If you go away to Preston North End, there are a few requirements at the start of the game. You have to be alert, you have to be on your toes, your sinews need to be stretched, you need focus, you need to be warmed up properly, primed to compete, you need to remember the previous two visits where the team didn’t score and fully deserved defeat and you have to get all thoughts out of your mind that this is an unfashionable, mid-table side you are up against – in short, you need to be ready.
Reading were none of those things on Saturday.
Back on their heels, hesitant, second to every ball, lackadaisical, numbskullish – the first half hour of proceedings at Deepdale were horrific stuff, resonant of the opening day defeat to QPR and, to an extent, to the slow first half of the Gillingham game – a match where poor opposition thankfully meant that such traits went unpunished.
It’s ironic that the loss of John Swift and Liam Kelly to injury came after the team’s worst spell of the match and although the rest of the game before half time was torrid, there was a slight steadying of the ship. Kelly was too deep and Swift peripheral as Ben Pearson snapped into tackles fairly, and Daniel Johnson eased opponents off the ball with comfort. On 22 minutes, Tom Barkhuizen and new Irish recruit Sean Maguire combined to set up the musclebound Jordan Hugill who finished calmly.
The substitutions looked tactical as both players strolled along the touchline to the tunnel, seemingly unhurt, only to be revealed as injured by the internet. George Evans’ arrival added little in the way of attacking impetus or tempo but did shore things up a little as Leandro Bacuna clearly struggled for match fitness and Adi Popa skirmished sporadically. Vito Mannone seemed keener to launch the ball long than roll it out to a nervy back four but at least came to the club’s rescue with a saves from Maguire and Barkhuizen, Reading’s tormenter when the clubs last met in March.
The 5-5-0 formation that had tied Steve Bruce and Aston Villa in knots looked nothing like as effective here as Pelle Clement was marooned in no man’s land and gave the ball away on several occasions. The injuries allowed Stam to bring in Joseph Mendes, limited but at least willing to put himself about. Just before half time, he managed the Royals’ only significant effort of the game, his header comfortably fielded by keeper Chris Maxwell.
After half-time, Reading looked more solid with Mendes providing a focal point and Popa and Mo Barrow showing glimmers of class in the wing positions. Garath McCleary entered the fray in a central role but again, the impact of several weeks on the touchline was evident. Although a more even match in which Reading at least provided a physical challenge, the Lilywhites’ watertight defence featuring 18-year-old debutant Josh Earl was completely untroubled, with two free kicks sent soaring into the stands. In the end, Stephy Mavididi should have scored when clean through but Mannone saved superbly, hanging on to the ball as he did so.
It’s certainly true that Preston are a much better side than they are given credit for. Having finished in identical eleventh place with an identical 62 points the past two seasons, the departure of Simon Grayson has allowed Alex Neil to come in with a fresh approach and yet the old fashioned virtues of aggression and competitiveness are still there in spades. Few teams get a result at Deepdale and least of all Reading down the years so this is far from a disaster – but at the very least we should expect the team to be on their mettle when the whistle blows – as they were so admirably in all three play-off encounters at the end of 2016-17.
A word also on the team’s support – no criticism of the 370 or so who made it but quiet it was. Any attempts to improve the atmosphere at the Mad Stad should perhaps be looked at in conjunction with that at away fixtures – if a singing section can be enticed with cheaper tickets and coach travel, then just a few hundred more souls in attendance might inspire the players more. This had the feel of a mid-1980s match at Bury or Crewe and having done a great job in increasing home attendances in the Madejski Stadium era, it’s now perhaps time to try and see what can be done about the situation on the road.