The story of Reading's summer so far
At half past ten on Monday night, thousands of people across Britain were left wondering what could possibly fill the void of having spent the past eight weeks watching a gaggle of twenty-somethings parade around in swimwear and engage in relationships of convenience for the reward of what could laughingly be described as fame. At eight o’clock on Friday night, they had their answer.
It almost feels like football hasn’t ended this year, with a summer tournament giving little respite to fans and out-and-out despair to their loved ones. A semi-successful (no pun intended) tournament for the home nation of England will certainly have helped stoke the imagination of fans ahead of the new season and, even as the faint echoes of “football’s coming home” can still be heard in public houses across the country, it’s time for club football to once again take centre stage.
After a disappointing 2017/2018 campaign was capped by the relief of just about being good enough to remain in the second tier, there has been a relative calm around the Berkshire side this summer. Paul Clement has been making the team his own by moving out some players brought in under the previous regime; Joey van den Berg heads out on loan to Holland, George Evans made the permanent move to Derby County (of all places), while Yann Kermorgant was released from his contract.
Compared to recent pre-seasons, Paul Clement has been fairly trigger-happy this summer, bringing in seven new faces to the Berkshire side. There is midfielder David Meyler, who has the unfortunate career highlight of being headbutted by former Reading boss Alan Pardew in 2014 in a game between Hull City and Newcastle United.
While the excuse of “I was trying to move him with my head” sounds as ridiculous today as it did when ‘Pards’ spoke the words after the incident, fans will be hoping that he will be the answer to Reading’s defensive midfield area. With Joey van den Berg playing on loan in Holland and George Evans moved on,
And the veteran player award moves from Yann Kermorgant this season to John O’Shea, who, after helping Sunderland to back-to-back relegations for the first time in their history, joins The Royals for no other reason than to keep him out of the retirement home for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon.
Surely to play an advisory role to younger heads in the dressing room this season, it’s surely not beyond the wisdom of Reading to paint him green and have him speak purely in anastrophes to fulfil the Yoda-esque figure in the team, offering salient advice to those who can enter the pitch without the use of a Zimmer frame.
How did Reading set up?
The team lined up in a 4-2-3-1, with debuts for Andy Yiadom at right back and David Meyler in the centre of midfield, partnering the restless Liam Kelly. There was no sign of defender Liam Moore, who is likely to leave the club before the transfer window closes next week, with Paul McShane and Tiago Ilori forming a central defensive partnership which is likely to remain in place over the opening matches of the new season.
New strikers Marc McNulty and Sam Baldock started on the bench, as the lone striker berth was given to Reading’s only World Cup attendee, Jon Dadi Bödvarsson.
Despite Derby being the fancied side, it was Reading who began brighter, with Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and John Swift linking up well in the final third of the pitch to force some last-ditch defending from The Rams to prevent an early goal. Indeed, the Icelandic striker found himself one-on-one with the goalkeeper in the opening ten minutes, and Scott Carson’s decision to come out of his goalmouth perhaps saved his side embarrassment.
Reading would have recognised the tactic of passing in their own half that Derby deployed in the first period, as it straight off the pages of Jaap Stam’s playbook, but the Berkshire side were the better of the two as they prevented any serious attempt on their goal and put The Rams under pressure themselves.
Aside from Bodvarsson’s various attempts to put The Royals ahead, Liam Kelly also had a chance to score at the near post but his effort was stopped by Carson. While the Rams’ goalkeeper had a good half in goal, the unchanged score-line perhaps had more to do with Reading’s profligacy in front of goal themselves, a demon from the Jaap Stam era which is still haunting the side.
Either Harry Redknapp had been invited down into the Derby dressing room at half time to deliver his patented “stop being wallies” speech, or Frank Lampard had earned his managerial stripes early through his first tough team talk. Either way, it was a different away side who ran out at the Madejski Stadium in the second half. They had the ball in the back of the net within minutes of the restart, but the effort was disallowed after Nugent was correctly adjudged to be offside after failing to move with McShane.
The deadlock was finally broken a few minutes before the hour mark, with Reading resorting to a neat passing move to get the ball forward, before Barrow swung a cross into the centre of the box. Bodvarsson had perhaps been unlucky not to be on the scoresheet until now, but he took full advantage of the decent ball in as he rose above the gaggle of defenders around him and fired a header beyond the reach of Carson, opening Reading’s scoring account for the season.
It didn’t take Derby long to respond. Sky Sports spent an hour before the game had kicked off waxing lyrical about Mason Mount, a young Frank Lampard in the making and, apparently, the future of English altogether. This only served to heighten expectation every time the youngster went anywhere near the ball.
So it is perhaps justifiable that his shot from twenty five yards out ended up in the back of the net, despite offering little danger. Vito Mannone was more than happy to help the effort, with a lacklustre attempt at tipping the ball wide not quite working out, and instead palming the ball into the back of his own net.
With the game at 1-1 and now opening up, the changes started to happen. Clement switched attacking midfielder John Swift for a second striker, adopting a 4-4-2 in the hope that number nine Sam Baldock could be the difference. Yakou Meite also came on to replace Bodvarsson, returning to the pitch for Reading after a year on loan in the French leagues.
But, in truth, the momentum had swung in Derby’s favour since the equalizer and the away side looked more likely to clinch a winner. A ball across the face of the Reading goal five minutes from time looked dangerous, with McShane bizarrely letting it fly past him and Liverpool loanee Harry Wilson forcing a match-winning save from Mannone to prevent the ball from going in.
But the worst was yet to come. With four minutes stoppage time played, and most of the players looking forward to a cheeky Nandos and then bed, a throw in allowed substitute Mason Bennett to turn Omar Richards before sending in a cross from the byline, which Tom Lawrence was able to get his head on to and nod just over Mannone in goal. It was literally the last touch of the game, as Reading barely had a chance to kick off again before the final whistle blew.
And quite how Reading managed to lose a game they seemed so confident in is only the second-biggest mystery of the night, as this writer ponders why Frank Lampard insisted on keeping his suit jacket on for the entire match, in what the Sky Sport pundit (with a keen grasp of meteorology) helpfully remarked as being “a billion degrees”.
Having lived through last season (and the turgid second spell of Brian McDermott in 2015/2016), I have seen far worse losses for Reading than this. The performances of many of the players on the pitch will give optimism to fans who have only known pain and suffering of late.
But there is also the question of why. Why were Derby County able to score a winning goal with the last kick of the game? Why were Derby even in a position to claim anything from this match given how one-sided the first period was?
This game could have gone much worse for The Royals for sure, but there will certainly be an inquiry into how this defeat happened before Reading face Nottingham Forest in their next match.