Harte just one step from return to top after decade in wilderness

When Reading arrive at Wembley for their Championship play-off final against Swansea this afternoon, it is possible that some of the detritus of Saturday's Champions League final will still be around. For one of the Reading players a fond memory will stir, and then be consigned to the back of his mind.

A decade ago Ian Harte was one round away from playing in club football's biggest game. He did not make it, Leeds United's remarkable European run ended in the semi-final against Valencia, sparking the financial implosion which plunged the club into the third tier.

Undaunted, Harte went into Europe alone, playing for Levante in Spain for three years, but found it tough re-establishing himself in the domestic game when he returned. So much so that a year ago he was playing in League One with Carlisle United, and grateful to be doing so. Into his thirties the big occasions seemed behind him.

But Harte prospered at Carlisle, scoring 18 goals from left-back and winning selection in the PFA's divisional team of the season. It was enough to persuade Brian McDermott's Reading's manager, to take a chance. "He has given me the opportunity to play Championship football which the majority of other managers didn't," said Harte, "I'd like to try and repay him."

Prior to Carlisle, Harte had spent a miserable season at Sunderland, when his old international team-mate Roy Keane played him just eight times, followed by a soul-destroying traipse round clubs looking for a contract. Wolves, then in the Championship, at least offered a monthly deal; Charlton, Blackpool and the Norwegian club Valerenga did not even profer that.

"I did think I was banging my head against a brick wall," said Harte. "You beat yourself up. You take it out on your loved ones. You go home, you're frustrated. You're thinking 'other players are getting opportunities', but you have to keep telling yourself you will get that chance, thankfully I did.

"League One was an eye-opener. It's a million miles away from the Premier League. People say, 'Are you still hungry?' Of course I'm hungry. I was travelling an hour and a half every day from where I lived up near Durham over to Carlisle. Robbie Savage said he'd never drop down the leagues, but I think you've got to play football as long as you can.

"Why didn't anyone want me? Who knows? People have always said from when I played at Leeds that I wasn't the quickest in the world and nowadays managers [at this level] look for machines that get up and down and they are not too bothered if they can play. You put ball at their feet and some of them don't know what to do with it. When I was younger I used to run around like a headless chicken but you learn with experience."

That experience will be invaluable today in a match worth £60m to the winners. "People talk about the money but you've just got to focus on the game. If you let the occasion get to you you'll be misplacing passes. That might not be easy for the younger lads, but we'll be trying to tell them just to focus, and switch off from the other stuff."

Swansea are full of attacking threat in Scott Sinclair, Nathan Dyer and Fabio Borini but, said Harte, "they're a good side, they get it down and pass it, but we're a good side. They've got players to worry about as well - Jimmy Kebe, Jobi McAnuff, Shane Long, Noel Hunt, who I'm sure will terrorise any defence. We'll just have to focus on what we're there to do."

At the other end of the M4 Swansea feel the same, putting the quirk of fate that pits their manager, Brendan Rodgers, against the club that fired him 18 months ago to the side and concentrating on themselves. Their ranks include Ashley Williams, who was working at a theme park and playing non-League as an 18-year-old, two victims of Chelsea's failed flirtation with youth in Sinclair and Borini, and veteran Gary Monk, who knows the pain of play-off defeat. Beaten by Barnsley on penalties with Swansea in the League One final five years ago, he said: "I don't want to experience that again. It was one of the worst feelings you can have. Obviously, that's in the back of the mind, but hopefully that's used as motivation not to experience it again."

Swansea are widely regarded as the best footballing side in the division while Reading pay a similar high-tempo game to the one which Steve Coppell's Royals did in winning promotion in 2006. That suggests an attractive match, but both are solid defensively. Reading have kept five clean sheets in eight while Swansea have conceded two goals in their last six matches.

"It is a long and horrible summer break when you don't achieve anything from the season," Williams said, "we'd hate for that to happen again."