ideal for Reading. They’re in the perfect spot.”

* john.w.riordan@gmail.com; Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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