Federici 8; Cummings 8, Pearce 7, Gorkss 7, Harte 8; Robson-Kanu 6 (Le Fondre 8), Leigertwood 7 (Tabb), Mullins 7 (Gunnarsson), McAnuff 8; Hunt 7, Roberts 7
What a difference two hours makes. After ten-man Reading battled to a draw against Crystal Palace at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday afternoon, most supporters expected the title showdown with Southampton to come down to the last day of the season. But at 7.15pm, the relief and delight was felt all across town as Middlesbrough beat the Saints, ensuring Reading’s second promotion to the top flight would also see them crowned champions for the second time. Reading made one change to the team which sealed Premier League football on Tuesday night – Hal Robson-Kanu came in on the right wing for Jimmy Kebe, who had been carrying a knee injury for a few games.
The opening few minutes were full of mistakes as both sides struggled to maintain meaningful possession and fashion any clear-cut chances. Reading’s best chance of the first fifteen came from the left boot of Ian Harte, as his skidding free-kick bounced in front of Palace keeper Julian Speroni, who managed to gather the ball at the second attempt. But to everyone’s surprise it was the Eagles who drew first blood. A delightful passing move in the Reading half teed up Glenn Murray on the left wing, and his low cross into the box was met by the impressive Wilfried Zaha, arriving ahead of Pearce and Federici to tap into the Royals’ net. The promotion party was on hold – for six minutes. Another delivery from the boot of Ian Harte, this time from a corner, caused pandemonium in the Palace box and after a long head tennis battle, it was Gorkss who nodded in from six yards to get the clap-banners around the stadium back to life again. The Royals tried to make their momentum count – another corner from Harte saw Speroni flap at the ball, which fell to Alex Pearce who could only slam wide. The keeper injured himself in this incident and was replaced by Lewis Price, who managed to see out the rest of the first half without any meaningful saves. McAnuff cut inside and saw a shot deflected away for a corner, then Harte’s long shot came back out to Gorkss on the edge of the area who volleyed a few feet wide of Price’s left post.
But the last minute of the first half would see the most important moments of the game. Glenn Murray found the ball dropping to him on the edge of the Reading box and went for a spectacular scissor kick, which was heading into the top corner. That was until Federici showed why he’s in the top 3 Royals players this season with a world-class reflex save which diverted the ball onto the bar and away. Reading pumped the ball forward and released Roberts, who jostled for possession with Parr running towards the Palace area. Parr went down holding his face, Roberts went down under the challenge of Parr and the whole stadium thought referee Andy D’Urso would give Reading a free kick in Ian Harte territory. Instead, the man in charge raced over and wielded a straight red card for the Reading striker, to the disbelief of the entire Reading support. As Roberts walked off he was shaking his head in dismay – even Dougie Freedman in the Palace technical area seemed to offer him some words of support as he finally reached the tunnel. He may have caught Parr but in no way was there intent to do so. The referee’s decision was final and Reading went in at half-time trying to figure out how that challenge was worthy of a red card, and more importantly, how to deal with the uphill struggle in the second 45.
McDermott’s gameplan was clear to see as he sacrificed Robson-Kanu and brought on supersub Adam Le Fondre, with Noel Hunt dropping back to the right wing. Palace tried to make their extra man count straight away and both Zaha and Ambrose had early shots which Federici comfortably saved. But as with every game Alfie features in, the script seemed to be written for him. Leigertwood released the striker with a delightful through-ball and he attempted to chip Price from 25 yards, but saw his exquisite effort nestle on top of the Palace net. Two minutes later though, he didn’t fluff his lines. A quick Harte free-kick just inside the Eagles half released Noel Hunt and his early cross was laser-targeted onto the head of Le Fondre, who made no mistake in nodding past Price from five yards. Advantage ten men. And so it stayed, as the Royals looked like the team with the superior numbers. Harte yet again provided a delightful crossfield ball, Hunt nodded back across goal but Price intervened just before Alfie could grab yet another goal from the bench. McAnuff jinked his way through 4 players into the box a la Cardiff away in the play-offs last season, but his shot was charged down. Then Le Fondre chased down a through-ball and was clearly dragged back near the sideline by McCarthy but D’Urso saw nothing wrong with the wrestling move from the Palace defender.
And to deflate the Reading hearts further, the Eagles grabbed an equaliser from the only source that seemed possible – a set piece. A corner was whipped in and headed away but only as far as the impressive Murray, who volleyed past Federici to get Palace back on level terms. It was their first really troublesome effort on goal since the same player’s spectacular first-half effort, but nonetheless it set Reading nerves racing as the tiredness began to set in. McDermott tried to freshen up the midfield as Jay Tabb and Brynjar Gunnarsson (in possibly his last Mad Stad match) came on in the middle of the park. And after fifteen minutes of disciplined, backs-to-the-wall defending, the Royals held on for an all-important point which, crucially, left them still in charge of their own destiny regarding the Championship title.
And so it seemed that point would be even more valuable as Southampton took the lead after just 47 seconds against Middlesbrough, Billy Sharp finishing after a great lay-off from goal machine Rickie Lambert. But Boro recovered from the early setback and equalised through a deflected Nicky Bailey shot just before half-time. As it stood, Reading would need a point at St. Andrews next Saturday to clinch first place. That was, however, until Lukas Jutkiewicz was dragged back by Danny Fox just outside the Southampton box. Up stepped (new) Royals legend Merouane Zemmama to curl a beautiful free-kick past Kelvin Davis, and set Reading hearts racing. As the minutes, seconds ticked down, seemingly ever slower, it seemed as though this impossible-to-predict season might have yet another twist round the corner. But as soon as Anthony Bates drew breath through his whistle three times, there was only one emotion coursing through the blue blood in Berkshire.