Off the pitch, Reading got pretty much everything right in terms of celebrating the club’s 500th game at the Madejski Stadium. £5 tickets in all areas of the stadium, various food and drink offers for £5, a countdown of the best games in RG2 and interviews with some of the best players to have graced the hallowed turf - the marketing team (as usual) got it spot on. It was all set up for a great afternoon of football on the pitch.
Obviously as we all know, that was not the case. It wasn’t even close to being the case.
What a near-packed out home crowd witnessed this afternoon can only be described as a complete and utter horror show from start to finish. There wasn’t a good moment to speak of.
The first half was a thoroughly sloppy and frustrating affair, with both teams seemingly trying to see who could put in the most underwhelming performance. There were misplaced passes aplenty, whilst goal-kicks from Vito Mannone and Stephen Bywater mostly ended up in the stands rather than with a teammate.
Each side found the most joy down the flanks, with Leandro Bacuna and Lucas Akins providing a relative threat down their respective right wings, yet with limited options in the middle neither could fashion a real opening.
It was from the right hand side that the game’s opening goal came five minutes before half-time. Akins is certainly no Rory Delap, but his throw-in somehow made its way into the box due to some lacklustre home defending, and Tom Flanagan evaded Liam Kelly to poke the ball past Vito Mannone. It was Flanagan’s first goal in over five years. FIVE YEARS.
One might have hoped that going a goal down would have given Reading the kick up the backside they desperately needed, but alas, Jaap Stam’s side returned after the break just as dreadful and uninspiring. In fact, it was Burton who looked the most threatening, with Akins again proving a danger as his cross found Lloyd Dyer who failed to convert his header, whilst Will Miller scuffed a great opportunity from just outside the area.
An undeserved equaliser arrived for Reading in the 76th minute, as Kelly’s deflected cross found Mo Barrow who’s deflected shot bobbled across the line. It was barely worth celebrating.
Indeed, it really wasn’t worth celebrating as the Royals found themselves trailing once again just five minutes later. Joey van den Berg showed that he remains very much a liability by failing to control a simple pass, and just as we thought Liam Moore would be on hand to spare the Dutchman’s blushes with a hoofed clearance, everything went pear-shaped. Moore did look to smash the ball away, but it cannoned off Tom Naylor in the direction of the goal, and with Mannone caught off guard, trickled into the back of the net. It was easier to simply laugh. Or just get your phone out and start shining the torch because, well, it was that bad.
Burton had been comfortably beaten 5-1 and 3-0 on their previous two visits to Berkshire, and many fans were hopeful of the same as kick-off approached. With the Brewers having the worst goal difference in the Championship and having won just twice in their last 14 games, there was certainly reason to be optimistic. But in the end those statistics made what was an embarassing performance regardless, even worse.
Reading were lucky that it was ‘only’ Burton they were playing. Whilst the Staffordshire side deserved the three points, it wasn’t because they played well. They were very bad, and will surely continue to struggle this season, but the Royals were even worse. Against a side at the top of the table, it could easily have been a five or six nil defeat.
Every single player looked devoid of confidence, unsure as to where to play the pass and nervous every time they received the ball. To suggest that they don’t care is perhaps harsh as there was some passion on show through the form of outward frustration, but they are fragile.
The big question is what impact Jaap Stam had this on abomination. As the Dutchman himself said after the game, he only tells the team what to do and it’s up to them to carry it out on the pitch, but perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps he’s not telling them the right things. His possession-based system may have worked last season when it was new to the second tier, but it’s been too easily counteracted this year. Getting wins against struggling sides such as Sunderland and Barnsley is all well and good, but ultimately it hides the fact that we’re getting found out too easily against any team with an ounce of quality. Today shows that we’ve now even got to the point where sides lacking quality can thwart it.
There’s no point having patience. We’re now exactly halfway through the campaign and find ourselves in 14th, having reached the play-off final last season and spent more than ever before in the transfer window. We know what we’re getting with Jaap Stam now. Boring, timid football that the players clearly feel unsure about. It’s not worth paying £1 to watch, let alone £5.
Maybe I’m over exaggerating. Maybe I’ll feel differently tomorrow. But right now, I can’t see a future for Reading Football Club under Jaap Stam. No one is exempt from blame for the horror show today, but it’s a lot easier to replace one man than it is to replace 18.
Merry Christmas everyone.