Quinn keeps brave face

Stephen Brenkley looks at the crisis facing Manchester United's fourth round opponents
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IF READING have a goalkeeper next Saturday their chances of beating Manchester United will increase accordingly. Well, they would, wouldn't they? Such may be a blindingly obvious assessment of the FA Cup fourth- round tie, but nobody connected with the First Division club would dare to dismiss it as wildly irrelevant.

Of course, Reading will select a goalkeeper of some description, but at their present rate of usage he could well be swallowed up in some mysterious black hole as he leaves the dressing room. Steve Sutton, hurriedly borrowed from Derby, became the sixth player so far this season to guard their net when he turned out against Stoke yesterday.

Of the others, Chris Woods was on loan to cover for a previous shortage and has returned to Sheffield Wednesday; Simon Sheppard has a broken arm; and Borislav Mikhailov, Bulgaria's World Cup goalkeeper signed for pounds 300,000 last September, has a thigh injury. Mind you, it was said in an off-hand moment at the club's training ground in Wokingham on Friday that Mikhailov's whereabouts were unknown, and it was reported later in the day that he was seeking a transfer.

Nicky Hammond seemed to be slipping into the role rather nicely, but he arrived at his doctor's surgery on Friday morning feeling queasy and was told he had chicken pox. The final member of the custodial sextet is the club's joint manager and veteran striker, Jimmy Quinn, who played the second half when Sheppard was injured at West Bromwich last month and kept a clean sheet.

Lissom though Quinn looked as he again did the necessary during training on Friday, he is not a contender for the Cup-tie, if for no other reason than that the team may require his capacity for goalscoring. Quinn and his managerial partner Mick Gooding were instead preparing to sign Sutton on a special registration. If that fails or, as seems more likely, the Derby man slips on a banana skin, they will play their habitual game of finders keepers.

Quinn was unperturbed that the crisis hardly allowed planning for Reading's most glamorous match of the season. He was more concerned about Stoke. "You're bound to look forward to a match like that but it's got to be considered as a bonus," he said. "We were the better team in the Coca- Cola Cup at Leeds, so we know what we can do, but we can't become excited yet."

This was solid, downbeat stuff, but there was an excitable mood during shooting practice around the training field and it was probably not being caused by the prospect of Stoke's visit. The shot which attracted most plaudits came from Trevor Morley, Quinn's fellow member of the veteran striker's club. It dipped late and scraped the underside of the bar as it went in. Morley was ecstatic. Anything similar next Saturday should see him do a backward somersault with pike.

"The players are only speaking about the Manchester United match if they're asked," said Quinn, gently but with the air of a man knowing he will have to straight-bat a million questions in the next few days. "What we need are some league points and a goalkeeper."