FOOTBALL: Wanderers in search of reward

PLAY-OFF FINALS: Reading eye the Premiership as Huddersfield and Chesterfield claim promotion
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The Independent Online


If Jane Austen were writing the script, the protagonists in today's First Division play-off final would be walking up the aisle together, not the Wembley tunnel.

Representing the nouveau riche are Reading, a club that has risen without trace on the back of a fortune made from flogging car advertisements. Representing the faded aristocracy are Bolton Wanderers, a grand name which, until this season, had fallen on hard times. Coupled together they should have it all, like Blackburn Rovers and Jack Walker - old name, new money.

Except John Madejski, the founder of Autotrader magazine and chairman of Reading, does not believe in ploughing his fortune into football. He has put pounds 5m of his estimated pounds 150m worth into the club but that is as much by way of community service as aggrandisement.

Madjeski's money means Reading have been able to hold onto their better players - like Shaka Hislop, the goalkeeper, and Adrian Williams, the Welsh international defender - and even buy Lee Nogan. But, at pounds 250,000, his purchase was hardly in the Chris Sutton class, even if his goal-a- game impact has been.

Bolton, too, have managed to ward off the Premiership predators, aided by a rousing Coca-Cola Cup campaign that ended in a narrow defeat by Liverpool at Wembley a month ago.

Alan Stubbs, a classy central defender, the Irish interntional midfielder, Jason McAteer, and a young winger, Alan Thompson, are their most coveted players although John McGinlay has had just as much influence on their success. The Scottish striker has scored 22 goals this year, the last two disposing of Wolves in the play-off semi-final.

While that game went to extra-time Reading had effectively secured their Wembley place after just one leg of their semi-final, having won 3-1 at Tranmere.

That result underlined their claim to be the division's form team - and it was Reading who came second to the champions, Middlesbrough, in the regular season.

However, Bolton are widely regarded as the best side in the division - Middlesbrough included - and will not lack confidence.

When they met in the league at Elm Park recently Reading won with a late goal, but only after Bolton had dominated without reward.

Whoever wins today knows that the struggle will have only just begun. Getting to the Premiership is hard enough, staying there is another matter entirely. The instant demotion of the last two play-off winners, Leicester City and Swindon Town, underlines that.