Reading: Federici 7; Cummings 7, Pearce 6, Gorkss 7, Mills 7; Kebe 4 (Robson-Kanu 69, 6), Karacan 6, Leigertwood 6, McAnuff 6; Le Fondre 7, Church 5 (Hunt 75, 7)
With Reading reeling from their first loss in nine away at Nottingham Forest, the team were looking to bounce back against a Birmingham City side which had drawn against Club Brugge in midweek. The Blues hadn’t conceded in nearly seven hours of Championship football, and with the Royals’ dismal first half scoring record it seemed likely that the game would have to be decided in the second half. Brian McDermott made two changes from the line-up which started at the City Ground – Simon Church replaced Mathieu Manset up front, whilst Jimmy Kebe made his first start in four matches, in for Hal Robson-Kanu.
As in recent weeks, Reading made a bright start, looking to finally banish the ghost of first-half droughts from memory. The two best chances of the opening ten minutes came somewhat surprisingly from corners – first Gorkss forced a fine save from Boaz Myhill with a looping header, then he somehow slashed the ball wide with a tap-in inviting a certain goal. As the half wore on though, the Blues came back into the contest, and started to dominate proceedings with slick movement between the lines and quick balls out wide to find loanee Chris Wood in the centre. Wood found himself 25 yards out and unleashed a shot which Federici did extremely well to tip over, then from a Marlon King cross the New Zealander tried a header – Feds was equal to it and saved the follow up too. The best Royals chance of the first half came from the unlikely source of Joseph Mills’ right boot – after a quick break following a Birmingham attack, Mills charged forward and unleashed a fierce shot which Myhill did extremely well to reach back and tip over the bar. Just before half-time, McAnuff ghosted in at the back post and met a Kebe cross with his head but his effort just beat the post and trickled wide. And so the first 45 ended; after Portsmouth’s slender 1-0 half-time lead over Nottingham Forest on Saturday, Reading are now the only side in the Championship not to have led a game at the break. And the in-stadium bookies wouldn’t allow me to bet on the half-time score being 0-0. Conspiracy.
So it was now a battle of records – Birmingham’s near-500 minutes without conceding against the Royals’ remarkable late show of goals. It was the Blues who came the closest to opening the scoring in the second half, Chris Burke cutting inside from the right and launching a powerful shot at Federici’s goal which he saw over. Birmingham were certainly creating the greater chances with Reading unable to control the ball and gain any meaningful possession. But the introduction of Robson-Kanu gave the Royals new life, replacing the highly ineffective Jimmy Kebe who gave off the aura of a man resigned to leaving the club in the near future. The reshuffle allowed McAnuff to switch to the right wing, which almost paid instant dividends. He pounced on an error from left-back Ridgewell and bore down upon goal. With two to square the ball to for an open goal, Jobi instead took the shot on himself but could only fire straight at Myhill.
Then came a minute which changed the game entirely. A cross from Wade Elliott was met by the head of Pearce, whose intervention caused the ball to divert onto Federici’s post. From the follow-up, Wood could only blaze over. The introduction of Noel Hunt came next, entering the fray to replace Simon Church. Some stood to applaud the effort of the Welsh striker, but less than a minute later the whole stadium was on their feet to celebrate the Irishman’s first contribution. A revitalised McAnuff teased Ridgewell on the wing before delivering a near-post cross. Hunt’s poaching instincts saw him get to the ball in front of Myhill and poke it through his legs from the tightest of angles. After exactly 500 minutes, Birmingham’s resistance had finally been broken from about one yard out. The goal seemed to shatter the Blues, who could not get back into the game after that killer blow. In injury time Chris Wood was through on goal but handled the ball in the area before firing over anyway. After three relatively easy minutes of injury time for Reading, Mark Halsey blew for full time. It was scrappy, but the points went the way of the Royals.
As a spectator, the game was immensely frustrating to watch. Birmingham dominated possession and scythed their way through our midfield time and time again, with Marlon King in particular finding himself in acres of space often. If it hadn’t been for the excellent defence, the game would probably not have gone Reading’s way. Federici made some important saves, but Mills in particular stood out – he was far more calm on the ball and made some crucial interceptions to at least shut the doubters up for one week. Karacan, for all his hard work, played about 3 successful forward passes all game – it really does seem as though he is scared of giving the ball away and taking a risk. But the partnership of he and Leigertwood does seem to be developing as Ledge made more bustling runs forward to support the attack as the game wore on. Most frustrating were the wingers. McAnuff offered a lot of effort but not much product until the introduction of Robson-Kanu, allowing him to switch to his preferred right hand side. Kebe’s jog to reach the bench was probably one of the hardest slogs he had made all game – aside from a few runs with the ball and one cross for McAnuff, he was ineffectual and disinterested. McDermott certainly has a tough job on his hands solving the Kebe conundrum.
Up front? Le Fondre came deeper and deeper in order to find the ball. Frustratingly, he is so adept at setting up moves and finding players in space that he’s rarely in the box to “poach” the goals we bought him for. Church had another pretty anonymous game, and it’s telling that as soon as Hunt came on we scored and had a lot more fluid forward movement. Maybe the way forward is to allow Le Fondre to help start attacks and utilise the predatory instincts of Noel instead. One thing is for sure: Brian certainly won’t know his preferred two just yet (somewhat strange with over 1/3 of the season gone). Overall, another classic Reading performance really. Dominated for long periods, which is frustrating at the time, but a little bit of hindsight makes you realise not that it’s poor ball retention from the attack but instead some great defending – and when you nick that unlikely goal, the efforts are rewarded even more greatly.