Roberto Di Matteo made history in this competition, so he could appreciate more than most what unfolded here. The West Bromwich manager held the record, until last May, for the fastest goal in the FA Cup final, lashing his shot in 1997 in off the crossbar after 42 seconds.
This was not the final – it was only the fifth round – but after nine seconds Jimmy Kebe, the Reading midfielder, scored one of the fastest goals in the Cup proper. Yet it was not enough for the Royals to win, as Joe Mattock gave the Baggies their second equaliser of the afternoon three minutes from time, picking his spot from 18 yards.
But with both teams preoccupied with League matters, at different ends of the Championship table, a replay next week at The Hawthorns is what neither side wanted. The two red cards, one apiece, will also be regretted in the next couple of weeks, with Shane Long, the Reading forward, earning a three-match ban.
The sendings-off, first for Long, with a straight red card, and then Youssuf Mulumbu, a substitute, for two yellow cards, meant the tie remained evenly poised until the end. Long was first to go, after 48 minutes but only 13 minutes later Mulumbu had first use of the soap in the visitors' changing room. Brian McDermott, the Reading manager, felt Long was punished for a fractionally late tackle while his opposite number refused to comment. But they took the gloss off what was a highly entertaining game, literally from the start.
From West Bromwich's kick-off, Gianni Zuiverloon miscontrolled a pass, Kebe stole the ball from him and he calmly slipped his shot past Scott Carson. "We worked on it," McDermott said, quick as a flash.
Di Matteo has seen it all before, of course; his strike for Chelsea 13 years ago against Middlesbrough stood as the fastest in the final until Louis Saha, the Everton striker, scored after 25 seconds last May.
They were all slouches, however, compared with Gareth Morris. In September 2001, the Ashton United midfielder struck after a mere four seconds in their first qualifying round victory over Skelmersdale United. Kebe and Saha must clearly try harder.
Kebe should have scored again nine minutes later only to head into the side-netting from five yards. That was the escape the Baggies needed. They got into the rhythm that has taken them to second in the Championship and made them favourites for promotion.
Reading, however, have a relegation battle when their Cup adventure is over. The Royals are 22nd in the table although the new year and the appointment of McDermott have seen their fortunes improve immensely as wins against Liverpool and Burnley in the Cup have proved.
Kebe's goal had given this fifth round tie a feeling of anything goes, something confirmed by the identity of Albion's first goalscorer. Robert Koren was meant to start as a substitute but an injury to Andwele Slory, in the warm-up saw the Slovenian international inserted into the line-up 10 minutes before kick-off. "Good decision by the manager," Di Matteo observed laconically, as Koren, who has fallen out with his manager this season, was unmarked at the far post to equalise from less than a yard.
Reading were reduced to 10 men when Long earned his red card for recklessly diving in on Abdoulaye Méïté. Yet Albion did not hold that advantage for long, as Mulumbu, who came on at the start of the second half, received his second yellow card for a tug at Bryn Gunnarsson.
The hosts then took the lead for the second time, as Grzegorz Rasiak found Simon Church, who needed two attempts to beat Carson after escaping the offside trap but Mattock had the final say in an enthralling game.
Referee: Chris Foy
Man of the match: Koren
Match rating: 8/10Reuse content