In the third round of the FA Cup, Reading played out a drab stalemate with League Two Stevenage at the Lamex Stadium. The Royals were fortunate to earn a replay, the result ensuring their place in the fourth round draw, but stretching their winless run to seven games.
In a cup competition renowned for its ‘magic’, Reading’s performance in the opening half-hour more closely resembled a ‘clown’ – comically untidy and, ever so slightly, haunting. A relatively strong line-up struggled to impose themselves on the game and were too frequently bullied off the ball by hungry lower-league opposition.
Stevenage, whose performance belied their fifteenth position in the Football League’s bottom tier, created a number of openings, twice forcing Anssi Jaakola into smart saves. Their main threat came from set-pieces, Joe Martin twice setting up Danny Newton and Ben Wilmot with headed chances. Matt Godden and Ben Kennedy harried and hurried the Reading backline and Ilori, McShane and van den Berg struggled to clear their lines on more than one occasion, gifting chances to the home side.
Going forwards, Reading looked blunt. Without a recognised striker in the starting line-up, Barrow and McCleary led the line, but a physical and well-drilled defence restricted touches to a premium. There was no shortage of effort, but movement was either lacking or too predictable, the tempo was too slow, and creativity was barely existent. Liam Kelly, tasked with the role of playmaker, misplaced too many passes and the lack of penetration frustrated the travelling support.
When the visitors did register an attempt on goal, however, they nearly broke the deadlock. Dave Edwards rose highest in the penalty area, but a smart reaction-save from point-blank range blocked the Welshman’s glancing header. The effort on target prompted ironic cheers from the away fans and, soon after, the half-time whistle sounded.
Stevenage rallied once more after the interval, Newton flashing a twenty-five-yard volley past the post and the impressive left-back Joe Martin whipping two free-kicks goal-bound, only to be denied by the keeper. Centre-back Jack King then tested the Finn with a spectacular volley, but he too saw his effort parried wide. The home-side provided a real test for the Royals defence throughout, prompting manager Darren Sarll to tell the BBC that they, “won the game physically, psychologically, technically and financially”, despite the final score. I can’t disagree.
Reading did start to string some passes together with twenty minutes remaining. Inexperienced, yet totally unfazed, full-back Omar Richards broke free on the left-wing and crossed low to substitute Yann Kermorgant, who blazed over the bar. Liam Kelly and Mo Barrow combined well on two occasions, but the diminutive Irishman skewed his shots harmlessly wide. Disappointingly, Reading never really threatened the opposition goal, registering just six shots to Stevenage’s twelve and leaving the packed-out away crowd frustrated and dissatisfied at full-time. 0-0 and a replay to follow.
So, if Reading fans were hoping for a dominant cup performance to lift spirits and trigger a revival of form, they certainly didn’t get it. Stevenage, who deserve great credit for a full-blooded and tactically astute display, looked the better team for much of the game and may even feel disappointed not to win the tie outright. The Royals, however, looked flat and bereft of confidence or ideas. Calls continue for a managerial change but, as time goes on and poor performances continue without action, this is looking increasingly unlikely.
The division between fans and players/management is alarming and reached a climax last night. A number of players, including the club captain Paul McShane, appeared reluctant to acknowledge the fans after the game, in protest against the chants of many of Reading’s supporters. Both McShane and Gunter gallantly took to social media to address the issue and attempt to rally the fans ahead of the trip to the KCOM Stadium – but is it too little too late, or are fans capable of ‘drawing a line in the sand’?