How quickly things can change in football. Just a week ago, Reading were on a real high after beating play-off chasing Preston North End to move four points clear of the bottom three. Our chances of avoiding relegation seemed to be at the best they’d been in quite some time.
Fast-forward seven days, and our fortunes are looking much less rosy. Not only did the 3-1 defeat to Hull City dent our own confidence, but results elsewhere sucked us straight back into the thick of the relegation dogfight; Rotherham United, Millwall and Birmingham City all winning.
Making the afternoon even more frustrating is that we had three points in our grasp. A fantastic strike from outside the area from Lewis Baker gave Reading an unlikely lead going into the break, but three goals from the hosts after the restart meant that advantage was squandered.
How we lined up
Jose Gomes made just the one change from the win over Preston, bringing the surprisingly not-injured Nelson Oliveira in for John Swift - who was actually injured. Otherwise, we were unchanged: Martinez; Yiadom, Miazga, Moore, Blackett; Rinomhota, Baker; Meite, Ejaria, Barrow, Oliveira.
On the bench were two youngsters who’d appeared for the under-23s in their 3-1 defeat to Bayern Munich: Josh Barrett and Danny Loader. Although neither have fully grasped their chance to break into the first team just yet, you imagine that both could play a larger role next season, whatever division we’re in. Gomes’ other substitutes were Walker, Gunter, Harriott, McCleary and the returning Liam Kelly.
As has been the case on a number of occasions under Jose Gomes, Reading were under serious pressure in the opening stages. Hull pushed for the opening goal, looking particularly threatening down the left through Kamil Grosicki, with the Royals unable to get up the pitch.
However, after riding that mini storm, Reading would not only settle, but grab the opening goal of the day. After a corner from the left, Ovie Ejaria fed Baker just outside the area, before the Chelsea loanee cut back onto his left foot and powered the ball past the helpless Marshall. 1-0, and what a way to do it.
This, for me, is the point at which Reading’s inadequacies in the game started to become particularly apparent. Sure, we wouldn’t concede until the second half, but there was an immediate failure to build on Baker’s opener. Bar the same player seeing a deep free-kick deflected onto the bar, the Royals didn’t create anything. In fact, we went into half-time with just one shot on target - even though we’d made maximum use of it.
That’s the opposite of what we’d managed against Preston. By capitalising on Yakou Meite’s strike through Modou Barrow’s opportunistic tap-in, we’d given ourselves breathing space in that match and given the opposition’s confidence a kicking. Both those things made holding onto the lead after the break significantly easier.
So why couldn’t Reading do that against Hull? Although the Tigers certainly better than last Saturday’s opposition, our own personnel problems played a part - particularly the absence of John Swift. Although he’s hit and miss in his performances, he brings guile and invention that others in this squad simply don’t. As a result, a spark in the final third was noticeable by its absence.
Anyway, I digress. Reading would get to half-time with their one-goal lead intact, but only just; Hull putting a header just wide from a corner and Jarrod Bowen fluffing a great chance. It would, of course, prove to be an augur of things to come.
The story of the next 45 would be a different standard of finishing. In terms of creating chances, both sides improved markedly after the break, but only one team remembered to bring their shooting boots.
Grosicki, who scored two on the day, had a lot of fun going up against Miazga, getting free of the American with ease before bursting into space and converting for the equaliser. Although he hashed a glorious chance later on when through on goal - again having got away from Miazga - he’d correct his aim later on to make it 3-1.
Otherwise, Marc Pugh was on hand to tap in at the back post on 65 minutes for 2-1, making the most of an Emiliano Martinez parry that wasn’t cleared by a Reading defender.
But we had our own clear-cut chances too. A brilliant Lewis Baker-driven counter early on in the second half gave Nelson Oliveira a great opportunity (although his weak effort was wasteful), and Modou Barrow stole through on goal after Andy Rinomhota won the ball back high up - but shot straight at the ‘keeper.
With those chances coming at 1-0 at 1-1 respectively, the potential was certainly there for Reading to turn the flow of the game, but you can’t do that if you don’t take your chances.
In general, the second-half display was disappointing. Although the hosts had gone up a few gears at the break, the visitors couldn’t manage a similar feat when they needed to come from behind, with the three substitutions having minimal impact.
Danny Loader, Garath McCleary and Callum Harriott came on for Nelson Oliveira, Yakou Meite and Modou Barrow in a trio of straight changes in attacking positions, but added little to the party. I can’t help but think that Josh Barrett, an admittedly raw but nonetheless creative and confident playmaker, could have brought the new ideas that Reading were lacking.
Without those ideas, the second half looked more and more like a forlorn hope the longer it went on. Hull were comfortable in their two-goal lead, and saw it out without much difficulty.
Despite the scoreline, the game was never completely out of Reading’s reach (except perhaps the last few minutes), and that’s what’s so frustrating for me. I’ve been impressed by the heart shown by this Royals side since Jose Gomes’ arrival, but we didn’t see enough of it in the match’s key moments, with the team instead seeming uncharacteristically unsure of themselves.
Reading needed that extra bit of drive to: capitalise on their lead when Hull were reacting to going behind, defend that lead after the break, and restore it at 1-1 or 2-1. We were capable of all those things, but didn’t manage any, so lost the game.
Even more worrying is that we’ll need spirit in abundance if we’re to stand a chance of anything in midweek, when a daunting trip to Norwich City comes up. Although the league table would suggest the match is a write-off, Reading can’t afford to treat it like that.
With the league table this tight, we’re going to need all the points we can get our hands on.