Reading’s under 18s have had their fair share of drama in the their landmark cup run this year so perhaps it was fitting that they only went out after another incident packed game that as the cliché goes, had everything.
After the disappointment of not being able to finish the game off in the first leg, Reading knew they needed a big performance to beat a Fulham side they’d failed to beat in their three previous meetings. Indeed this tie was a repeat of last season’s Premier League (South) final, a game which saw Fulham emerge victorious.
The XI that came close last Tuesday were again named and again the team looked to dominate the possession in the middle of the park, creating an early chance for Harry Cardwell who nodded wide. Patrick Roberts of Fulham, the star last week and the main reason the tie was still within reach for the home side started very brightly. He danced his way through the Reading defence and almost saw his effort from a tight angle squirm under Lewis Ward in the Reading goal.
After that effort though Reading were able to keep Roberts well marshalled with captain Aaron Kuhl always in close attention and gradually they were able to get a toehold in the game. It was from set pieces that Reading looked to capitalise but with Fulham deploying Ryheem Sheckleford as a one man wall in front of Liam Kelly, the corners couldn’t be drilled in as they were last week. Dominic Hyam still managed to get a volley in from one corner however but a difficult opportunity didn’t trouble Marek Rodak in the Fulham goal.
With the game beginning to open up, it was that man Roberts again who proved to be the spark. He managed to avoid the challenge of Sammi Fridjonsson on the edge of the area and after a lucky deflection squirmed into the box only to be pulled down by Dominic Hyam. The ref had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and as the last man Hyam’s fate was the same as Marek Rodak’s last week for Fulham and a red card was produced. Lewis Ward guessed the right way but Moussa Dembele’s penalty found it’s way in the open the scoring.
The half time break allowed Reading to regroup and the started the second period with a real spark. This time it was the little figure of Liam Kelly who found his way into the box and was clipped by the Fulham defender. Once again it was a penalty apiece and Tarique Fosu showed immense composure to pass the ball in with Rodak committed.
Then came the real moment of class in the game. Jack Stacey who had been lively all game collected the ball on the right wing and was allowed to cut inside and drive toward the box. With the defenders backing off, expecting him to lay it in for Fosu the midfielder unleash a ferocious left foot shot that pinged into the back of the net giving the goalkeeper no chance. 10 men Reading were understandably delirious.
Unfortunately for the Royals, the lead wasn’t to last long. Fulham went straight up the other end and when Emerson Hyndman’s deflected effort cannoned back off the bar, it couldn’t have fallen any better for Dembele to knock in the equaliser. It was a fortuitous goal but sadly a sign of things to come.
With that goal proving a real punch in the gut for Reading, the focus suddenly changed and they were now clinging on for extra time. They were under siege and Ward had to be at his very best to first deny Roberts from close range and then to brilliantly tip Dembele’s effort around the post. Reading’s only real chance fell to Fosu after Stacey put him through but he was able to make it count.
With injury time looming the sucker punch arrived. Liam Kelly’s turned into trouble on the edge of the box and was caught in possession by George Williams. He played in Dembele, whose touch let him down and allowed Rob Dickie to make the clearance. In the cruellest of cruel endings for Reading though, the defenders clearance smacked against the former PSG man’s heel and rolled agonizingly into the net, seeing Fulham through to their first ever final.
It was a horrible way to end the game and completely at odds with the amount of quality on display from both teams. From the Reading point of view, they defended magnificently whilst under intense pressure with only 10 men. The final two goals were essentially flukes and belied the outstanding defensive work of Rob Dickie and Tennai Watson in particular. Credit must also go to Fridjonsson who slotted seamlessly into the back four after Hyam’s dismissal and to Kuhl who covered an enormous amount of ground doing the unglamorous work in midfield.
It’s a shame that the team weren’t able to quite reach the final but the reputation of many of these players has risen enormously. Over the two legs there’s no player who has looked out of place and all of them displayed qualities that several of their first team counterparts could do with learning. Now comes the really hard part for them and their coaches, getting them established in the first team!