Football: Cooke's recipe for promotion without tears

Reading 1 Manchester City 3
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TERRY COOKE did more than anyone to make the visiting end of the Madejski Stadium's first-ever 20,000 crowd reverberate to the sound of "City Till I Die". More's the pity that, in terms of time, his commitment to the cause can currently be encapsulated in the less snappy refrain of "City for just three more weeks".

The 22-year-old midfielder, David Beckham's understudy at Old Trafford, completes his three-month loan at Maine Road on 17 April. Unless Alex Ferguson decides he can stay, or Joe Royle meets the pounds 1.5m asking price, Cooke seems more likely to play out the season's final weeks in United's second string than helping City's push for promotion from the Second Division.

At the present rate - one defeat in 16 games - their place in the play- offs could be beyond mathematical doubt by the time Cooke's future is decided. Although seasoned Blue Mooners still half-expect them to lose in Wembley stoppage time to a penalty by an ex-City player or a farcical own goal, their manager continues to talk as if second-placed Preston might be caught.

Their prospects would certainly be enhanced if Cooke were to stay. Speaking after scoring from two free-kicks which Beckham could hardly have bettered, he appeared torn between pining for a breakthrough at United, who have offered him a new contract, and regular first-team fare with City.

Royle confirmed that he is keen to buy him, even if he is not flush with funds. Yet one could also see why Ferguson rebuffed interest from Bradford City before last week's transfer deadline; having Cooke confirm his recovery from a career-threatening cruciate injury with the neighbours means he is still available to United in an emergency.

Cooke stands out at this level because because he is steeped in the pass- and-move ethic. He also has vision and confidence, as he showed when he tried to emulate Beckham's famous long-distance goal against Wimbledon with a shot, albeit from 35 yards rather than 65, which had Reading's keeper back-pedalling as the ball landed on top of the net.

Royle's side were light years ahead of the Royals, who had been unbeaten in six and boasted a clutch of new recruits. One of them, Alan Maybury, was also borrowed from the Premiership, but it was a day the Leeds right-back will remember less warmly than Cooke. He was sent off after an hour for a professional foul on Paul Dickov.

Cooke, who had already deceived Scott Howie with a cunningly flighted set-piece, promptly compounded Maybury's misery by despatching the free- kick through a gap in Reading's wall. In between came Shaun Goater's 15th goal of the season, with Keith Scott's reply a late irrelevance.

Mystifyingly, Tommy Burns had sent on a defender for Ray Houghton after going 2-0 down. The former Celtic manager has made 21 signings in 13 months and used 41 players this season, so it was predictable that City looked the more cohesive unit once in front. Reading could have closed to within two points of them, but are now eight adrift.

The Berkshire club's owner, John Madejski, would now be wise to invest in alleviating the horrendous problems of traffic congestion and parking around their new home. Saturday's delayed kick-off was not the venue's first, and a painfully protracted start to the long haul home would have had hardened Mancunian travellers singing "City Till I Cry" had Cooke not fired their optimism.

Goals: Cooke (32) 0-1; Goater (54) 0-2; Cooke (62) 0-3; Scott (90) 1-3.

Reading (4-3-2-1): Howie; Maybury, Casper, Barras, Gray; Caskey, Parkinson, Houghton (Bernal, 63); McLaren, McKeever (Scott, 67); McIntyre. Substitute not used: Glasgow.

Manchester City (4-4-2): Weaver; Crooks, Wiekens, Morrison, Vaughan; Cooke, Pollock, Bishop, Brown; Dickov (Allsop, 70), Goater (Taylor, 65). Substitute not used: Tiatto.

Referee: P Rejer (Leamington Spa).

Sending-off: Reading: Maybury. Bookings: Reading: McLaren, Caskey. City: Dickov.

Man of the match: Cooke.

Attendance: 20,055.