Sometimes in hindsight you can see the signs were there. After a first half that had seen a lively and promising display from Reading, Phil Parkinson sent his Bolton team out early for the second half.
Whether he had given them a bollocking or not, it was a statement. Bolton knew they needed to step up and they started the half with intent.
By contrast Reading ambled out and began the half with an aimless Liam Moore hoof. Within three minutes Bolton had scored and the game had changed.
Bolton started the second half much quicker than the home side and Reading never recovered. It meant a good opening 45 minutes was wasted and for the first time since 1959 the Royals have lost their first three league games of the season.
It was no surprise after the midweek League Cup win over Birmingham that Paul Clement decided to stick with his summer signings, Sam Baldock and Marc McNulty, up front in a 4-4-2. Liam Moore also kept his place instead of Tiago Illori, who might have felt hard done by. With three wingers out, Clement was forced to play John Swift out wide.
For the first 10 minutes the home side struggled to get out of their half. Bolton’s midfield were outnumbering their Reading counterparts, whilst Josh Magennis started as he would continue, making life difficult for Paul McShane and Moore.
Eventually the Royals managed to get into the game and they would continue to get better over the half. Swift showed glimpses of the skill, movement and intent that we saw when he first joined the club. Even more encouraging was the lovely link up play between Baldock and McNulty. It’s been a while since I can remember two Reading strikers showing such a good understanding.
The trio led the charge as Reading looked to hit Bolton on the counter attack. Swift was virtually a third central midfielder, as the Royals neat passing through the middle opened Bolton up.
This was the sort of exciting, promising football fans want to see and Reading fans have been starved of for too long. Unfortunately the killer pass or shot was missing.
Swift went close through a free kick, before a wonderful through ball by McNulty, determination by Yakou Meite almost saw the Royals take the lead, but for a superb tackle by the experienced David Wheater.
Baldock, McNulty and Swift all had shots of varying quality. However, for all the encouraging signs Reading should have gone into the break a goal down. Reading’s defence was opened up far too easily as Magennis played in Will Buckley, who put in the sort of powder puff finish that shows why us Williams don’t make good footballers.
Buckley’s reward was to be replaced by Yanic Wildschut. It was clear straight from kick off that the two teams were starting the half at a different speed.
From a throw in in their own half Bolton took the lead. A lob over the top by Craig Noone saw Wildschut react quicker than his marker Andy Yiadom and McShane. Mannone initially retreated, perhaps worried about being too far out, but that left him too deep and gave Wildschut more space to place his winning shot.
For the second time this season Reading lost to a goal that came from nothing. However, like the defeat to Derby it was disappointing that we didn’t make the opposition work harder for their match winning moments.
It is likely that Parkinson made changes at the break that would have made it more difficult for Reading in the second half. It was noticeable that Jason Lowe sat much deeper and almost on top of his centre backs. That move took away the space that Baldock and McNulty had used so effectively before half time.
By conceding the goal though, it meant Bolton were always going to get men behind the ball when Reading were in possession. Chances to counter attack were all but gone.
Instead Reading had to break down a Bolton team that sat deep and compact. It was a task they never really looked like doing. Baldock and McNulty became virtual spectators, whilst Swift was closed down much quicker.
The rest of the team seemed to revert to Jaap Stam esque sideways passing. The absence of so many players was felt, as Reading lacked width and options from the bench. The dark days of Stam were further brought back to memory with the ineffective appearances of Leonardo Bacuna and Adrian Popa.
In the end Reading never looked like getting an equaliser. My one criticism of Clement would have been his substitutions. Swift, like the rest of the team, may have declined as the game went on, but had shown enough flashes that he should have been moved to central midfield with either Popa or Omar Richards brought on to provide width on the left.
Reading’s confidence is clearly still fragile. These days we are very much a bottom six Championship team. There are signs of quality, but the consistency is not there to do it for a full game let alone a season.
It sounds bloody obvious, but the key is to stop losing and start picking up points. So much in football is down to confidence. The danger is that Reading, Clement and his new signings get into a downward spiral before the clocks go back.
To do that they will need to stop conceding sloppy goals like Derby’s equaliser, start halves slowly like this game and it would also help if they got some luck.
It’s too early to be too downcast. The glimpses in the first half gives hope. All the same, some points on the board would be nice.