If Reading fans had been dreaming of a comfortable promotion push this season following the heartbreak suffered at Wembley back in May, then Saturday’s 2-0 defeat to Ian Holloway’s Queens Park Rangers will have sent them flying back down to earth.
In all regards it was an abject performance. For all his wonders last season, it has to be said that Jaap Stam’s tactical stubbornness away from home cost us dearly and saw us on the receiving end of 5-0 and 7-1 thrashings at the hands of Fulham and Norwich respectively. Fears that Stam’s refusal to change his game plan away from home may be a problem this season were worsened as QPR ran away 2-0 victors (and it could have easily been a lot worse).
Tuesday night’s game represented a brilliant chance for the Dutchman to reassure the fans as well as to rest key players in a squad which has been run down to its bare bones thanks to a series of injuries to key players.
How did Reading line up?
All things considered, Stam opted to give first team debuts to a string of academy graduates. Young striker Sam Smith saw his impressive pre-season performances rewarded with a first start, as did Andy Rinomhota and Omar Richards, with Icelandic youth international Axel Andresson coming off the bench.
Stam stuck with the 3-5-2 system that was seen against QPR, with George Evans and Chris Gunter filling in as makeshift centre halves, flanked by Omar Richards and Pelle Clement.
Within the opening 10 or 15 minutes it became clear that Reading were happy to sit back, absorb possession and keep play ticking over whilst waiting for Gillingham to tire, with Moore and Evans both enjoying plenty of the ball at the back.
The first half was a tedious affair, with few clear-cut opportunities for either side, however the Royals still fashioned the better of the chances.
20-year-old box-to-box midfielder Andy Rinomhota was particularly impressive throughout and was the source of the best chance of the first half, picking the ball up inside the Gillingham half before driving through the defence and unleashing a right-footed shot that beat Thomas Holy, but went just past the post as well.
Sam Smith also saw a headed effort sail over the crossbar, with strike partner Joseph Mendes seeing a fairly tame penalty appeal waved away.
Both sides struggle to get a grip on the game and with Josh Barrett and Liam Kelly both having average halves in the centre of the park, the opportunity was there for Gillingham to take control of the game and push Stam’s men all the way.
However, The Gills never really troubled the hosts and seemed happy to sit back and let Reading have possession in the hope of forcing extra time and penalties or using the aerial threat of target man Tom Eaves from set pieces.
Heading into the second half, a place in the next round was fully up for grabs. Reading had a much higher intensity to their play in the second half following the replacement of Joseph Mendes, who had admittedly done all he could with limited service, by latest signing Modou Barrow.
Immediately Barrow’s pace caused the Gillingham back line problems, and a mazy run through a host of defenders almost ended in a one-on-one before the former Swansea man appeared to be taken out.
Barrow linked up well with fellow summer signing Pelle Clement, who had been virtually anonymous until the second half.
Reading’s dominance combined with the shortcomings of Gillingham’s 5-3-2 system allowed the Dutchman the freedom to run at the defence, and eventually a perfectly weighted through ball from the former Ajax man found Liam Kelly on the edge of the box, who struck a sweet first-time shot into the top left corner to give Reading a deserved lead.
This wasn’t before Anssi Jaakkola, getting a rare start under Stam, pulling off a fine save to deny Gillingham striker Tom Eaves down the other end, after a scramble in the box granted the Gillingham number nine space to shoot.
Omar Richards had earlier been replaced by Icelandic centre half Axel Andresson, who slotted seamlessly into the back three, whilst Stephen Quinn made a long-awaited return to first team action following an entire season spent on the sidelines.
The Irishman was key in the second goal too, finding Mo Barrow after a surging run into the Gillingham half, who in turn played in Liam Kelly, who netted his second of the night with a fine finish into the bottom left-hand corner to put the game beyond doubt.
In a fairly routine victory for The Royals, Andy Rinomhota’s emergence and the return of Stephen Quinn proved the main talking points, and Stam will be hoping that one of the pair can go on to fill the hole left by Danny Williams’ departure.