Reading: McCarthy; Gunter, Morrison, Pearce, Obita; McCleary, Akpan (Taylor 55), Leigertwood, McAnuff; Le Fondre (Robson-Kanu 57), Pogrebnyak
A working title for this report was "Playoff Dreams Officially Over", as a fair few decisions from referee Mick Russell seemed peculiar to say the least. One such moment came in the very first minute, as Pavel Pogrebnyak powered in a shot from the top of the box which appeared to be handled by Burnley skipper Jason Shackell. Garath McCleary blazed the follow-up over, but the fact that six Royals players surrounded the ref after the incident said much about the decision. Spurious appeals can be rightly waved away, but such conviction in the shout seemed to signify that Russell had got this one wrong. Perhaps because it was within the first 45 seconds, perhaps because he felt it was ball to hand, but it was the first in a line of decisions that went against the Royals. Of course, the reason that Reading missed out isn't just the ref - something that will be discussed over the coming weeks, no doubt.
Still, the home side managed to grab the lead after fifteen minutes. The lively Danny Ings had a shot deflected for a corner, and from the resulting set-piece, Obita cleared to find Le Fondre near the halfway line. The striker released Jobi McAnuff over his shoulder, and the Jamaican bore down on goal. Chris Gunter was running up in support, and McAnuff tried to find him with his cross, but Kieran Trippier got the first touch and deflected into his own net. Joy for the Royals, and the requirement was simple: hold on.
But that lead lasted five minutes. Alex Pearce fouled Ings on the right-wing, and before Reading could get reorganised, the Clarets were level. A quick free-kick found Dean Marney, who drilled low into the box - eventually the ball fell to Scott Arfield, who fired home from twelve yards. That didn't dampen the Royals' spirits though, and McAnuff nearly regained the lead in the same manner as the first, but from the other wing. This time, the Burnley leg deflected the cross onto the post. Small margins.
And two minutes later, the match was turned on his head. Marney found Ings at the top of the box, and he turned and fired one into Alex McCarthy's bottom left corner for the lead. The Clarets could have added a couple more before half-time - another raid down Reading's left saw Mikele Leigertwood clear a goalmouth scramble. The in injury time, Pogrebnyak was pushed over, the foul wasn't given, and a clearance saw Ings bearing down on goal. McCarthy saved the Royals just as so often this season with a fine save, and Alex Pearce cleared the danger. With Brighton losing at Nottingham Forest, amazingly - just like the last few months - Reading were still clinging onto Wembley dreams.
The first moment of interest in the second half came after about ten minutes, as Le Fondre chased down a long ball. Tom Heaton came to collect, and caught the ball extremely close to, if not outside, the edge of his box. Naturally the Royals fans were incensed. Russell had finally booked a Burnley player too after taking Hope Akpan's name down for a bodycheck, whilst ignoring a few from the Clarets that were equally worthy of yellow. The frustration turned to joy once again as McCleary saw a clearance fall to him just outside the box, and hit a wonderful volley past the flailing Heaton, who certainly couldn't hold that one. With Brighton having equalised at Forest, that goal was vital.
A draw was enough as it stood, but there was no sign of sitting back and hoping for results to stay the same way. A win made sure of it for Reading, and quite how the Royals didn't go in front was beyond my eyes. McCleary got free down the left and squared to find Pogrebnyak free on the penalty spot. His placed shot was destined for the bottom corner, and Reading were destined for play-off drama... until Jason Shackell appeared from nowhere to clear off the line. A minute later, Hal Robson-Kanu released McCleary with a delightful through-ball, but Heaton managed to get just enough on the shot to force a corner.
The match headed into injury time, and Reading were pressing for the winner, albeit not quite as hurriedly. That was until Sal Bibbo appeared from the dugout, frantically waving Alex McCarthy forward for a corner. The news quickly spread around the Madejski Stadium. Brighton had scored. Obita delivered the set-piece and another goalmouth scramble ensued, but the Clarets defence held firm. The Royals threw men forward, eager to grab that last-minute winner, but nothing came of their efforts. The final whistle blew, signifying the end of our promotion dreams, and the players lay dejected on the floor.
There was just enough time for a wave of spontaneous cheering to go around the stadium, coupled with pitch invasion. Had Forest equalised in the last-minute? No. No they hadn't. But for those few seconds, it seemed as though the stars had aligned again. Full-time at the City Ground, and the Seagulls had snuck past the Royals on the final day - despite what those on the pitch thought. Seventh is no disaster, but when just one point and one goal separate you from the playoffs, that heartache is even more painful.
The debrief to this season will continue all summer, but like I said when I commented on the referee earlier in the report, there's nobody to blame but ourselves. Ultimately, Reading didn't accumulate enough points over the course of the season to ensure their participation in the playoffs. One draw into one win (Yeovil at home, against eight men; Millwall at home, against ten men; the list goes on). Even one loss into one draw would have sufficed - the Royals have scored far more than Brighton this campaign, and would have had a better or equal goal difference - and losses to Blackburn, Sheffield Wednesday and Bournemouth could have been enough.
The common denominator? The matches listed above all took place at the Madejski Stadium, the bowl we used to call a fortress just two seasons ago. The Royals won just eight matches at home all season - one third of their contests - that's the lowest amount of anyone in the top fourteen. Ironically, draws against Leicester and Burnley -and a victory against Middlesbrough - weren't shabby results at all, but they were too little too late. And to see Reading finally put results together, and indeed good performances, will be spiriting to the fans; however, consistency is the key in a 46 match season, and results just didn't come.
Onwards to next season, and who knows what will happen this summer. The dreams of Russian roubles have disappeared, and even reality is something which nobody is certain of at the moment. Positivity is there - the youth side have had a remarkable campaign, and one homegrown player (Jordan Obita) took home the Player Of The Season award, with the whole squad there to support the top three on the pitch. But with contracts up for renewal, financial uncertainty, and interest from other clubs, nobody knows who will be walking out onto the Mad Stad turf next term.