Reading: Federici, Chalobah, Cooper, Hector, Gunter; Robson-Kanu (Pogrebnyak), Williams (Keown), Akpan, McCleary, Mackie (Norwood), Blackman
For me this game showed just why Reading FC will be playing Championship football next season. Any team can work hard, and I've seen plenty of teams go down with fight and determination but what Reading posses, despite their inconsistencies, is the potential to create and execute enough moments of quality to accumulate a decent points total.
Once again the inspiration behind those moments of quality was Jamie Mackie, with the on loan Nottingham Forest forward scoring two excellent goals either side of a Chris O'Grady penalty to give Reading a much needed home win. Mackie's goals have earned us seven points in the past month and that could very well end up being the difference between whether we're playing League One or Championship football come August.
Playing just 72 hours after a hard fought draw at Bradford, it wasn't surprising to see plenty of rotation from Steve Clarke as the Reading manager made five changes from the 0-0 draw at Valley Parade. Captain Alex Pearce was rested after suffering a broken nose, Jordan Obita missed a league game for the first time this season, while Pavel Pogrebnyak, Oliver Norwood and Stephen Kelly all missed out. In their place came Jake Cooper, Hope Akpan, Garath McCleary, Nick Blackman and Chris Gunter, who took the captain's armband.
That all meant a return to 4-4-2 with Nathaniel Chalobah slotting in at left-back for the first time in his professional career, where January signing Jure Travner is I have no idea, while Mackie partnered Blackman up front.
If you saw games against Rotherham and Blackpool in the late days of the Adkins reign then you pretty much saw the type of game that unfolded here on a milder night at the Madejski. Like those sides, Brighton offered precious little in terms of attacking threat which in turn allowed Reading to get forward and create much more in terms of a goal threat than we saw on more painful Tuesday nights against Leeds or Wigan.
Chances wise and after Jake Cooper's goal-bound effort had been steered away from goal, it didn't take long for Hal Robson-Kanu to show the very best and worst that he's got to offer, as the Wales International burst onto a loose ball, took a couple of decent touches and proceeded to fire high over David Stockdale's bar.
Last week such misses cost us against Nottingham Forest but this time Reading made their spell of pressure count, thanks largely to Jamie Mackie. Stockdale's clearance was sloppy and was soon picked up by Akpan, who found Mackie and after beating a couple of Brighton defenders sent a rasping shot past Stockdale via a deflection.
It should have been two moments later but somehow Michael Hector managed to blaze over the bar when presented with a golden opportunity from eight yards out.
In truth the first half showed exactly why Reading are hovering around mid-table. They've got those moments of outstanding quality to genuinely hurt any team in the league but they're still not creating as much as they need to in front of goal and still lack a clinical edge when presented with those chances.
At half-time there looked to be only one winner but credit to Chris Hughton's side who showed a little bit more desire at the start of the second period and created a perfect chance to get back in the game. I say created but sadly this was a creation made just as much by Reading's stupidity as Brighton's guile. Emmannuel Ledesma made a run across the top of the box and Jake Cooper's outstretched arm gave the Brighton man the chance to go down and win himself a penalty. The contact was minimal and Steve Clarke called it embarrassing but from where I was sat, Cooper gave the referee a chance to make a decision and sure enough, that's what happened.
Chris O'Grady stepped up and despite Adam Federici going the right way, blasted high above the diving Reading keeper and into the net to make it 1-1 with 37 minutes left on the clock.
Heading into this game and Reading hadn't scored a second-half goal since November 4th against Rotherham, fast forward 10 games later and you feared that once again Reading had wasted a golden opportunity to pull away from the bottom three.
Thankfully Jamie Mackie had other ideas and the Scotland International restored Reading's advantage three minutes later with yet another fine solo strike. This time the forward jinked in from the right hand side to cut in on his left-foot and drill the ball past Stockdale from just outside the penalty area.
Plenty of people, including a few of us on The Tilehurst End Podcast, have criticised Mackie for lacking an end product but thankfully we're now seeing the player who showed so much potential as a youngster at Plymouth and now looks to have turned a corner. His work rate has never been in question but if he can keep up this run of goal scoring form then the decision about whether to try and sign him permanently this summer will be a very easy decision to make.
From that point Blackman had a couple of chances to stretch the lead with a free-kick and a back post volley, while there was an epic goal mouth scramble that brought back memories of playing World Cup Singles on the Playground, with a good 15 players crammed in the six yard box trying to poke the ball home or hack it clear. Brighton survived that battle but lost the war as aside from a couple of long range digs, they barely troubled Federici. The only real fight they showed came late on from various scuffles off the ball, with former Reading defender Greg Halford showing just why he's held in such low esteem by Royals fans after running a full 50-yards simply to get into a petty beef with Hector.
Despite six minutes of stoppage time, Reading held on to earn an important and well deserved three points leaving Reading fans to pour out of the stadium happily singing Sweet Caroline.
Good Times Never Felt So....Meh
This was certainly a more impressive performance than we've seen at the Madejski Stadium in recent weeks but there was little to get carried away with in the long run. Brighton were so toothless that once Reading scored the game was all but done and it was only a moment of silliness from Cooper that gave Hughton's side any way back into this one. Fortunately Mackie produced a couple of moments of real quality to win it but Reading can't continue to waste chances the way they did in this one and again showed a lack of killer instinct that would have made this a much more comfortable affair.
In the context of this season it's a good performance and an important result but I can't help but feel it's a sign of how far we've fallen that we are trying to take so many positives out of what in actual fact was a pretty standard performance against a poor side. I've still got no sense that Clarke knows his best team or system but with the run of fixtures we're in plus a rather important game on Monday, it's understandable that it's been mix and match as of late and credit needs to go to the Reading manager for fielding a side that was able to get the job done.
Let's end this one on a positive and for me the clear Champagne moment was Mackie's second goal. It was a beautifully struck shot on his weaker foot and it came at a time when Reading desperately needed something to lift them after the penalty. Mackie got a standing ovation when he was subbed off and very much deserved it.
On the note of substitutions, also great to see Niall Keown make a late debut for the club and if memory serves it's the first father-son combination to have played for the Reading since Neil and Dougie Webb completed the feat a good 40 years ago.
Beyond that and the only things worth mentioning was some outright bizarre bits of pre-match audio from the new announcer who I'm going to call DJ MegaParty from this point forward. Meanwhile the decision to bring back Sweet Caroline was well received despite one of the lowest home gates we've had in years. It's clear the club are keen to push this much harder than Embrace by the fact it was played twice before kick-off, then on the stroke of half-time, at the start of the second-half and then again at the final whistle.... maybe once or twice too many chaps!
Like the song, hopefully tonight's result was the start of something and both Diamond and Mackie helped enable Reading fans to leave the stadium with a smile on their face and a song in their heart. Watford will be much trickier but it's a certain cup replay two days later that's going to be the main focus and if Reading play at least as well as that again on Monday, they'll have every chance of a trip to Wembley.