What a performance Jose Mourinho has given us in the seven days since his team of Super-Sized Me’s lost its two most famous goalkeepers on our nice little ground at Reading. If you weren’t at the match, and actually believe what the Furby has been jabbering, then you must surely have an image in your mind of a ruthless pogrom of visiting goalkeepers organised with deadly accuracy by a new team of assassins in the Premiership, SS Reading, led by that jackal in charge of goalkeeper destruction, Stephen “Hannibal” Hunt.
Somebody among the footballing gods is presumably having a laugh. Every football team reflects the ethos of its manager, right? Well, if you placed our man, Stevie Coppell, next to a white seal pup, the seal pup would look aggressive in comparison. Anybody who has watched Reading in the past couple of seasons will tell you they are energetic but not dirty. Right now, they stand second in the Premiership fair play standings, and would wish to be first.
Yet this same friendly family club has suddenly been imprinted on the national consciousness as a bunch of goalie killers. And little Hunt, who must have one of the hardest bums in Berkshire given how much time he has spent on the bench in the past two seasons, is now the most famous Reading player in the land. Welcome, alas, to the Premiership.
Those of us who weren’t hallucinating in the Furby’s technical area last week saw a very different set of events unfolding to the second world war described in Mourinho’s dispatches. The horrible injury to Petr Cech happened so early in the game that few in the ground grasped its seriousness. Including Hunt. And since Carlo Cudicini’s bang came just moments before the end, 99.9% of the match was played in conditions of striking normality: Chelsea were diving about like ducks in a bath; Shevchenko was fumbling; Lampard was out of touch. The two sendings-off were not especially dramatic. And Reading were unlucky to lose. Only after this real game ended did the fantasy football begin.
Anyway they’ve gone now, hallelujah! Back to their nightclubs and their bank accounts, and Reading are able to welcome a proper football team, Arsenal, to the Madejski stadium today. When Thierry Henry and his cavaliers clamp eyes on our team for the first time this afternoon, they are in for an almighty surprise. Because what they’ll see is themselves, about 10 years ago, before Arsène Wenger redesigned them. That’s right: Reading are the new old Arsenal.
Consider the similarities. First, there are the results. Apart from the strange blip that was the opening game against Middlesbrough which ended up 3-2 to us after all manner of weird Premiership nerves set in, look at the scores we’ve had since. Manchester City and West Ham were dispatched 1-0. Then there was the 1-1 draw against Rooney and Ronaldo. The Chelsea playboys scraped a win but only by 0-1 again. You have to admit, those are Arsenal figures. Instead of Safe Hands in goal, we’ve got Safe Feet, the bald and fearless Marcus Hahnemann. All goalkeepers have their eccentricities, of course. David Seaman had his pony tail and Hahnemann is a fan of obscure American heavy metal. Our goalie, see, doesn’t merely have nerves of steel; his ears are made of the stuff as well.
The full-backs, Graeme Murty and Nicky Shorey, are Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn with their clocks turned back. Watch the two of them bombing upfield on the break, their little legs working like Singer sewing machines, and I tell you, you’ll get all nostalgic and hear Brian Moore’s voice in your ear.
At the centre of the defence, instead of Tony Adams and Martin Keown, there’s Ibrahima Sonko and Ivar Ingimarsson, a two-man mountain range that’s impossible to pass. You should have seen Sonko dealing with Rooney a couple of weeks back. I didn’t know Rooney could bounce that well.
Reading’s midfield doesn’t just play like an Arsenal midfield, it actually is an Arsenal midfield. Both James Harper and Steve Sidwell were on Arsenal’s books before Wenger decided he didn’t want any Englishmen in his team. Sidwell had his best game of the season against Chelsea. If he wasn’t ginger, he’d be Ray Parlour. And you know how Arsenal always had one genuine creative embedded in their 4-4-2? Well we’ve got a Paul Merson too. He’s called Bobby Convey, who usually plays where Hunt was playing last week.
Up front, when Dave Kitson’s fit, there’s a big guy and a little guy, though at the moment we’re down to two little guys with Kevin Doyle as Ian Wright and Leroy Lita as the bottom half of Alan Smith.
So, when Arsenal emerge from the tunnel today, and see us arranged against them, they’ll feel as if they’re looking into an old mirror, and they’ll be scared. Very scared. At the end of the game, I expect that fine chorus, “To the Reading 1-0”, to echo grandly around the Mad Stad, as it so often does.