Nigel Adkins made one change to his side with top scorer Simon Cox re-entering the fray at the expense of Hal Robson-Kanu who thus far has flattered to deceive under Adkins, and so kept faith with the centre-back pairing that looked significantly superior to that with Alex Pearce at its heart. Birmingham themselves made one change with Andrew Shinnie coming in for Lee Novak in midfield.
The match started tepidly, Birmingham content to sit back and allow Reading the ball in areas of the pitch that couldn’t hurt them, the clear and immediate intent being to win the ball back and hit us quickly. As it turned out, they would do that with aplomb throughout, as the match started poorly and just got worse throughout the 90 minutes (and for the record the author is recounting key incidents from memory having not had the benefit of viewing replays).
In just the second minute Birmingham won the ball for the first time and made quick inroads to the Reading defence, Clayton Donaldson trickery eventually proving too good for Jake Cooper who tripped the striker on the edge of the area. The resulting free kick move turned out to be a simple dummy, a ball laid across the 18 yard line and Birmingham’s hero from the Reebok last season, Paul Caddis, had the freedom of Birmingham to stroke home to Federici’s left.
Big questions were being asked of the goalkeeper prior to the free kick being taken, Federici appeared to be at least a yard too far to his right, giving at least three-quarters of the goal to aim for to the free kick taker. When the resulting shot didn’t materialise, the wall by default was rendered redundant, and therefore Federici needed to step across to a more central position to enable coverage of both corners. He failed to do so, and the ball seemed to enter the goal at least a yard inside the post, an area of the goal that should have been comfortably covered. Notwithstanding that, the amount of time and space Caddis had to pick his spot on the 18-yard line was criminal, a sad indictment of the defensive capabilities displayed regularly by Adkins teams.
The first was conceded on three and a half minutes, the second wasn’t long in coming. After a lengthy period of possession and territory for Reading, Birmingham won the ball and got the ball up quickly to the vicinity of Donaldson. After an aerial challenge left the ball loose for Demarai Gray who had time to control and build up a quick and easy run to the Reading defensive line, took on a couple of players on the inside and stroked home a low, controlled effort inside Federici’s right hand post. This effort highlighted another concerning example of just how easy opposition forwards are able to get at the defensive line and fire a shot at goal. This goal was scored on 11 minutes.
A more than poor start despite dominating the ball, Reading did find a way back into the game which, at that point, the attacking effort deserved. The attack looked like it had the measure of the Birmingham defence in the opening 20 minutes, managing to work the ball into many presentable positions, forcing the home defence onto the back foot. Simon Cox had already had a more than presentable chance saved by Darren Randolph at 1-0 when he should have scored, but Reading notched their ultimately futile effort on the 20 minute mark or so. A deep right wing cross from McCleary was met with a mishit volley from Jordan Obita. Luckily for Reading, the ball bounced up nicely for Murray who managed, under pressure, to loop a header over Randolph and into the net. 2-1, game on, and subsequent promising passages of play against a clearly confidence-hit Birmingham were the cue for your author to turn around and utter the season’s worst prediction to my travelling partners – we’ll win this game now.
Less than 30 seconds after that prediction, the sucker punch to me personally, and a goal that shattered confidence in Reading’s backline, the away end, and one would assume the bench too. A long ball forward fell nicely to Jake Cooper to clear, sadly the big defender, who until that point had individually done very well in his appearances thus far, shanked his clearance to the edge of the area to Demarai Gray again who rounded the covering Gunter (I think) with typical ease, and fired another effort low inside Federici’s right post. Defensive inadequacy this time allowing the forward time to get into the defensive line and fire a shot in.
The rest of the half was a masterclass in confidence-sapping ineptitude across the board. Every player seemingly had basic errors in them, treating the ball like a hot potato, rushing passes or dithering and being tackled. We did, however, last 15 minutes before conceding again. Michael Hector this time at fault for conceding possession in his own half, allowing David Davis the opportunity to run at the backline and feed the onrushing Gray. Clean through on goal, Gray finished with consummate ease to complete a first half hat-trick, and leave Reading with an almost impossible task in the second half.
At 4-1 down, what was needed was fight, a salvage mission to restore the lost pride would have at least left some small crumb of comfort but it is a facet of the Adkins regime that his side don’t have it in them to salvage that any more. This was so cruelly evident 32 seconds after the start of the second half when Andrew Shinnie waltzed his way through from the right flank and rolled an impudent shot inside Federici’s near post. A parting of the waves if you will, a passage of play that summed up the afternoon. 5-1, catastrophic starts to both halves, ever increasing anger in the stands, Reading fans arguing with each other (those that had stayed anyway), and an air of resignation that we were just going through the motions.
The final blow landed with a David Cotterill free kick from Birmingham’s left flank that evaded everybody and nestled inside the far post.
That was it for goalscoring action, Reading did hit the bar when a rare moment of perseverance from McCleary left him with an easy cut back to Murray who fluffed his lines. But that was it for attacking action from both sides who knew the game was up.
In summary, it was a horrible showing from Reading. At the start of the season it seemed we had a lot of different elements to our game. We could attack when we needed to (Wigan), we could deal with the kitchen sink (Ipswich), we seemed to have it within us to have the better of games and score goals. We didn’t look like we were going to be on the end of a hiding, but as this season has worn on that feeling, that was prevalent throughout the whole of last season, has reared its ugly head.
With the exception of the Bolton and Norwich games, in addition to the poor resistance shown by Blackpool and Rotherham, we haven’t only looked like conceding with disconcerting regularity, we have conceded, and I think this can be pinpointed to one event – the half time tactical change in the Wolves game. Ever since then we have looked like conceding in almost every game, an alarming characteristic of the Adkins regime that has ended up serving up humiliating defeats at places like Sheffield Wednesday, Peterborough, and twice at Bournemouth.
Taking the previous point in some form of tactical context, five of the goals scored at St Andrews came as a direct result of forwards being able to run at our back line unimpeded, and either get fouled or fire a shot on goal from a clear goalscoring position. Every game, the alarm bells ring when the team is set up so poorly, which consistently allows opposition players the time and space to open up the midfield and expose both defence and goalkeeper. We concede a lot of goals that way, and it is perturbing how it rarely changes. How many one-on-one’s have we conceded over the last season and a half? From memory I can think of at least 10 and that’s just from the top of my head! Adkins has had 77 games to get the balance between defence and attack right, and has failed to do so. And let’s not forget he has a central defender with over 600 career games on his right in Andy Crosby.
In the away end this weekend it was clear that Adkins has lost the majority of fans and it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue against the reasons for it. Personally I want to be proven right as I honestly do not believe he has had a fair crack of the whip at all for circumstances outside of anyone’s control other than the mugs within TSI and Mr Madejski himself. BUT - for all the broken promises by TSI, the marquee signings that were fait accompli on Adkins and McDermott, for all the bad influences in the dressing room that end up in full on fights on the training ground with players that care passionately about Reading FC, for all the injuries he has had to contend with, for all the lack of transfer activity he has been able to perform, ultimately there is very little excuse you can give for what happens on the pitch when you bear witness to a team that concedes the same goals from the same mistakes made by the same players over and over again.
You can point the finger to individual errors to an extent, but those errors are being made by players who play in the same position – namely centre back and full back. A good coach and manager would highlight that and ensure his players are not put in the position to make the same mistakes, ensure the same goals aren’t conceded when defence and goalkeeper are hopelessly exposed in between the lines.
It is clear that Adkins is not a master tactician, in fact he is either an incredibly naive or stubborn man for sticking with the same plan week in week out. Something has to give, and once you have tried all your options playing-wise then you need to start looking a bit closer to home. The set up needs to change. It was a very salient point made by a chap stood in front of me this weekend that it is impossible to disagree with – whatever the circumstances surrounding the match, make yourself hard to beat. To put it bluntly, Reading rarely are, as 3 wins in 13 league matches tends to prove.
Lastly, a personal message to the chaps in front of me. What I have always done is back Nigel Adkins at every possible opportunity, always tried to get behind players on the pitch during the 90 minutes of a match. Anything other than that in my mind is totally counter-productive, pointless, and generally moronic to be honest. I give credit where it is due, criticism where it is warranted. This weekend was unforgivable ultimately, however despite being 2 down inside 10 minutes we were playing well enough against a pretty poor and fragile Birmingham defence to convince me we could get something from the game, a compulsion that evaporated when the customary gift of a third went in.
I would say you’re all free to debate the merits or otherwise of Nigel Adkins with me, but to be honest there’s no point in having a debate with people who have already made up their mind. But if the backing of players, or getting annoyed at people who blame Adkins when Danny Williams spanks an unchallenged crossfield pass out of play, or taking the whole picture at the club into account, or not openly criticising players in a match is kissing Adkins’ a**e, then quite frankly I’m guilty as charged.