The unlucky story of Reading FC: 1994/1995
Bolton 4-3 Reading, Division One, Championship Play Off match at Wembley Stadium, London, Monday 29th May 1995. Scoreboard. (Photo by Reading Post/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

1994/95 will forever remain a ‘What If?’ season for Reading FC- a year of many highs but one which finished with an almighty low.

With this sliding door moment now a quarter of a century old, how did this affect the club that it has become?

This is the story of the unluckiest side in the history of England’s second tier.

It started back in 1993, when former Aberdeen and Newcastle United player Mark McGhee retired and took over the manager’s role full time, having been player-manager since 1991.

Immediately, he tasted success as he guided the club to the First Division (now the Championship) as Second Division (now League One) champions, with star striker Jimmy Quinn netting 37 goals in all competitions.

The club had only been in the second tier for seven seasons since joining the Football League in 1920, and never had they finished in the top half.

With five incoming's over the summer of 1994, such as attacking midfielder Simon Osborn and  Polish centre-half Dariusz Wdowczyk, nobody gave Reading much of a chance of achieving success at the higher level- but they certainly proved the doubters wrong.

The 1994/95 campaign started at Molineux to face Wolverhampton Wanderers, and finished 1-0 to the home side.

However, the team put in a good performance and certainly showed the league that they were not there to make up the numbers.

The first game at Elm Park of the season saw a 0-0 draw against Portsmouth, but from then on they barely looked back.

The team sat as high as fifth by the end of November, and so following interest from a number of more prestigious clubs,  Chairman John Madejski had met McGhee to discuss a contract.

They were meant to have shaken hands on a deal and McGhee would stay for the foreseeable, but it did not stay that way. 

On 15th December news had broken that McGhee had departed the club to take over at struggling Leicester City in the Premiership.

The news rocked the club; and certainly left a bitter taste in the mouth of the chairman.

He said in a recent podcast on BBC Sounds: “ I went over with Ian Wood-Smith (club director at the time) and we agreed that he would stay. We shook hands on it, and we went home feeling really happy with it and very relieved that he was not going to go to Leicester after all.

“In the meantime, early the next morning, apparently one of the directors from Leicester flew down his helicopter and met Mark early in the morning- whatever happened at that meeting changed things and they were off.

“I was devastated because we had shaken hands and thought it was a total betrayal. I was exceedingly hurt by it because you do not shake hands and change your mind just like that.”

Madejski then made the strange decision to give the role of manager, or managers, to experienced players Mick Gooding, striker Quinn and central defender Ady Williams (who later left to role to focus on the playing side).

Incredibly, the club were unbeaten for the first five matches under the new management, including an impressive 4-2 win over opening day opponents Wolves at Elm Park.

Wales international Lee Nogan joined in January to bolster the attacking ranks, and the club lost just four games from February to the beginning of April.

It was a close league at the top, with just three points separating the four play-off teams.

The team ended the season in fine form, winning five and drawing one of the last seven, to storm into second.

This was the club's highest ever league finish in 124 years, with the side finishing runners up with 79 points.

This was to be the only year in which the runner-up did not gain automatic promotion to the tier above, due to the Premiership reducing the number of teams from 22 to 20, and would have been Reading’s first appearance in England’s top flight.

The club had to go through the lottery of the play-offs, and little did the fans know that this was to begin a resentful relationship which is still going strong today: Reading FC and the play-off system.

Having come highest out of the four sides, they faced the lowest ranked side, Tranmere Rovers.

A comfortable 3-1 win for the Royals in Birkenhead, thanks to a brace from the future Australian international Stuart Lovell and one from Nogan, saw the advantage go Reading.

The second leg was a routine 0-0 draw for Quinn and Gooding’s men, safely seeing Reading through to the Wembley final to face third placed Bolton Wanderers.

This was just the second time the club had played at the national stadium, the first being a 4-1 win over Luton Town in 1988 to win the Full Members Cup in front of 40,000 travelling fans from Berkshire.

An unbelievable start saw Reading lead 2-0 within 15 minutes, Nogan and Williams putting Royals fans into dreamland.

And then came the turning point, a penalty for Reading.

Speedy winger Michael Gilkes went tumbling following a Jason McAteer lunge and gave the side a chance to put the game beyond doubt.

Lovell stepped up but saw his shot saved- and two goals in the final 15 minutes took the game to extra time.

A goal in the 105th minute from Mixu Paatelainen gave Bolton the 3-2 advantage, and Fabian de Freitas got his second to make it 4-2.

Quinn scored a consolation in the last minute to make it 4-3, but it was too little too late.

It took Reading 10 years to get near that level again, with this game in particular setting the club back a long time.

As with any smaller side that plays above itself, some of the best players got picked off, including Osborn, Scott Taylor and legendary goalkeeper Shaka Hislop.

So how did this impact the club?

The next year seasons saw the side finish 19th, 18th and then ultimately get relegated back to the third tier after finishing bottom in the club’s last season at Elm Park.

Eventually the tide began to turn, mainly due to the arrival of another young and hungry manager, Alan Pardew.

Reading were promoted back to the second tier in 2001/02, and made their top flight debut in 2006/07 after a record breaking season the 2005/06 in which the club accumulated 106 points.

The club has remained in the top two divisions ever since.

One thing is for certain though; the 1995 play-off campaign will forever haunt fans old enough to remember it, and the play-off record has remained poor in the ensuing two and a half decades.

Since that final, the club have reached other three play-off finals, as well as two semi-finals, and have lost them all.

Ultimately it was a two year period full of fond memories for those around to remember it, but it is certainly an ending everyone associated with the club wishes to forget.