Reading 5 Arsenal 7 (SEVEN)
You don`t seriously expect me to make some sense of that do you? Where to start? Well, how about the beginning, with the exception of the Ancient Greek epics, that`s where most good stories begin I suppose. The journey to Reading proved to be more fraught than expected for one of the more local away games in the calendar. My party and I were aiming to get the 17.18 train out of Paddington. Just as I collected my coat to leave the office, I received a text message from one of my travelling party.
"Man hit by a train in Ealing. All trains out of Paddington cancelled. Can you get to Clapham Junction for 5pm?" At times like this, going to away matches with someone who earns their corn as a train planner is mighty handy. So we hastily reconvened, some of us at Clapham, others at Waterloo and took the alternative route to Reading. It`s a slightly convoluted route, but it was our only option and got us into Reading just after 6pm. Crisis averted.
After a quick pint in the Yates` in Reading town centre, we queued for the shuttle bus from Reading station to the ground. The Madejski Stadium bears all the worst hallmarks of the new stadium. It`s out on the motorway in the middle of nowhere, six miles from Reading station and its closest pub is 3 miles away. They play music after they score. They share their ground with a rugby team. Nevertheless, we patiently waited in the queue for the shuttle buses and stood to make the stadium around 5 minutes before kick-off. Perfect.
Then two lorries tried to pass one another on the narrowest country road in the South of England. They completely gridlocked the road with our bus parked behind them. So it was off the bus for a spot of unplanned cross country. I ran for about 2 miles in my nice new work shoes and missed the first ten minutes of the game. Amazingly, given the final score, I didn`t miss any goals. I`m told Reading hit the post from a corner in the opening exchanges, but I was probably scuffing my newly acquired footwear across the industrial park that surrounds the stadium. (Another irksome tick in the box "things I hate about new stadiums").
Anyway, though I may have been about ten minutes late, it was a good half an hour before Arsenal arrived. A simple ball into Noel Hunt on Reading`s left led to an even simpler low cross from the brother of Stephen, leaving Jason Roberts to wander away from Koscielny and hook the ball into the roof of the net from close range. The Royals seemed to be liking this "full back overlapping the winger" malarkey and decided to try it again, this time from the right. Jay Tabb played in Chris Gunter and his low cross saw Laurent Koscielny score what is surely now his trademark, front post own goal. 2-0 on 18 minutes. A body blow, but not insurmountable.
Almost immediately it was 3-0. Everything Reading hit seemed to be going in. Arsenal didn`t properly clear Gunter`s corner. Mikele Leigertwood hit a real ripsnorter at the weekend from the edge of the box. It`s clear our players don`t watch much Match of the Day, because they allowed him time and space to hit a cross shot from the edge of the box. No matter, it was a relatively routine save for Martinez, oh no, look at that. He spooned the ball in his own net Radek Cerny stylee. 3-0. Surely it was going to be tough to come back from this? Arsenal looked shell-shocked. Chamakh`s low shot was their first on target, as they blindly stumbled for a nearby piece of furniture to haul themselves back onto their feet.
Just as the storm appeared to have quelled, Reading scored again. Gunter`s right wing cross was met with a simple header by Noel Hunt that trickled in off the post. The Reading fans taunted the beleaguered away support. "4-0 on your big day out" and 'You`re getting f****d on the telly" rang in our ears. Some Gooners headed for the exits, not many though. There was a surge for the concourse when the 4th went in, but I didn`t notice many empty seats at the beginning of the second half. I think most were visiting the bar. The chant "We want our Arsenal back" went up forcibly and voluminously. At this point, my friend Darryl chirps up. "I still think we can do this? You don`t think we can score four against Reading?" In fairness, I agreed we could score four against Reading, I just didn`t think it would be that night.
The caterwauling was temporarily quelled when Arshavin`s through ball sent Walcott through on goal. He demonstrated his growing reputation in front of goal, spooning the ball over Federici before fishing it out of the net. I didn`t celebrate. In fact, it wasn`t until the 3rd goal that I reacted at all. I thought the game was up. But in conversation with a few friends in the concourse at half time, I did, stupidly, inconceivably, find myself uttering the words, "If we get it to 4-2 pretty soon, it becomes interesting."
They didn`t. Reading bossed the first ten minutes of the half and ought to have made it 5 when Roberts bullied his way past Koscielny, but fired his shot over. Having failed to secure their 5th, Reading got very jittery and Arsenal fed upon that. Walcott particularly took the game to the home side, firing into the side netting and then just sliding in too late to meet Jenkinson`s low cross. Wenger introduced Giroud and Eisfeld from the bench. Eisfeld calmed the distribution in the middle of the park. Giroud simply ran and ran and ran. It wasn`t spectacular, it wasn`t pretty, but it was effective and it took the heat off of Chamakh.
Walcott slung an Arsenal corner to the front post. Giroud gritted his teeth and flung himself at the ball, angling his header past Federici from a tight angle. It was the sort of goal I love. Totally borne of desire. It reminded me of Bacary Sagna`s header against Tottenham last season. It was an effort that just screamed, "Balls to this." The home fans audibly hushed, the jitters took hold of the whole stadium. The away end were making the noise and the away side were making the play. Giroud hit a fierce shot which Federici pawed away and the rebound just evaded Walcott. The same striker was thwarted by the same goalkeeper when Giroud saw a low header palmed away.
With around eight minutes left, it all began to look in vain. The home fans piped up again, sensing that they were nearly home and dry. Arsenal could no longer maintain their intensity and the ball began to spend a longer time in Arsenal`s half, though Reading offered no attacking threat. But the Gunners, as they so often do, give you a spoonful of hope, just to make the bitter pill of defeat even harder to swallow. At half time I had remarked to Young Tim, "the good thing about losing a game this convincingly is that I`m already over it." Laurent Koscielny headed Arshavin`s corner past Federici. I peered at the scoreboard to our right, meerkats style. 01.30 it read. The fourth official indicated a minimum of 4 minutes stoppage time.
For the majority of stoppage time, the ball was next to Arsenal`s corner flag. Kevin Friend allowed one last punt forward. Walcott somehow collected the long ball inside the area and poked it goalwards. From there it`s all a blur. It looked as though the ball had crossed the line. It looked as though the Reading player had handled it too. What would he do? Carl Jenkinson wasn`t hanging around to find out and set the celebrations going when he smartly slammed the ball into the net. Walcott walked off with the match ball at the final whistle courtesy of the referee, so I believe the goal was awarded to Theo. It mattered not. Arsenal had staged an incredible fight back.
In a game marked by its ridiculousness, we were treated to the spectacle of Giroud and Coquelin throwing their shirts into the crowd, believing that the match was over. Thoroughly unprofessional not to have ascertained a key detail of a game that they were playing in. But rather amusing to see them limply beg for their shirts back when substitute James Shea scurried over to explain their indiscretion. There was surely only going to be one winner in extra time. "You`re getting f****d on the telly" cried the Arsenal fans towards their now mute opponents.
As if the match wasn`t absurd enough, it was Marouane Chamakh that put Arsenal ahead. With a shot from outside the area. "5-4 on your big day out!" came the taunt from the South Stand. But only Arsenal could provide another gut wrenching twist on a helter skelter evening such as this. Robson Kanu`s volleyed cross found Pavel Pogrebnyak unmarked on the back post and he headed home an improbable equaliser. Now Arsenal were holding on, with a succession of Reading free kicks pumped into the box. Their decision to bring Pogbrenyak on alongside Roberts ceded their control over the game because it forced them into a long ball game. It looked threatning at around 118 minutes. But it would prove to be their undoing.
Arsenal broke from a Reading free kick. Rshavin spooned the ball into the area, it was cleared off the line by Nicky Shorey only for Walcott to swoop in and sweep home what looked to be the winning goal. A hat trick for Walcott with all three goals scored in stoppage time. Somehow Kevin Friend calculated three minutes of stoppage time at the end of the 120 despite a complete lack of actual stoppages in extra time. But it was no matter. Shorey attempted an ill-advised back header to Federici so that the Australian keeper could launch another long ball. He undercooked it and some imposter wearing a comedy Chamakh mask for Halloween latched onto the loose ball and coolly lobbed the Reading keeper from 30 yards. Two Chamakh goals, both from outside of the box. On any other night that would have been remarkable enough in itself.
I feel sorry for Brian McDermott and Arsene Wenger. Both have to somehow, soberly, pick out the bones and conduct some kind of analysis of that game. The effort is beyond me. All I can scrape together is that, due to Reading`s generous ticket pricing policy (as generous as their defending as it turned out), match tickets cost £15 for travelling Gooners. £1.25 per goal. Norwich charged us £50 just over a week ago. I`ve seen some corkers following Arsenal. The 4-4`s v Spurs and Newcastle. The 5-3 against Boro, the 5-4 against Spurs. But I`ve never seen anything like this. I asked Max, a fella I sit with now in his mid 70s, "Have you ever seen a 7-5 before?" You can probably guess his answer. It was an exasperating, thrilling, soul destroying, lifting and utterly bonkers humdinger of a game. It`s beyond explanation. I`ve said it many times before, this is one of the reasons I go to every game. You just never know when one like this will crop up. When it does, you want to simply say, "I was there." LD.
READING: 1.FEDERICI, 2.GUNTER, 17.GORKS (c), 15.MORRISON, 3.SHOREY, 16.TABB, 8.LEIGERTWOOD, 12.McCLEARY ( 11.McAnuff `74), 17.ROBSON-KANU, 10.HUNT (7.Pogrebnyak `74), 33.J.ROBERTS (18.Church `90). Unused: 5.Pearce, 9.Le Fondre, 23.Harte, 41.Taylor.
ARSENAL: 36.MARTINEZ, 25.JENKINSON, 20.DJOUROU (c), 6.KOSCIELNY, 54.MIQUEL (53.Meade '105), 14.WALCOTT, 22.COQUELIN, 26.FRIMPONG (46.Eisfeld `62), 47.GNABRY (12.Giroud `62), 23.ARSHAVIN, 29.CHAMAKH. Unused: 18.Squillaci, 40.Bellerin, 60.Shea, 64.Yennaris.