On their thirteenth attempt, Reading won their first Saturday home game of the season. It was an ugly, uncultured display but Reading held on to their one goal lead to secure a vital three points and restore their five-point gap to the drop-zone. The home side were dogged and determined throughout, a hallmark of Paul Clement’s rejuvenated Royals.
The game was feisty, Preston physical and firm in the challenge and Reading matching their enthusiasm. Cynical slide tackles from Darnell Fisher and Ben Davies riled the home crowd and soon proved costly for the Lilywhites. Liam Kelly floated a free-kick into the penalty area, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson flicked his header to the far post, where Mo Barrow was left completely unmarked to nod home. 1-0 to the Royals and the impressive Gambian’s tenth goal of the season.
Neither team gained a foothold in a first-half of little quality, but playoff-chasing Preston looked the more likely. Lewis Moult struck the bar with a free-kick and a cross from the right gifted Alan Browne a golden opportunity to level. He missed. Billy Bodin, signed in January from Bristol Rovers, caused Reading problems from the flank, catching Omar Richards out of position on more than one occasion and troubling the Reading defence. Nevertheless, the Royals held firm.
The second half resembled Reading’s backs-to-the-wall job against QPR. Preston probing, Bodin unlucky not to level at the far post and substitute Sean Maguire heading against the crossbar. Despite the mounting pressure, the home side didn’t look nervy at all – instead compact, relaxed and well-drilled. Tiago Ilori and Liam Moore were outstanding, winning the majority of their aerial battles and launching themselves fearlessly into blocks and tackles. The back four took few risks, only passing out of defence when safe and not afraid to pick out row Z when required. Consequently, they caused very few of their own problems.
Going forwards, however, Reading still looked well below par, failing to create anything at all on the counter-attack. Barrow’s electric pace was underutilised, Aluko, amongst others, was wasteful in possession and substitute Chris Martin looked lethargic up front. The midfield sat deeper and deeper as the game progressed, inviting pressure and nullifying the creative threat of Swift and Kelly. It didn’t matter this time though. The final whistle blew, the crowd erupted, and Reading had their second win of a new era.
So, what to make of it all?
Well, Reading are hardly an unassailable force under Clement. They have invited 74 shots in his three-game tenure, registering just two on target themselves, suffered two dismissals and remained thoroughly under the cosh throughout. We remain blunt offensively and too wasteful in possession.
However, expecting a new manager to solve all of our flaws and inadequacies in two weeks would be ludicrous and, through a combination of luck and fine judgement, he has altered plenty enough to change our fortunes. We look more solid, defensively resolute and compact. We look spirited, collectively motivated and up for the fight. We also look more composed and less likely to play a hopeless sideways pass to an opposition striker six yards from goal.
Most importantly, we look largely united again – both on and off the pitch. The fans are back behind the team and the players are responding in kind, with performances characterised by the guts and courage of successful Reading teams gone by. A pre-match optimism is returning, despite our plight, and there’s hope emerging for the future.
The relegation scrap isn’t yet over, far from it, but Reading’s survival is looking ever more likely and, for that, Clement deserves enormous credit.