Well, it’s groundhog day… again. You know the drill by now - Reading lose a game of football, some poor soul is tasked with spilling the gory details in the form of a match report, and then we flock back to social media to gorge ourselves on more misery before doing it all again next week. Capiche? Capiche.
The pre-match playbook gave us little cause for cheer: prior to kick-off, the Royals had not overcome their South Welsh opposition in over ten years of (occasionally) trying, and true to form, the wait for that elusive win would have to drag on. Flattered by a score line that failed to reflect the overall dominance of the home side, Reading fell victim to a brace from the oh-so-gangly Oli McBurnie, with the young Scotsman notching either side of half-time to send the travelling contingent back down the M4 with their tails sandwiched firmly between their legs.
Come along with me as we grimly pick over the mouldering cadaver of our latest sporting demise. You may wish to wear some disposable latex gloves.
The first change to be plucked from the bowels of Paul Clement’s Team Selection Tombola was the inclusion of veteran John O’Shea, who slotted into a Reading back four alongside Liam Moore. This came at the notable expense of Tiago Ilori - the absence of the Portuguese may have ruffled a few feathers in some quarters (given his recent renaissance), although few could begrudge the injection of some experience in defence, especially given how composed and impressive O’Shea appeared before his untimely dismissal and suspension in late September.
Completing a hat-trick of Royal personnel rotation, Sam Baldock and the fit-again Garath McCleary replaced Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and loanee Josh Sims in the team respectively. Whilst these seemed to be like-for-like positional swaps on paper, Baldock would once again start the match out on the left wing as has been common lately, rather than in his more favoured central role. Because shrug.
Gambian wide-player Mo Barrow was once again inconspicuous in his absence from the matchday squad, missing out on a reunion with his former club in the continuing aftermath of an ambiguous disciplinary kerfuffle between himself and gaffer (and “fellow” ex-Swan) Paul Clement.
Otherwise, the Royals were unchanged - for better or worse.
Necessary context: somewhat jarringly, I spectated this match from the cosy confines of the Swansea City end. Whilst I’d like to say that this was my plan all along, conducting a bit of reconnaissance behind enemy lines, it really wasn’t my intention - away tickets weren’t available to buy at the Liberty Stadium on the day, and so I fell victim to my well-documented historical inability to plan ahead of time.
Resigned to my fate of having to forcibly go undercover, I was in the queue for a home ticket when a gentleman named Mike (a proud Swansea season ticket holder for over forty years, no less) approached me and very kindly offered to let me into the ground using his absent friend’s season ticket.
Suddenly sat amongst other veteran Swans fans in the East Stand, before I knew it, I had already forged a false identity and concocted an elaborate backstory for myself - for the next ninety minutes, my name *was* Jacob, but I was born and bred in Leamington Spa rather than the Royal county. Fortunately, the fact that I had a decidedly thick Reading accent and demonstrated a suspicious amount of Reading FC trivia knowledge was chalked up as pure coincidence.
Why am I telling you this? Just be aware that this match report is brought to you through the eyes of a man with a guilty conscience, living in constant fear that he would be outed as an imposter and a fraud. My perception of the match may have been coloured thusly.
Before the game, I was concerned that I may accidentally cheer if Reading scored - or at the very least did something vaguely positive, or something worthy of minor praise. It turns out that I needn’t have been so worried.
Swansea were rampant from the get-go, like a squirrel who had been unceremoniously dropped into a paddling pool of nuts. They sliced Reading open at will with incisive, intricate passing, mixed up with the occasional long-ball sprayed wide, or a lancing through-ball to split the middle. Barring a stinging early effort from Yakou Meite, which forced Swans goalkeeper Kristoffer Nordfelt into a good save low to his left, Reading chances on goal were limited to a strict premium.
The last goalward sniff-of-note that the Royals would have in the first half came as result of a well-worked corner routine: lining up a shot outside the area, Liam Kelly found himself unmarked and in oceans of space, before inexplicably firing wide of the mark. From that moment on, Reading looked a spent force in this contest.
Indeed, most of the action that followed saw the Royals holed up in their own half, with Swansea laying siege with wave after wave of attack. Wide men Connor Roberts and Dan James were particularly impressive outlets for the home side, with both players possessing an electric speed and directness that a tortured Reading simply could not accommodate. The first goal felt like less of a probability and more of an inevitability with each passing minute - sure enough, scarcely ten minutes before half-time, Dan James ghosted past Andy Yiadom in the penalty area, with the latter felling the Swansea youngster to concede a nailed-on penalty.
After some unsavoury shenanigans during which Liam Moore apparently attempted to churn up the turf in front of the penalty spot (much to the chagrin of Swansea fans and players alike), Oli McBurnie stepped up and converted the spot-kick confidently, to put Reading behind leading into the break. The only surprise was that the visitors didn’t trail by more than a single goal at the interval, having played second-fiddle to Swansea for the overwhelming majority of the half.
A small momentum shift occurred shortly after half time, with Swansea unable to pick up where they left off - the tempo of play at the start of the second half was notably slower, and elements of sloppiness started to seep into the home side’s previously tidy passing. Reading, however, failed to capitalise on their opponents’ profligacy - whilst the Royals were beginning to gain more possession, they struggled to convert possession into concrete goalscoring opportunities of their own.
The smattering of chances that *did* fall Reading’s way in the later stages of the match were largely due to Swansea wastefulness, rather than the fruit of creative passages of the Royals’ own engineering. A handful of opportunities fell Yakou Meite’s way with the Ivorian unable to net, for all his industry and aerial dominance.
Midfield duo John Swift and Liam Kelly did little to shake off their lightweight labels and laboured in vain to impose themselves on the game. You could replace either player with a revolving door and be unable to see any discernible difference in the composition of the midfield. As a result, it fell to Leandro Bacuna to attempt to fulfil the roles of three men, with predictably underwhelming results.
With time running out, and with such limited protection for a defence that has now conceded the second-highest number of goals in the division, the strain was always likely to show eventually. With five minutes on the clock, former Swansea-U23s Dan James and Oli McBurnie combined again to put the game to bed - McBurnie, who’s last goal prior to this game came all the way back on September 1st, tapped in from a driven ball out wide from James to seal his brace and Reading’s fate.
Remember when Reading’s exciting youth prospects used to score as result of some deadly and direct wing-play? Nope, me neither.
A late, feeble, looping headed effort from Jon Dadi Bodvarsson perfectly encapsulated the afternoon’s lethargic display, and the eleventh-hour introduction of Josh Sims and fan-favourite Sone Aluko similarly did little to turn the tide. As a chant of “sacked in the morning” rang out from a pocket of the Swansea support, a well-beaten Reading finally stuttered to the final whistle with little more than a whimper.
Admittedly this performance overall wasn’t as much of an abject horror-show than we’ve been used to lately, but therein lies the issue - we’re used to losing by now. I won’t more readily swallow this display of ineptitude, just because this week’s ineptitude dinner is slightly less inept-tasting than the previous display of ineptitude. Dog sh*t or horse sh*t is still sh*t all the same.
All this gnarly talk of excrement leads us on to the question of who best to task with cleaning it all up. Increasingly, it appears that the answer is Not Paul Clement.
Watching the match unfold in the manner it did, with Reading effortlessly coasting to a two-goal defeat, made me wonder if I was witnessing Clement’s swansong (all puns aside). His apparent shunning of the travelling support at the end of the game - intentional or not - only cemented that sentiment in my head.
With every manager (and we’ve had a fair few in all-too-recent recent times), there comes a tipping point when you realise that it’s just not destined to work out. Listening to the Swansea fans around me on Saturday, I realised that our individual experiences of Paul Clement were not too divorced from one another: through his scattergun approach to affecting change, he pedestrianizes teams and waters down their strongest traits. He is a frank and eloquent speaker who is excellent at identifying our many problems, but demonstrates little success in addressing them. With four wins in five, and with Reading sitting two points adrift in the relegation zone, you’re inclined to think that the endgame is now fast approaching.
The issues at Reading Football Club run far deeper than one, two, or eleven men. But on Saturday’s evidence, we’ve never been closer to sleepwalking into the abyss. Get angry, stand up, and be counted.