No all-Welsh play-off final then, Reading instead going to Wembley on 30 May to take on Swansea, emboldened by a handsome win on a night when Cardiff never looked like Premier League candidates.
Without the injured Craig Bellamy, Dave Jones’s team were ordinary at best, gifting their grateful opponents the all-important goal with which Shane Long opened the scoring. He added a second from the spot and Jobi McAnuff a late third as Cardiff’s promotion bid failed for the third season in succession, leaving Jones to consider his future after six years in charge.
The first question of the night was answered early, when Bellamy was seen in the Hilton hotel before the game. Cardiff’s talismanic captain had not recovered from the hamstring injury he sustained in the away leg and was not even on the bench. His place in the starting line-up went to Michael Chopra. Reading were also without an important player. Jimmy Kebe, their turbo-charged winger, was absent again with thigh trouble.
Latecomers were still arriving when Long, taking advantage of defensive indiscipline by Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, shot into the side-netting from the right, and Chopra claimed, in vain, for an unlikely penalty.
Cardiff made the running, as might have been expected from the home side, threatening after 17 minutes when Jay Bothroyd played in Chopra with a through pass. There was a sharp intake of breath from 20,000 throats as Bellamy’s stand-in shaped to shoot only to be thwarted by a sliding, last-ditch intervention from Matt Mills, the Reading captain.
Bothroyd was next to try his luck, his resounding drive deflecting off Zurab Khizanishvili and wrong-footing Adam Federici before sailing just wide of his right-hand post. From the consequent corner Dekel Keinan headed straight at the goalkeeper from close range.
It was against the run of play, then, when Reading went ahead after 28 minutes with what for Cardiff was a self-inflicted wound. Keinan’s backpass hit his centre-back partner, Kevin McNaughton, on the head and Long’s presence lured Stephen Bywater out of his area to attempt to clear the danger. Instead, with McNaughton chasing back to help, the goalkeeper thrashed the ball into the oncoming striker who controlled the ball and chipped it into the unguarded net. Long had initially made contact with a hand, but at such close range that there could be no question of any infringement.
Cardiff had a more convincing claim for a penalty after 36 minutes, when Seyi Olofinjana was pushed in the back by Andy Griffin as he challenged at the far post for Chris Burke’s right-wing cross. Howard Webb waved the appeals away, leaving the locals to question Sir Alex Ferguson’s opinion of England’s World Cup referee.
Emmanuel-Thomas headed against Federici’s right-hand post at its junction with the crossbar, then, after 45 minutes, bad went to worse for the Welsh club when Keinan pulled down Mills at a corner and Long made short work of the most obvious of penalties. At 2-0 Reading were firmly in control, their fans already singing of Wembley.
Jones had probably the most important team talk of his career to deliver during the interval. How would his deflated players respond? With vigour but insufficient wit or penetration, it transpired.
They should have had a goal back in the 50th minute but Emmanuel-Thomas blazed wide. The man they call “Jet”, on loan from Arsenal, has been a disappointment in terms of goals scored, with two in 15 Championship appearances.
Ten minutes into the second half McAnuff, a former Cardiff player, shot against Bywater’s left-hand post when another goal would have killed the tie stone dead. Not that it seemed to matter when Cardiff went straight to the other end and Emmanuel-Thomas spurned another chance. Jones hooked him immediately, sending on Jason Koumas in his place.
The substitute quickly supplied a good cross from the left, only for Olofinjana to shoot weakly at the goalkeeper. As if encouraged by Koumas’s instant impact Jones withdrew Chopra, who had been poor, and introduced Jon Parkin, his man-mountain of a centre-forward.
He at least put himself about, flashing a diving header past a post, but Noel Hunt should have had a third for Reading in the 80th minute when he fired wastefully wide. At this stage, the home fans began melting away, disappointed yet again. And then, after 83 minutes, McAnuff smacked in the third and the trickle towards the exits became a stream.
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