When I got up this morning, I wasn’t exactly feeling great about the afternoon’s game against Fulham. Sure, it would be great to get back to the Mad Stad in the sunshine after three months, but I was a little worried that we could be in for a bit of a thrashing. The Cottagers looked good in their season opener against highly-rated Norwich and are big favourites to earn promotion in 2017/18. Reading on the other hand fell to a 2-0 defeat to not so highly-rated QPR and are in the midst of somewhat of an injury crisis. If you’d offered me a 1-1 draw I would have taken it all day long.
Yet by 3:01pm, sitting in the Madejski Stadium, my fear of a thrashing had been replaced by expectancy of a win after midfield maestro Tom Cairney was ruled out of Fulham’s squad altogether and the Cottagers had been reduced to 10 men following Tomas Kalas’ red card in just the 39th second. Was it a little harsh? Probably, yes. But what is for sure is that it was incredibly reckless from the defender who hacked down Mo Barrow with absolutely no intention of getting the ball whatsoever.
Fulham then did what most teams who lose a player do and sit deep and try to just defend what they have. The difference in this unique scenario was that they sat deep for 90 minutes defending a point they had earned after 39 seconds. In fairness, they did it rather well. Reading created very few chances at all in the first half as they were simply unable to make progress up the pitch due to their opponents having everyone in the Royals’ final third. In contrast, the hosts had every one of their outfield players over the half way line for 90% of the first half as they tried to force their way through the barricade.
In truth, their inability to do so was also down to a lack of urgency on their part. Now, we’ve all become accustomed to Jaap Stam’s possession-based system over the last year, but it was taken to another level today - and not in a good way. It almost seemed like we were trying to score ‘the perfect goal’, a sort of Jack Wilshere vs Norwich goal that won the Match of the Day goal of the season in 2013/14. But whilst Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud combined in that spectacular move, Reading were trying to replicate it with John Swift, George Evans and Joseph Mendes.
Even when a string of passes were completed, still no one put their foot through the ball. It’s very telling that the Royals’ best chance of the half came through a Fulham mistake as Oliver Norwood’s poor back pass sent Liam Kelly through, only for the academy graduate to be denied by David Button.
The second half began in similar fashion, as the Biscuitmen continued to seem happy to just pass the ball around in the hope that someone in black might make an error. It was slow, it was frustrating and the midfield was just crying out for Danny Williams, who made his Premier League bow with Huddersfield this afternoon, to make a driving run forward with haste. To their credit, Kelly and Barrow tried to do so but couldn’t quite pull it off.
Finally, with 61 minutes on the clock, a goal arrived. Barrow’s cross from the left hand side found Mendes by the penalty spot, who showed good composure to lay the ball off to an unmarked Kelly who smashed the ball into the bottom corner. A third goal in two games for the 21-year-old, all in front of the Eamonn Dolan stand too. How very fitting.
Going behind did very little to bring Fulham out of their shells initially, something that I’m sure Reading were perfectly happily with. But the Cottagers did begin to go in search of an equaliser around the 70 minute mark, which appeared to catch out Reading slightly, shown by three yellow cards in the space of four minutes. They were still very comfortable though and all the signs pointed towards the hosts seeing the game out with relative ease.
That was until substitute Joey van den Berg decided to pass the ball back to Chris Gunter with about as much power as a small child. His mistake allowed Lucas Piazon to run through on goal, with Gunter joining in on the comedy of errors by inexplicably sliding in and failing miserably, making the opportunity for the Brazilian even greater. Needless to say, Piazon took the chance.
The final ten minutes or so saw Fulham sit back again, more than happy with a point, whilst Reading appeared to just have the stuffing knocked out of them. The full-time whistle blew, and the sense around the ground was that this was a big opportunity missed for Reading.
At the end of the day, a point against a team likely to be right up there at the end of the campaign isn’t bad and it was important to get off the mark in the league following last weekend’s loss. But really it was a game that we should have won against a 10-man Fulham team that were also without their best player. The apparent inability to shoot was incredibly frustrating, as was our failure to just see the game out or get a second goal and kill the match off.
With a couple of new players set to come in (Leandro Bacuna was pictured outside the ground pre-match), and a host of names soon returning from the injury room, I don’t want to make judgements on this season just yet. There’s still 44 games to go and the squad and manager are still learning. Sure, today was disappointing but we’ve got Aston Villa on Tuesday and they lost 3-0 today...