You can subscribe to the Totally Football Show here…
Reading weren’t thinking about promotion in 1995, but after finishing second they deserved a place in the Premier League. But they didn’t get it…
The 1994/95 season was a unique one in the old First Division. Only two teams would be promoted to the Premier League, as increased fixture demands from a revamped Champions League and international fixtures meant that the authorities felt a 42-game season was no longer realistic. So the 22 teams currently in the division would be slimmed down to 20 – with four teams relegated and only two promoted. One automatically, one from the playoffs.
For Reading, newly promoted to Division One themselves, all of this was quite far from their minds.
“My wife and I were going to get married that summer,” Shaka Hislop, Reading goalkeeper for that season tells the Totally Football Show. “We set a date for June 10th which would have been two or three weeks after what we thought would have been the end of the season. And I remember her asking about getting to the playoffs. And I was like ‘Look, it’s going to be a bigger challenge fighting relegation as opposed to us getting to the playoffs.’ I didn’t think it would be an issue”
It soon became apparent though that Reading would be spending the season looking up, rather than down. In their first twelve games, they only lost twice.
“We went to some of the giants of the First Division, in terms of [teams like] Wolverhampton Wanderers, and gave as good as it got. And that’s when I think we realised we were onto something good with that team,” says Hislop.
By December, they were up to 2nd and other teams were also noticing what they were onto. When Premier League Leicester City lost manager Brian Little to Aston Villa, they approached Reading manager Mark McGhee.
“It’s still very bitter in these parts,” says Reading season ticket holder and The Tilehurst End writer Dave Harris. McGhee joined Leicester taking his assistant and head coach with him, despite having allegedly assured chairman John Madjeski that he would stay. “Reading fans were stung…It derailed us for a while.”
“I thought it could have been handled better,” says Hislop. “We had been playing particularly well. It felt settled.
“I think the bigger question for us, certainly at the time…was we thought McGhee would be interested in a number of the Reading players. I think the big concern was well, who’s going to leave?
“After a couple of weeks, that speculation died down, and none of the players wanted to leave. So we just picked back up where we left off.”
It's going to be a bigger challenge fighting relegation than getting into the playoffs.
“We struggled in January and February really,” says Harris. “At the same time as we lost McGhee, Simon Osborn damaged his knee ligaments and was out for three months. We only had a small squad. We lost to teams that we shouldn’t have otherwise lost to. It had a damaging effect, and perhaps if McGhee hadn’t have gone…we would have been in a better position to be pushing for automatic promotion.”
In McGhee’s place, Reading appointed Jimmy Quinn and Mick Gooding as player-managers.
“I think the biggest upside to that was that they didn’t try to change anything,” says Hislop. “I think often when new manager come in, they try to change things. Maybe change formation, change how you play, change of personnel. But they just let us do as we had been doing all along.”
Despite that wobble at the start of 1995, as Quinn and Gooding bedded in, results started to pick up again.
“We went on a storming run of form in March after a 2-1 win against Oldham where we scored twice in the last five minutes,” remembers Harris “Osborn returning to form – that was pretty key. We picked up points against teams who were in and around the play off battle. A key result was against Bolton at the back end of April. We beat them 2-1 with a last minute Lee Nogan winner.”
Middlesborough were ahead of them in first place but Reading weren’t far behind.
“I think Middlesborough were better than we were. They had the money in the league at the time, they had the big name manager in Bryan Robson. I always felt that they were the favourites to go up to the Premier League,” says Hislop.
“We were going to finish second. And all of a sudden it dawns on you. If we’re saying only two teams are getting promoted, and here we are going to finish second – that feels a little unfair.”
In the end, there were only three points in it. Defeat to a mid-table Grimsby team and a draw with Port Vale where Reading threw away a three goal lead, left them second and heading into the play-offs.
In their semi-final, they beat Tranmere away 3-1 before holding them to a 0-0 draw at Elm Park. That set up a Wembley playoff final date with Bolton.
“I wouldn’t say momentum was with Bolton”, says Hislop, “But it was tough finishing second and having to deal with that. We knew any other time we would have been promoted automatically, but now here we were going to have to go through the playoffs”
“We started like a train,” says Harris. “An absolute train.”
Within twelve minutes, Reading were 2-0 up. Nogan scored an impressive individual goal after four minutes, before Adie Williams added a second eight minutes later. After 34 minutes, Stuart Lovell missed a penalty which would have put Reading 3-0 up, and probably home and dry. At the time, player-manager Jimmy Quinn and Reading’s regular penalty taker, said he thought about coming off the subs’ bench to take it. “Had it gone in, I’m sure we would have won,” he said.
“Even though we went into half-time 2-0 up, we knew that it wouldn’t be the same Bolton team that turned up in the second half,” says Harris. “We needed the team to be resilient.”
“I thought we had been hanging on well,” says Hislop. “And then we started to run out of gas towards the end of the game.”
Bolton had already been to Wembley once that season, losing to Liverpool in the League Cup final. Before the final, their assistant Colin Todd said he thought it would be to their advantage: “Psychologically, we know what it’s all about. We’ve experienced the atmosphere, the big pitch and a final playing Liverpool…We don’t go there cold.”
“They just were able to manage the minutes, manage the heat, better than we did. And manage the big feel that was Wembley. And we just ran out of gas,” Hislop says. The Times described the match as a “test of endurance”.
In the 75th minute, Owen Coyle scored and with four minutes to go, Fabian de Freitas equalised to send the game to extra time.
During extra time, Bolton scored twice more and even though Jimmy Quinn added a late consolation for Reading with a minute to go, Bolton completed the come back to win 4-3 and get promoted.
“If I can go back and change history, as a football fan, that’s one of the things I would do,” says Harris “It was a massive stinger.”
“It was heartbreaking. It really was,” says Hislop. “I think our strength was who we were as a unit. We developed some great friendships and the camaraderie in the team was second to none. I think that was the foundation of our success – how close we were as a group.”
“To fall at the final hurdle, it really was heartwrenching.”
Worse for Reading fans was what would come next. “You knew at the end of the season, having done so well, that the team would just be broken up,” says Harris. “If we’d have won that, we’d have been in a much better position. I think we would have been in a much surer position financially, and be able to compete at the top end of Division One a lot earlier than we actually did. It took us nearly ten years to get back to the level that we were at in 94/95.”
As it was players did move on. Osborn who was widely credited for pulling the strings in midfield moved to Queen’s Park Rangers for £1.1million whilst Hislop went to Newcastle for a club record £1.6million. Reading ended up finishing 19th in Division One the next season, and were relegated in 1998.
“Even though I moved onto Newcastle,” he says “that was not any kind of consolation. Playing in the Premier League with somebody else wasn’t any kind of consolation to not getting there with Reading.”
It would take Reading eleven more years to be promoted to the Premier League. There would be two more playoff heartbreaks, losing to Walsall in the third tier final in 2000/01 and to Wolves in the Division One semi-final in 02/03. In 2006, they finally topped the Championship with a league record of 106 points, only losing twice, to finally exorcise the ghosts of a Wembley match 11 years before.
You can listen to the latest edition of the Totally Football Show here, and even better you can subscribe here. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast you are very welcome to, but please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.