It started as a mild rumbling. Hunger pains, had little to eat all day, too nervous. Nothing to worry about. Yet as the dregs of the inebriated Bolton supporters stumbled around me on Wembley Stadium station – the disconsolate Reading fans had long slunk away – the minor tremors became a full-blown quake.
Like a ball of elastic bands inside my stomach, twanged relentlessly by some internal sadist. Stinging, twisting, thumping. By Seer Green, the percussion section was in full flow; by Beaconsfield, it was almost time for the tear-stained violins, serenading my imminent demise; by High Wycombe, it was dial 999. Not good. I did not wimp out. Any local A&E department would have rather more deserving cases to deal with than a stressed-out Reading saddo, a loyal Royal. Driving back to West Berks, the orchestral manoeuvres in the darkest recesses began to subside.
This is what it does to you. Following football, following Reading. Working on the big occasions, writing allegedly purple prose from a supposedly neutral press box and adhering to tight deadlines, usually dulls the childhood fantasies and one-club fixation. A sort of 90-minute anaesthetic. Be professional, contain the inner turmoil, get the job done.
On that day, I had tried to; ever since, I have tried to. With success, just. But three hours after the final whistle in 1995, on a lonely Platform 2, quivering-wreck syndrome snuck in. The injustice of a 4-3 defeat hit home, the knots unravelled deep down and the previously suppressed mental angst let go in a blaze of excruciating cramps. Let the train take the pain...
I had been to Wembley before. When Reading won the Simod Cup in 1988. OK, laugh, but they beat five top-flight sides on their march, including Luton 4-1 in the final. Stuart Beavon, Neil Smillie et al, we salute you still. It was reward for seasons of standing bedraggled on the Tilehurst End terraces at a decaying Elm Park and for years of going nowhere, where derbies with Swindon and Oxford were goodies to look forward to.
Occasionally, a gem would come along to break the monotony and earn legendary status with the hard-to-please South Bank hardcore: Terry Hurlock, Trevor Senior, Kerry Dixon. And the inimitable Robin Friday, the troubled genius whose volley against Tranmere on 31 March 1976 retains a special place in every blue-and-white hooped heart. I woz there.
Why, then, did my daughter Leah want to go home at half-time during her first – and last – match? Could she not sense the history at Elm Park? Could she not grow to love it like David Downs, the club historian, who, in 1998, camped out overnight in the centre circle shortly before the bulldozers moved in, paying his own tribute – to the tape-recorded strains of Verdi's Requiem – to an old friend?
Could Leah not share her daft dad's passion for Reading? Well, at three years old, perhaps she was a tad young. Now, we've moved on. It's the Madejski Stadium – the "Mad Stad" – a record 106-point Championship-winning season under the magician Steve Coppell, eighth place in a first Premier League campaign, two FA Cup quarter-finals in two seasons... and now a £90 million shoot-out.
Tomorrow, I retrace my Wycombe to Wembley steps of 1995. This time, no notebook, no laptop. I will be allowed to be the fan I've always been and give full vent to my emotions. And this time, win or lose, I'd like to think I'll have the stomach for it...
Reading v Swansea is on Sky Sports 1 tomorrow, kick-off 3pm