As I was sitting in an hour-long traffic jam south of Guildford which made me fearful of missing the kick-off I heard about the death of Chas Hodges and could not help feeling that it was going to be a bad day. It’s fair to say that Chas ‘n’ Dave have given me more pleasure in the last few years than Reading FC, and I was not confident that the boys in blue and white hoops - with the worst start-of-the-season home record in the club’s history - would lift my spirits. How wrong could I be?
My breathless run through the streets of Whitley not only took me into the Mad Stad in time for the ref’s opening blast but also the reward of an early goal, a much-improved performance, a clean sheet, three wonderful points and a contented drive home in the relentless rain.
Well, done the Royals. You were excellent. After the dross we have witnessed so many times in the last 12 months here was a team having a real go and, after all the misery, sending the fans away happy.
The first reaction was the team. Many fans got their wish of Sone Aluko and Chris Gunter being left out of the starting line-up, while in came Josh Sims and Saeid Ezatolahi (for their first starts) and John O’Shea into the centre of defence.
Apart from the fourth minute goal, sharply tapped in by Sam Baldock after Ezatolahi’s header had been saved, two things struck me about the first half. The impact of the Iranian international newcomer and the effort of the whole team.
Rarely have I seen a Reading team put in so much effort, running their socks off to chase every ball, close down spaces and make interceptions as if their lives depended on it. Special mentions here for Liam Kelly and Sam Baldock whose willingness to run and run was an example to the rest. Baldock, who was deployed wide on the left, made numerous interceptions as he charged back to give support to full-back Andy Yiadom. Through their non-stop intensity Reading simply refused to let Hull settle and, as a result, dominated the first 45 minutes.
The team’s performance was helped considerably by Ezatolahi who was an instant hit. Tall and powerful, he played the holding midfielder’s role immaculately. For 30 minutes he hardly put a foot wrong, winning headers, stepping in to make timely interceptions and using the ball calmly and neatly to set up attacks. But more importantly he gave the team a shape and cohesion that has been lacking, allowing other players, Liam Kelly and Leandro Bacuna in particular, the freedom to roam and get involved, knowing that defensive cover was in place.
Although Hull had two offside goals ruled out Sam Walker was hardly tested, while the lively Jon Dadi Bodvarsson three times came close to adding to Reading’s lead, once having a strong header cleared off the line.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Reading would slightly run out of steam after their first half efforts. But, as their pace slowed they still stuck to their task, defending stoutly as Hull had more of the ball and made use of their substitutes well to kill the game off in the closing stages with two well-taken goals from Bodvarsson and Yiadom. Credit here to Paul Clement for the timing and selection of his substitutions with Ezatolahi (understandably as he tired on his debut) and Baldock (who had been tireless) giving way to John Swift and Mo Barrow.
The one blot on the afternoon was the dismissal of O’Shea, who had brought a quality and steadying influence to the back line before being caught out for pace and bringing down Chris Martin for a clear red card. This after he had received a nasty mouth injury and bravely battled on with what looked like a tissue between his teeth mopping up the blood.
The disappointment of the sending-off is the suspension which will curtail the successful experiment of a new-look back four in which Tiago Ilori, switched to right back, was my man of the match. Presumably now either Gunter or Paul McShane will come back in.
This match was a joy to behold. The scenes at the end in the East Stand (where I was sat) seemed like we’d won the league. I suppose you have to go through the pain to really appreciate the good times, so I was pleased for the fans - and the players, too. Hopefully we’ve found a star in Ezatolahi and a style of play based around all-out effort, which should be a given but isn’t.
Will it be a turning point? Who knows? We’ve seen enough false dawns to not get over-excited. But, at least, this was a start and the team and their fans know they have it in them to do a lot better than they have been doing - if only they can find some consistency.
What did you make of the game? Tell us in the comments below.