For most of the 90 minutes on Saturday afternoon at Hillsbrough, it was hard not to get the feeling that this match was destined to finish 0-0. It was an odd game, one that kept threatening to get going but all too often fell flat at times when one side seemed to be in the ascendancy.
That said, an away point and clean sheet leave Reading much happier than their hosts, whose fans chattered disgruntingly as they oozed out of Hillsbrough stadium on the final whistle. Reading showed across this 90 minutes that they have grown under Jose Gomes. Today saw a mature performance and an important message conveyed: that if you can’t win the game, then just don’t lose it. And that’s pretty much exactly what happened in a fairly forgettable 0-0 draw.
It was a goalless draw at the other end of the entertainment spectrum to last week’s against Villa, but how did it all play out?
The first half was a peculiar one. From the first five minutes it looked like this was going to be a tough, enduring day for Reading. The Royals started sluggish, summed up by Matt Miazga’s wayward pass going out for a corner with little more than a minute on the clock. The corner led to a fantastic save from Emiliano Martinez and a goalmouth scramble after the initial attempt came back to Adam Reach to strike from the top of the box.
There was a feeling of ‘here we go then’ as Reading just didn’t seem with it. In contrast Wednesday were up for it, buoyed by a bumper crowd for Bruce’s first home game. They were direct, quick and punchy with their attacks, surging runs on and off the ball and crisp to-the-point passes as they looked to stretch our defence. Reading dealt with them easily enough but you got the feeling that we couldn’t spend the whole afternoon like this.
But then after 10 minutes it changed. Reading suddenly got on the ball and started causing problems. John Swift, Modou Barrow and Sone Aluko all began to get on the ball and, with Lewis Baker and Andy Rinhomota pulling the strings in the middle, it suddenly became Reading who were the team trying to make things work and stretch play.
The tactic was obvious: go through the centre. And it nearly worked on a few occasions, although without Wednesday really breaking a sweat. But after 25 minutes Reading let it swing back the other way without ever really turning the screw themselves after quarter of an hour on top.
Despite nice passing and a willingness to get into the box, our attacking flaws reared their ugly heads again as the Royals struggled to cut out anything clear-cut. When a player got out wide with the ball in a promising position, we didn’t have enough of a presence in the box to cross, or enough options out wide to be able to work something different.
By no means was this through lack of effort though, which meant the drop-off for the remaining 20 minutes of the half were all the more curious. The next 10 saw the game go into a lull just when you wanted Reading to put their foot down a little more. And Wednesday pounced.
Sensing a change in dynamics they went through their best spell of the half and the match. But despite one more fantastic Martinez save, Reading’s defence fended then off comfortably enough. It was by far the most uneasy part of the match from a Reading perspective as we were cut open again and again and couldn’t get on the ball enough ourselves.
It was in this 10 minutes, however, that Reading had arguably their best chances of the game - all on the counter. First Swift twisted and turned on the halfway line before playing in Barrow, who could only squander a good chance with keeper Kieran Westwood out of position. Rather than look up and pick out Garath McCleary he let Westwood recuperate the situation, smothering his shot from the angle.
Then another counter and good play between Andy Yiadom and Barrow saw the ball cut back to Baker and a deflection made the ball fizz past a wrong-footed Westwood but also just past his right hand post.
Despite the false nine system creating nice passages of play it didn’t lead to anything that you felt could lead to goals and chances in the first half. It was important to get in at half time level, and much has to be said for Martinez’ superb save on the stroke of halftime - a goal that otherwise could have changed the whole game’s complexion.
Despite Wednesday finishing the first half the strongest, they simply didn’t turn up for the first 20 minutes or so of the second. If Reading were going to win this game it would have been in that passage of play. The Royals did try to take advantage of Wednesday’s sloppiness - they pressed, harried and won the ball back in promising situations.
The best example was when Baker charged down a pass on halfway before playing a well-timed pass through to Aluko. The defence recovered the situation well though, as Aluko was forced into shooting earlier than he would have liked and could only see his effort blocked, preventing a clear goalscoring opportunity.
After that on 55 minutes Reading proved why short goal kicks are so favoured by modern managers. Martinez played a great ball through the centre to Swift, who swivelled and ran into the space created. Wednesday, immediately on the back foot, went into full retreat as the ball quickly got fed to Baker whose effort looped off a defender and forced Westwood into his best save of the match - tipping the ball over the bar when it just so easily could have dipped under.
After that though Reading slacked off again and so we end with a 0-0 draw. Despite efforts from both sides to win, with two strikers from each team subbed on to win the game, ultimately neither team had the bottle to win. It could have been heart-breakingingly different had Reach punished Blackett’s only mistake in the 93rd minute, but his effort from six yards after a cutback cleared the bar - a chance that despite looking so nailed on to score, never felt like going in, just was the feeling of the games toothlessness.
So Reading draw for the third time in a row but that’s nothing to be sniffed at away from home. That’s the club’s first back-to-back clean sheet this season and something to build upon ahead of a crucial midweek game at the Mad Stad against Blackburn Rovers.
The game may have been frustrating to watch at times, such is Reading’s lack of potency in their otherwise promising attacks. But sometimes you just have to take a draw, and both teams seemed to have accepted their fate to play out a stalemate by about the 65th minute.
It was a mature performance, one that may not be too different to games under Clement, but the important difference is we drew while playing at an “OK” level. Earlier this season we played at the same level and lost. It’s these draws which could prove decisive on the final day and, while forgettable, do help quietly build momentum. That’s one defeat and just three goals conceded in five now - important for the fans and players to remember.