It looked like the perfect game to get the Royals back on track after five games without a win, and for Steve Clarke to perhaps let the events of the last week or so fade into the background. The reality was far from the prediction, though - and one attempt at a "Steve Clarke's Barmy Army" chant from the north-west corner drummer was muted at best.
Reading were quiet too, with Bolton far quicker to find their stride as Ali Al Habsi was forced into a number of early saves that at least staved off the frostbite he might have been expecting in the bitterly cold Madejski wind. Paul McShane gave away the ball, and a free-kick, out wide in the fifth minute; Jose Casado's free kick was met by the head of Shola Ameobi, who forced Al Habsi into a low save. The Omani had to be quick to react when Reading gave the ball away in the middle of the park - Mark Davies was played in by Liam Feeney, but Al Habsi spread himself and again saved the Royals' blushes. Then Feeney provided a cross for Darren Pratley, whose header was tipped over by the busy Reading keeper. A great start for him, but for the rest of the side, a wake-up call.
And with the fans just about starting to turn, a stroke of luck on the half hour mark. Lucas Piazon charged down an errant clearance and got the rub of the green with the deflection, charging in on goal to chip over Ben Amos in the Trotters goal. It took an eternity to cross the line, but against the run of play, Reading were in the lead. Oliver Norwood nearly doubled the lead straight away with a pop from 20 yards from a short corner but Amos palmed away.
Soon enough though, it looked like Reading were finally finding their stride, and some of the swagger displayed in the victorious run earlier in the campaign. Michael Hector intercepted a pass and played the ball quickly up to Orlando Sa, who in turn found Danny Williams charging towards goal. He could have played in Nick Blackman for a one-on-one, but instead the American went alone - and luckily, brilliantly, found the bottom corner of Amos' net. The game had turned, and suddenly the blue and white shirts were in control. Piazon could have had a second had he met McCleary's cross with a firmer head, whilst the Jamaican winger, showing glimpses of his flying best, had a shot blocked from another quick break. Two-nil at half time, though you might have suspected the away side would be the team comfortably in the lead had someone asked you after 25 minutes.
In truth the second half was a lame duck, though it very quickly became tense with Bolton's late goal to give them hope. Before that, Ameobi had hit the bar from a header (for once, it wasn't Al Habsi who denied Wanderers), whilst Blackman had a shot into the ground which troubled Amos unduly, the ex-Man Utd keeper having to tip over at full stretch. Clarke seemed happy to lock in at 2-0, with defensive substitutions introduced to try and secure that clean sheet and three points.
The nerves were jangling, though, once Oliver Norwood had tapped the heel of Pratley just as the midfielder was pulling the trigger, the referee not hesitating to point to the spot. Al Habsi got a solid hand to Feeney's penalty, but not enough as finally the Trotters got the goal their play deserved. And from there, it really was a backs to the wall job, an unnecessary one you would hope with the home side harbouring ambitions of promotion and the away team dropping to the bottom of the league. A few long balls into the box later, Reading had escaped with victory, but sadly the match produced more questions than answers.
What has happened to the team that put Ipswich Town to the sword earlier in the season? In truth Reading never looked in serious, immediate danger (the first fifteen minutes aside), but this was not a match that filled you with hope that we will once again be challenging at the summit. Time wasting, aimless clearances and an inability to control the match were only causing more panic in the Royals ranks. This could have been a "statement" game but instead it was a match which produced little optimism.
And have the events of the past week been forgotten? Absolutely not. Granted, Clarke was never going to be instantly forgiven, no matter what the circumstances that invoked the "will he, won't he" saga which brought Reading to a standstill in the last three days. But no vocal support of the manager from the stands - it'll take more positive results and certainly better performances for the Royals faithful to truly forgive and forget. A good result, yes, but there are plenty more questions that the team - both management and playing staff - need to answer before the good times will roll again.
Reading: Al Habsi, Gunter, Hector, McShane, Taylor, McCleary (Cooper - 79), Williams, Norwood, Piazon (Obita - 68), Blackman (Vydra - 93), Sa. Subs not used: Bond, Hurtado, John, Liburd
Bolton: Amos, Vela, Gouano, Wheater, Casado, Feeney, Spearing (Clayton - 65), Danns, Pratley, Davies (Heskey - 77), Ameobi (Madine - 65). Subs not used: Dervite, Rachubka, Wilson, Twardzik