Before kick-off, most people seemed optimistic when they heard Nigel Adkins's team for this match in the cold North East. There was, of course, speculation about what exactly "personal reasons" meant in the explanation of Royston Drenthe's absence, but I'll leave others to pontificate on that. But the general consensus seemed to be that this team was approaching the best available to Adkins, with Sharp and Pogrebnyak up front in a 4-4-2, and McAnuff and McCleary on the flanks.
So, apart from the lunacy of the Middlesbrough stewards forcing all the travelling Loyal Royals to sit crowded together in one single block when they had the whole away enclosure of a massive but half-empty stadium to choose from, hopes were high at kick-off. But how wrong we all turned out to be...
I actually thought Reading started well, playing at a greater tempo and with more fluency than we've seen of late, but within the first few minutes we had a sign of what was to come when Gorkss allowed a high ball to bounce rather than getting his head to it, and was dispossessed by his opponent. It marked the start of a torrid afternoon for the Reading centre-backs, and one which ended prematurely for Gorkss. Several times their lack of mobility and flat-footedness was exposed by a Middlesbrough team which moved the ball well, passing quickly and accurately, and moving into space to create indecision in the defence - everything, in fact,that Adkins is trying to turn his team into.
But Gorkss, in particular, looked out of his depth trying to cope with the Middlesbrough attackers, and he was suckered into a number of silly fouls as he tried to assert himself physically. And the referee soon lost patience with him and showed him a yellow card. But by then Royals were already trailing - after 12 minutes the simplest of moves had given Boro the lead. A play down the Boro right was suddenly switched to the left with a high diagonal ball which completely wrong-footed the defence, the ball was nodded back into the path of Adomah who smashed the ball home from the penalty spot.
The home team doubled their lead after 36 minutes when Leadbitter was allowed to create too much space for himself on the edge of the area and drove past Alex McCarthy. On a better day he might have saved it, but it would have needed a world-class save. Although he regularly does produce such saves, this certainly wasn't that proverbial better day. He looked uncharacteristically shaky, several times parrying saves which he'd usually routinely catch - whatever malaise is affecting this team seems to be affecting all of them, and in McCarthy's case I hope his uncertainty today isn't January-related.
The Reading midfield did look better than it has of late, attacking with pace when possible, and mid-way through the half did create a glorious chance to equalise, with Jobi McAnuff clean through with only 'keeper Given to beat. But that was really Reading's only decent chance of the half - although Sharp made a few good runs he didn't see enough of the ball to do anything significant with it, whilst Pogrebnyak was frequently forced into midfield to look for the ball, and rarely showed the pace - or apparent desire - to get into the box or attack the ball there. But, truth be told, delivery of the ball into the box was a rare occurrence - numerous crosses from promising areas out wide went sailing straight out of touch, with McAnuff the most frequent offender. It's a sad indictment that simple, straightforward skills like crossing the ball and keeping it on the pitch seem to be beyond our capabilities at the moment.
Reading started the second half with purpose, but any hope of a recovery came off the rails after just seven minutes of the half. Gorkss, who clearly isn't comfortable in the role of "ball-playing centre-back" which Adkins needs to make his system work, tried to beat a closing attacker but lost the ball and immediately lunged in to try to win it back. No question it was worth his second yellow card and the Latvian was on his way back to the dressing room. Ordinarily when a player is sent off his teammates commiserate with him, but it was perhaps significant today that no-one did - Gorkss trudged off without comment or acknowledgement from any other Reading player.
That effectively killed the game off as a contest. Middlesbrough were able to keep possession well, although Reading did rouse themselves for a brief spell of more direct attacking. But the best that came from that was a few corners and 3 or 4 free kicks in decent positions - and sadly Danny Guthrie's delivery of these into the box was consistently sub-standard, so nothing came of them. Guthrie too had a poor game, being caught in possession a number of times as well as just simply missing the ball as it was passed to him on at least three occasions - again, we seem to be failing with the simple, basic stuff.
Alomgside Guthrie in midfield, Danny Williams was the one bright spot for me though. He had what I think was his best game for Reading so far, playing with a drive and passion missing from others, organising the midfield well and making a number of promising runs. I particularly liked it in the first half when he berated Pearce for slow and sloppy closing down - that's the kind of passion and commitment we need from every player.
But one player alone can't make a difference, and Boro closed out the win with 8 minutes left, as Leadbitter converted from the penalty spot after Pearce had been wrong-footed by a change of direction and dived in on the attacker, earning himself a yellow card in the process.
Summing up what was wrong with Reading today is hard, because it's not just a single thing. It's like trying to describe the deficiencies of the England cricket team and coming up with "batting, bowling,fielding and wicket keeping". In tbe same way, Reading today had a defence that couldn't defend, a midfield creating nothing and a powderpuff attack ... oh, and just to round it off, normally dependable goalkeeper McCarthy looked shaky too.
All in all, a day best forgotten - but surely now the mantra "Why moan, we're in the play-offs?" is shown to have as much substance as the Emperor's New Clothes.