Federici 7; Cummings 7, Gorkss 8, Pearce 9, Harte 8; Kebe 8 (Hal Robson-Kanu), Leigertwood 8, Karacan 7, McAnuff 7; Hunt 6 (Church 8), Le Fondre 9
Well, well, well. Who would have seen this coming? With the Championship’s meanest away defence coming to a packed-out Madejski (the first time every ticket has been snapped up since the Premiership days), the pressure was on the Royals to deliver a performance and an early Christmas present to the fans. One man celebrating another festivity grabbed two important goals as Simon Church hit a brace on his 23rd birthday, whilst a certain Malian winger grabbed the headlines for controversial reasons. The team for the visit of the Hammers had two changes – Noel Hunt replaced Church up front after recovering from concussion, and captain Jobi McAnuff returned after suspension, at the expense of Hal Robson-Kanu.
As seems to be the pattern with Reading games this season, the first half was pretty much a write-off. Both teams endeavoured to create chances without too much success, as a combination of misplaced passes and heavy pressing forced constant turnovers of possession. West Ham fashioned a few good opportunities – Kevin Nolan shot wide whilst in the box, and from a corner Frederic Piquionne saw a close range shot cleared off the line by Hunt. Reading’s only meaningful foray forward came in injury time, as ever, with Jimmy Kebe’s near-post cross being met by the stooping head of Jem Karacan, who couldn’t get a clean enough contact on the ball to divert it into the net. Nil-nil at half time. Quelle surprise.
Whilst Royals fans were probably expecting a more open game in the second half, not one person in the stadium could have envisioned the events that unfolded. As the game did indeed open up, Mikele Leigertwood released Noel Hunt just past the halfway line with a fantastic through ball, but the Irish striker could only fire tamely at Robert Green, declared “England’s number one” by the full stand of West Ham supporters. Hunt’s last contribution to the game was a confrontation with the Hammers’ right-back Joey O’Brien after a late challenge, which earned them both a yellow card. Three minutes later O’Brien, who only entered the fray as a substitute after injury to Guy Demel in the third minute, slid in late on Jobi McAnuff and earned himself a second yellow card. Harte swung the free-kick in, and after a weak clearance, McAnuff found himself with the ball at his feet. Taking on one Hammers defender, he reached the bye-line and intelligently squared to Alex Pearce, who finished with the predatory instincts normally associated with a striker.
Hunt was substituted shortly before the sending off, and his replacement Simon Church found himself straight in the thick of the action. A cross from McAnuff found its way to the Welshman, who could only fire a tough shot wide from 10 yards. Reading were making the extra man pay, and a McAnuff free kick was nodded over by Harte. But three minutes later the killer goal came. Le Fondre had been creating great chances with neat flicks and excellent slide-rule passing, and his finesse was demonstrated with a moment of class. He got the ball on the corner of the box and hit a sublime chip which beat the stretching Green. It may have been going in, but Church arrived late to nod in from less than a yard. Happy birthday, Mr Church.
The second goal saw a mass exodus of Hammers fans, who had given up on their team salvaging anything from the match. The players were equally disheartened, and were barely trying to close down their Reading counterparts, just waiting for the final whistle. However, the most entertaining moment of the match was yet to come. Cummings and Kebe found themselves with absolutely no pressure on them on the right hand side. The Malian winger, in possession of the ball, stopped in order to pull his socks up, before exchanging a few two-yard passes with Cummings. The Reading fans cheered but Jack Collison had other ideas, as he rushed in studs-up on Kebe before pushing him to the ground. The referee had no option but to produce a red card, reducing the Hammers to nine men. Again, the foul proved valuable for the Royals, as Harte swung the ball over and Church met it with his head to nod Reading into a three goal lead. He could have completed a birthday hat-trick after being put through one-on-one by Jem Karacan, but stumbled before he could shoot. With both teams content with their day’s results by this point, the last ten minutes proved very prosaic, far different from the usual frantic final five from the Royals. Full-time arrived, and everyone left in the stadium was content with the result.
I guess I’d better start with the Kebe incident. Yes, it may have been disrespectful, but for Collison to react in the way he did was absolutely shocking. You could say it’s the Hammers’ own fault that they left Kebe enough time to taunt them in such a manner, but the Royals had been (and indeed continued to) play two-yard passes to each other akin to “control” exercises in training, such was the minimal pressure on the ball the West Ham players were exerting. Kebe won’t be doing anything like it again, and I’m sure he won’t find himself in the situation to be able to. It was a taunt directly at the players, but it was entirely legal, and it was met with a reaction of red mist. The Royals had been controlling the game up until the first red card, and playing against ten men certainly helped.
The contribution of Ian Harte also can’t go without mention – fans will debate about his pace all day and all night, but two goals came from free-kicks today to add to two away at Ipswich and one at home to Peterborough. There’s no denying that his set-piece ability is far superior to McAnuff’s and Mills’, and on his recent performances the jersey is his for the foreseeable future. The Pearce-Gorkss partnership grows ever stronger, as the centre-backs dominated Piquionne then Cole and Carew, three strikers who could legitimately be in the Premier League. And Le Fondre’s presence up front deserved a goal – his build-up play is sublime and his deft touch proved deadly – one back-flick won a corner when nothing else was on, another back-heel released McAnuff for O’Brien’s second yellow card, and his chip for Church’s goal oozed class. This performance from the Royals was one of true quality – for the first time this year Reading have shown the potential in the team to perform; maybe the outside shot of another play-off adventure is easing closer.