Tuesday, April 4, 2006
The sun is shining and 20,000 blue and white fans are partying like there is no tomorrow.

Reading's Madejski stadium briefly resembles a free festival of ecstatic bliss, to which everyone, young and old, is invited.

Deep inside the building the walls are reverberating with the cheers and laughter of a triumph undreamed of in 135 years: Little Reading are in the top league at last.

The gaggle of reporters, including Yanks Abroad, who have tracked the Royals' extraordinary journey to the Premiership, has for the first time been invited to go down to the dressing room area. Unlike in the United States where such an occurrence is a given at all sporting events, here in England it is almost unheard of.

A procession of players come out beaming from ear to ear. Teenager Shane Long clasps a bottle of champagne awarded for his man of the match performance but quips he will give it to his mother as he does not drink, striker Dave Kitson reminds us Reading are no Chelsea and their wage bill is only average for the Championship, while captain Graeme Murty wonders how he can make it up to his wife having booked an 8pm flight to Paris for her birthday that he is now going to miss because of the victory celebrations.

The last out is always Marcus Hahnemann, but he is always worth waiting for.

The English reporters love listening to his action-packed postgame analysis and still think it a novelty that an All-American guy has such a passion for their sport.

Hahnemann milks the adulation too, throwing his shirt to the crowd after every game, posing for innumerable pictures and signing several autographs outside afterwards.

You have to forgive him as he is only having the greatest year of his career.

"If the Seahawks had won the Superbowl I tell you what, it would have been unbelievable," he jokes. "But this year, to win the Championship and then go to the World Cup... Wow."

Hahnemann has realized the sort of thing boys dream about and it is only going to get bigger and better.

The Seattle native came to England and Fulham in 1999 after three years and 73 games with the Colorado Rapids in MLS but found his dreams of Premiership football unfulfilled.

"I did not play at Fulham," he recalls of the 2001-02 Premiership season. "I just had a back up role and that was one of the reasons I came here for a lot less money. Now to think I am back up at the top is crazy."

The experience shaped him and even though he has bode his time in getting back to the Premiership, is no fool about the realities of first-team football.

"When I was at Fulham, Maik Taylor was the goalkeeper of the year and in the summer we were back in the Premier League and he was like 'Yeah!' and the next thing you know they bring in Van der Sar, so stranger things have happened."

It is unthinkable that Hahnemann, one of the bedrocks of the Reading eleven, could lose his place, but this season's remarkable team could well have taken on a different hue in a few months.

"A lot of the guys hope there is not any money," Hahnemann confesses. "The downside of this is they are going to bring players in and when they do some people are going to have to step aside for those guys to come in, but we are going to have to improve our side and who knows."

"That is the gaffer's decision. You know it is possible."

A melancholy twist on a day of rejoicing, but he swiftly reverts to type. "Hopefully you are just going to have a good season in the Premier League, play a huge part and then get into Europe," he chuckles.

So how will Reading do in the big league? They walked the Championship but the Premiership is undoubtedly a different kettle of fish.

"Next season is going to be a whole different level," he agreed. "You are talking about the big boys!"

"You look at what West Ham and Wigan have done but then there is that reminder of Sunderland that proves how difficult it is at the top and how much better everybody is up there."

"We have a lot of good players who can do that, but it is still going to be ridiculous when you are playing against Man U, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, just the speed alone in those teams, the quality of the players as well. And this is the best league in the world we are going to - which is still unbelievable."

The source of Reading's survival and success lies in the team spirit forged this campaign, a self-belief that has made them the success story of the season in England.

Hahnemann recalls praising striker Dave Kitson after he had failed to score in a match, but had made some crucial tackles to stop the other team from scoring.

"So many different types of characters have come together for the common goal. That is the reason why we are here still in March with five games left and we have got the Championship."

Contrary to popular belief, there was also some amount of doubt in the Royals' camp.

"There was a lot of pressure on us after Christmas when the bookies stopped taking bets on us," says Hahnemann. "We had a defeat the first day of the season and I'm like 'Wait a sec, that is not supposed to happen, we are supposed to win this.' It could have got really ugly."

"So we dug in and got together as a team and said 'look we have got to do this together.'"

And despite hitting the top spot in late November and not relinquishing their perch, Reading never lapsed into complacency.

"Some people believed that we could do it, but in ourselves we were like, 'No, wait a second. we are not anywhere near there.' We knew we had a cushion but you can always slip up and the gaffer has kept out heads on our shoulders all season, saying 'No you can never talk about promotion.'"

"Now you look back and think that was probably one of the things that kept us focused."

The way the Royals have obliterated the competition in the Championship has been a monumental achievement, and the form of Hahnemann and fellow countryman Bobby Convey has been the biggest American overseas triumph of the 2005/06 season.

"You can't say enough about the team we have had all year, it has been unbelievable. Look how many goals we have scored. We are not a team who wins 1-0. We keep pushing and pushing."

Hahnemann's wife Amanda attends every game, bearing a USA flag alongside their sons Hunter and Austin, in their personalized Reading shirts, a great source of pride for their father and a big reason he took a salary cut to come to the Madejski. "I wanted my boys to see me play."

Dad in turn watches his two sons playing together for the youth team of the Berkshire village in which the family lives.

And all four of them enjoy hearing the "U-S-A" chants heard at every game and seeing the numerous Stars and Stripes carried by Reading supporters.

It has truly been a wonderful ride on the Reading Express this season, but for Marcus it is a season far from over.

"I am going to have maybe two weeks off in the summer," he sighs. "I can't even think about [the Premiership] because I already have to start preparing for Germany, which will be crazy as well."

"I have put on my shirt for my country a few times and just being in the squad is such an honor. I can't wait to go!"

When he is asked how he celebrates his marvelous milestones, the American who has become such a favorite in England with fans and reporters, makes everyone in the room laugh with a reply that is so Marcus Hahnemann:

"The hot tub, Jim Beam and a little bit of Slipknot on the radio!"

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