The romance of the FA Cup was alive and kicking at the Madejski Stadium yesterday. Unfortunately for those who yearn for the days when smaller clubs would progress at the expense of their larger rivals, it turned out to be little more than a one-night stand, a brief but memorable fling.
Reading, the team fighting for their lives at the foot of the Championship, raced into a 2-0 lead before they were put in their place by Aston Villa, the Premier League high-fliers who have spent more than £100m on players in the past four years.
At half-time Shane Long probably thought his two first-half goals would take Reading to their first FA Cup semi-final since 1927, but the Irish forward's livewire display was eclipsed by Villa's thrilling response and John Carew's second-half hat-trick. "The gaffer had some serious words with us at half-time," Carew said. "You saw the response on the pitch. It's a great feeling and we really want to get to the final."
Villa seemed to spend most of last week complaining about the refereeing of their 2-1 Carling Cup final defeat by Manchester United, and Martin O'Neill's team still appeared to be feeling sorry for themselves during a first half that was all about the desire and workrate of their opponents.
Reading's 11 players left the pitch at half-time, leading 2-0 and dreaming, along with their 20,000 supporters, of a trip to Wembley next month. Dreams can come true, but not on this occasion. "We gave them as tough a game as they have had all season," Brian McDermott, the manager, said. "I'm proud of every single one of my players.
O'Neill was also full of praise for his players after the game, applauding their character and determination, but it was a different story at half-time. The Villa manager was so angered by his side's abject first-half performance that he sent his players out four minutes early for the second half.
With his words still ringing in their ears, Villa stepped on the gas and turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 lead thanks to three goals in a blistering 10-minute spell after the restart. In the first half, Carew was arguably the worst player on the pitch, in the second, he was too hot to handle.
Ashley Young started the fightback by sweeping the ball past goalkeeper Adam Federici at the far post before Carew made his mark with two close-range finishes. The Norwegian levelled the scores with a simple header from a cross by Stewart Downing in the 51st minute, and six minutes later he scored the goal of the afternoon, deftly directing Stephen Warnock's low cross past Federici with the outside of his right boot.
Now it was Reading's turn to feel sorry for themselves. McDermott's side were shellshocked but just when it looked as if they would have only a Championship relegation battle to look forward to for the rest of the season, they managed to rouse themselves for one last push.
Ivar Ingimarsson thought he had earned his team a replay but Young cleared his header off the line and Reading went close to equalising again in the closing stages when Brad Friedel denied Grzegorz Rasiak with a point-blank save.
At that stage of the game, Reading probably deserved a third goal but their hopes of progressing in the competition and adding Villa to the scalps of Liverpool, Burnley and West Bromwich Albion were finally extinguished when Carew, who was playing only because Gabriel Agbonlahor had been laid low with a stomach bug, completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot after he had been tripped by Ingimarsson.
Victory earned O'Neill's team a second trip to Wembley this season and also ended the manager's March hoodoo. Until yesterday, Villa had not won in March under O'Neill, who replaced David O'Leary in August 2006. "I can't say that was top of my thoughts at half-time," O'Neill said. "Unfortunately, I didn't become aware of that stat until last April so this is the first chance that I've had to do something about it."
If FA Cup ties lasted only 45 minutes Reading, and not Villa, would be preparing for a memorable and lucrative semi-final against Chelsea at Wembley. Long gave his team the perfect start when he headed past Friedel in the 27th minute and made it 2-0, and six goals in five games, by sweeping Jimmy Kébé's low cross past Villa's American goalkeeper.
"If you are going to lose a game, that is how you lose it," McDermott said. "We played really well in the first half and knew if we could keep it tight for 15 minutes in the second half we'd have a chance but that didn't happen.
"Some of the football we played was excellent. We didn't drop our heads when we went 3-2 down. We were still creating chances. I'm looking forward to watching the game again."
Don't forget to turn the TV off at half-time, Brian.
Reading (4-4-2): Federici; Griffin, Mills, Ingimarsson, Bertrand; Kébé, Howard (Gunarsson, 59), Tabb, Sigurdsson; Long, Church (Rasiak, 71). Substitutes not used: Hamer (gk), Henry, Matejovsky, Robson-Kanu, Pearce.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Cuellar, Collins, Dunne, Warnock; A Young, Milner, Petrov, Downing (Sidwell, 90); Heskey, Carew. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), L Young, Albrighton, Delfouneso, Delph, Beye.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).
Booked: Reading Sigurdsson, Tabb; Aston Villa Dunne, A Young, Collins, Milner.
Man of the match: Carew.