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Stats Corner: Is Last Minute Drama A Thing Of The Past?

If you thought Reading have struggled for late winners recently, you’re not wrong.

Reading v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Do you remember way back when you couldn’t write off Reading no matter what the score was? We could be 2-0 down with five minutes left, we could be going into added-on time in an uneventful stalemate which looked for all the world as if it would stay goalless, then BAM, a last-minute goal out of nothing. A salvaged point or a last-minute winner.

The Madejski Stadium - or another ground’s away end - would be bouncing. There wouldn’t be hoards of people streaming out to get a decent spot in the car park queue, they would be sat in their seats or stood up in anticipation, in case something special might happen - because it seemed like it almost always did.

So many times this faith until the closing moments would be rewarded. Ask any football fan their most memorable games they’ve ever been to, and so many will give you a game that was won or drawn in the game’s last breath. Among mine are drawing 1-1 with Cardiff City at home in 2009, Ipswich Town and Bristol City away in 2011 which both finished 3-2 courtesy of incredible comebacks, and of course Chelsea and West Brom at the Mad Stad in 2013.

Reading v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Is it just me nostalgically dreaming the past was better and conjured up these special moments far more often? Did we really win as many points back then as it seemed? Are you, like me, thinking that yes, yes we always used to get last-minute goals, but now that never happens? So scratch your head and ask yourself the last time you witnessed one of these moments in the flesh. Well, the answer will probably be a long time ago.

In fact, the last time we scored a last-minute winner at the Madejski Stadium was over two years ago against Ipswich Town; Danny Williams converting an injury time penalty on September 9 2016. Since then, the only time Reading have scored a goal that has rescued at least a point at home in the final five minutes was over a year ago, when Jon Dadi Bodvarsson equalised in the 87th minute as the Royals drew 1-1 with Hull City. Before that, the last time we scored a winner in stoppage time of any sort was in January 2017 when Yann Kermorgant made it 3-2 at Ashton Gate.

This is a sad decline from a team who would time and time again rescue games at the death. And this isn’t just my over-exaggerated memories but these late goals I speak of really were real once upon a time. Below is a graph of our last ten seasons (including this current one) and how many games in which we’ve rescued points with goals scored in the 85th minute or later.

Reading are in need of some of their own ‘Fergie time’
Tom Harrow-Smith

It’s pretty evident to see the rapid decline in games with dramatic finales (for the right reasons). The graph below tallies the total number of points won by Reading after the 85th minute.

Jaap Stam’s play-off campaign was an outlier in Reading’s post-Premier League spell
Tom Harrow-Smith

When examining these two graphs, the correlation between Brian McDermott’s first period as manager and Reading’s overall tenacity late on in games is very clear to see (he took over in late 2010 and left in early 2013). In his only two full seasons in charge, Reading scored meaningfully (not consolation goals) in 13 games in the 85th minute or later. To put that into context, since the start of the 2014/15 season Reading have scored meaningfully in the 85th minute or later in just 14 matches.

Late goals characterised the first Brian McDermott era

There were 22 matches in total that his Reading team either rescued a point or won all three in the 85th minute plus, as well as winning an astonishing 55 points in this small amount of game time. In the year we won the league with Brian McDermott, Reading won 19 points in the 85th minute plus - 17% of our total points. That took place in a portion of time which makes up little more than 7.5% of an average 90 minute match, plus stoppage time.

This incredible stat also ignores Reading’s cup runs in this time; in 2010 Reading scored in the final minutes in the third, fourth and fifth rounds. It’s hard to ignore just how pivotal they were to Reading’s success under McDermott.

So was it purely the McDermott tactics that were set up for these grandstand finishes? Well there is a clearly noticeable dip after he got the sack. After 22 games with meaningful goals in the 85th minute plus, taking place in little more than three seasons in total, that figure plummets. Reading have since gone on to achieve these types of crucial late goals in just 17 matches in the five and a bit seasons since Brian departed for the first time.

So can we only attest this late drama to the first McDermott era? Well, no actually. Despite this dip, there’s a sudden rise in Jaap Stam’s first season, where there were six games with crucial goals in the 85th minute plus, winning 16 points in total. Reading of course finished third that season, so a different correlation emerges from this that could suggest an altogether different conclusion.

Rather than it simply being McDermott being great at getting his teams to win points at the death, is it not the case that last-minute goals and success go hand-in-hand? It works the same way as cycles of prosperity and cycles of depression – those who studied 1920s/30s American history at GCSE will know what I’m on about.

Reading v Manchester United - Premier League
The architect of many last-minute goals at the Mad Stad
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

As teams score last-minute goals, so the team’s confidence grows. As the team’s confidence grows they become more successful and better at scoring last-minute winners, better at not giving up until the final whistle. This means in the closing minutes of the game, the crowd are still with the team, they stay in the ground knowing anything is possible while keeping the atmosphere intense up until the final whistle, helping their team find that extra drive and incentive to do something special. This often pays off, the team surges up the table, the morale of the team and fans take a boost and the more this happens, the more attendances go up. Then press repeat. And so on.

On the other hand, teams who are dropping points left right and centre struggle for goals and confidence. They don’t believe they can win the game in the last minute, let alone any minute. When they go two goals or even just one goal behind, at any stage of the game, it looks as if they don’t know how to get back into the game.

So, with 15, 10 or 5 minutes remaining, the chances of getting that late goal gets scarcer and scarcer each game. This means they lose more matches, lose more confidence and therefore become less capable of scoring last-minute goals. The fans leave early, knowing their team isn’t going to score and the life is sucked from the stadium as the few thousand remaining are left to witness eleven players hopelessly paddle the ball around in a half-hearted attempt at throwing the kitchen sink at the opposition. Reading lose again and the attendance drops, making it less likely that they’ll win the next time around.

The whole thing is cyclical. It’s hard to see an end when things are going great, but impossible to know how to get out of it when things keep getting worse and worse. In the end only a sudden jolt either way can break the cycle. Maybe all Reading need is a last-minute winner this Saturday to raise morale and in turn get results back on track? We’ll see...