Until a few minutes into the second half, I was really looking forward to writing this match report. For the first 45 minutes, Reading had been everything we’d not expected them to be: well-organised, effective, high-spirited, and in short a team that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the top six. Fast-forward to full-time (well, a lot earlier than that in truth) and I was wondering why I bothered going in the first place.
Second half collapses have become a hallmark of the Reading Football Club Matchday Experience, and this one was absolutely vintage. The difference in quality and passion between the first and second halves: vast, the inevitability of it all: depressing.
The first half: A New Hope
Eyebrows aplenty were raised in the away end when the team news came out: three changes (Tyler Blackett, John Swift and Marc McNulty in for Sone Aluko, Liam Kelly and Modou Barrow) as Reading matched West Brom’s 3-5-2. For 45 minutes, that tactical decision paid off big time.
The formation change gave Reading enough bodies to frustrate the Baggies defensively, outnumber them in the middle and put the pressure on in the final third. In fact, the improvements were almost immediate. After a quick start, Leandro Bacuna sent the away end into raptures with a delicious finish to round off a clever corner routine, slamming the ball in off the far post having been played in by Swift.
From there on in, surprisingly, the Royals were... the better side?! Sure, the home side had plenty of the ball, but with the exception of a few scares the visitors were able to keep them at arm’s length. Reading looked sharper than West Brom time and again, and they looked dangerous on the break whenever they won possession; the direct-running of Bacuna and John Swift through the middle and Andy Yiadom out wide causing the Baggies problems.
However, despite some well-worked chances - McNulty firing wide of the post and Blackett coming close from a corner among them - Reading had to make do with their single goal lead. The mood at half time was one of cautious optimism; we’d been excellent to that point, but could we keep it up?
The inevitable collapse
No, we couldn’t keep it up. Our lead lasted for just four second half minutes, at which point Dwight Gayle found it far too easy to nod home a cross at the far post. 1-1. That goal, and how early it had come after the restart, seemed to be the death knell for Reading’s confidence.
The home side dominated from there on in, with the away side unable to get into the game to anywhere near the degree they’d done earlier, bar a well-fashioned chance that Swift put into the goalie’s gloves. Down our end the floodgates soon opened. Gayle completed his brace on 65 minutes with another header before Harvey Barnes carved our back three open on 72 and Kyle Bartley made it 4-1 with ten to go, the second goal Reading conceded from a corner on the day.
What was responsible for the collapse? Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Reading’s confidence seemed to evaporate after the break. Perhaps it was the daunting prospect of defending a lead at one of the toughest grounds in the league, the memory of previous failures or a mixture of the two, but the morale vanished nonetheless.
A mini protest
With Reading 4-1 down, the closing ten minutes of the game or so saw a sizeable number of the travelling support turn on those behind-the-scenes, particularly Ron Gourlay, to vent their frustrations. The chants included “We want Gourlay out”, “Sack the board” and others on a similar theme I won’t repeat on a family website.
Anti-Gourlay sentiment in the fanbase is nothing new, at least going by what’s been said on social media in recent weeks and months, but the passion behind the chants did feel new. Frustrations over not just the team, but also the general running of the club behind-the-scenes, are increasingly boiling up. In the absence of the owners addressing those frustrations directly, the pressure may continue to rise.
I love the fact that Reading are capable of playing as well as the first half showed, and hate the fact they can’t properly see it through. Granted, West Brom were very poor in the first 45, but our own performance seemed to prove that we had turned a corner and the midweek defeat to QPR was just a blip.
I can take blown leads, especially away to a side that’s scored goals for fun this season, but the pathetic manner of our collapse (in morale and quality) undid any progress we’d made. At this stage, I’m not sure exactly how we go about reversing this trend of mental fragility, short of manufacturing ten clones of John O’Shea or persuading Parky to come out of retirement.
What do you think? Tell us below in the comments or on social media.