Wolverhampton Wanderers clinched a place in the First Division play-off final at the fourth attempt last night thanks to an 86th-minute goal from the substitute, Alex Rae.
Six minutes after coming on, the 33-year-old midfielder dribbled through the centre of Reading's defence and beat the goalkeeper, Marcus Hahnemann, with a right-foot shot, prompting ecstatic scenes among 4,500 of the long suffering Wolves faithful.
After 19 years trying to return to the top flight – and with the investment of the chairman Sir Jack Hayward's millions – the Midlands side travel to Cardiff next weekend where they will face either Nottingham Forest or Sheffield United.
Wolves came to the Madejski Stadium with a 2-1 lead from the first leg and feeling they could make amends for semi-final defeats in 1995, 1997 and last year. Asked whether his team had finally overcome a psychological hurdle, their manager, Dave Jones, said: "Look, don't burden me with the history of this club. Every club has a rich history, but for now we have a great chance."
Jones admitted that the introduction of Rae, who joined from Sunderland two years ago, had the opposite of the intended effect. "We wanted to get out and play but they swarmed all over us. We tried to counter-attack and, when we decided to shut up shop, up popped Alex. It's difficult keeping a quality player like that on the bench, but I'm glad he scored because we are playing golf tomorrow and it will make it a lot easier between us."
For his opposite number, Alan Pardew, the hard work starts now trying to convince chairman John Madejski to strengthen the squad. "I hope we don't lose the positivity of the season. I thought we were better than Wolves over the two games, but it wasn't to be," he said.
Reading enjoyed much of the early possession – a pattern familiar from the first leg – but sorely missed the finishing of their injured top scorer, Nicky Forster. The home side forced four corners in the first 15 minutes, but were thwarted by the Wolves goalkeeper, Matt Murray, when chances fell their way.
The best chance of the half came with just three minutes remaining. A Nicky Shorey corner was flicked on at the near post by Andy Hughes and Darius Henderson's reflex header was hooked clear by Lee Naylor.
On the hour, Henderson was put through by Glen Little, but his left-foot shot was turned wide by Murray from six yards. That chance proved his last as he was substituted for Tony Rougier two minutes later as Pardew tried to find a way through the Wolves' defence. But, with Reading throwing players forward, Rae found space in the box and his finish sent Wolves fans home in the hope that, finally, this may be their year.
Reading (4-4-2): Hahnemann; Murty, Williams, Brown, Shorey; Harper, Hughes, Sidwell (Watson, 70), Little (Chadwick, 85); Cureton, Henderson (Rougier, 62). Substitutes not used: Ashdown (gk), Mackie.
Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-4-2): Murray; Irwin, Naylor, Lescott, Butler; Ince, Cameron, Kennedy, Newton (Cooper, 90); Blake (Sturridge, 85), Miller (Rae, 75). Substitutes not used: Oakes (gk), Pollet.
Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).
PLAY-OFF FINAL LINE-UPS
Monday 26 May: Wolves v Sheffield Utd or Nottingham Forest (3.0).
Sunday 25 May: Cardiff City v Queen's Park Rangers (3.0).
Saturday 24 May: AFC Bournemouth v Lincoln City (3.0).
All at Millennium Stadium, CardiffReuse content