Football: Cooke in a different league

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Reading 1

Scott 90

Manchester City 3

Cooke 31 62, Goater 54

Half-time: 0-1 Attendance: 20,055

NOTICE IS hereby served to those who have scoffed. It is not inconceivable that for a change, Manchester City will have the last laugh this year. Now might be the time to lie low.

They've lost only one league game since Christmas and the pre-season preconception that they'd be too strong for this division is apparently finding substance at the most relevant point of the campaign.

Yesterday, big, bubbly and brash, City had the look of the fifth-form bully in a class full of first-years. Reading's bruising - in front of Madejski Stadium's largest gathering - could have been much more painful but for wasteful second-half finishing.

Little matter. Wastefulness is the dubious privilege of the relatively rich and, in the context of the company they now keep, City are just that.

It can be overlooked that their latest match-winner is a full-time employee of Manchester United: the on-loan Terry Cooke has the visible work ethic and fund of talent which betray his privileged roots; his two very similar goals were beauties.

Each half was decorated by one of Cooke's coolly swept right-foot free- kicks, of the sort that renders the defensive wall an irrelevance and the goalkeeper Scott Howie an embarrassed, late-arriving party guest.

Cooke's second such strike provoked more debate in so far as it followed the dismissal of a Reading defender for a second successive Saturday. Alan Maybury, making his debut on loan from Leeds, was this week's fall guy, terminating Paul Dickov's goalward dash inches from the edge of the penalty area.

Acting with laudable calm, the referee Paul Rejer consulted his better- placed assistant before deciding on the colour of the card and location of the offence. Red was right and, by the time Cooke had finished, it might as well have been a penalty too.

Shaun Goater had scored City's second goal. Moments after galloping clear and declining to fill the net, Goater stared again into the stranded keeper's eye and lashed the ball past him.

All of which considerably devalued Keith Scott's injury-time debut goal for Reading who, having begun the game as City's nearest challengers on the play-off fringe, are absorbed back into the mid-table melange.

City, meanwhile, are gathering momentum at just the right time: three points, three goals and three consecutive wins for the first time in a year, gloated their manager, Joe Royle.

That promotion - should it be achieved - would be from grade three of English football, which ought to dilute with a degree of humility City's glee. It's still sad to see the fans of such a great club reduced to cheering a defeat for Gillingham. Next year they may be concerning themselves with posher names.