OS ROYALS CONTRA OS AZUIS
Por Eusebio Januszczak
There’s an old Portuguese saying which goes: O sábio marinheiro não tem medo do pequeno rio quando chega ao grande mar. Which translates roughly as ‘When the wise sailor reaches the big sea, he is no longer scared of the little river’. In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t get worked up about unimportant things when the important things are done.
Perhaps Jose Gomes wrote it up on the dressing room wall at Reading FC this week as he prepared for the visit of Birmingham. Perhaps Brum had it on their wall, too, because their boat has been shipping water this season as well, and having survived a nine point deduction for tossing around too many escudos they were lucky to be relaxing in a comfortable 17th place. Birmingham were safe. We were safe. The only thing to play for on Sunday at O Estadio de Madejski was pride. Both teams could have turned up on Portugal Day with little to prove, and little to gain. But no.
As Jose would have put it: Mas não.
No surprises in defence for Reading. The recent back four of Gunter, Miazga, Moore and Yiadom was given another outing, although, thankfully, Yiadom was sent to left back and Gunter to right, where he looked much happier. No surprises in midfield either, with Ejaria, Baker and Rinomhota taking up their usual positions.
Up front, though, Jose had some Portuguese surprises up his sleeve with the chunky Josh Barrett making his first league start for three years, and 17 year-old Michael Olise preferred to Barrow, Harriott, McCleary et al. Loader led the line again, with Meite and Oliveira out.
Birmingham meanwhile tinkered with their free-scoring front two, and dropped Jutkiewicz to the bench, with Isaac Vassel partnering Chai Adams in an old-fashioned but effective 4-4-2.
As for the managers, Jose was in his dark and dashing Maigret mac again as he prowled the touchline yelling at his team to press higher, while Garry Monk was in his Adidas casuals, every inch the football chav.
Those of us who feared the game would not mean much to anyone and that both teams were already on the beach at the Algarve eating sardines and drinking Mateus Rose were quickly proved wrong.
The Reading front three may only recently have sat their GCSEs but how cleverly they buzzed around the beefy Birmingham back four. Barrett was twisty and muscular. Olise was whispy and elusive. And Loader, happy to be reunited with his under-23 buddies, looked more at ease leading the line in their company than he has done in most of his first team outings. He muscled, he tricked, he was really good.
It was all going really well, especially down the right where Gunter, for the first time in a long time, was playing like a proper wing back, hitting the byline and sending across a succession of tasty crosses. Barrett dollied the first. Yiadom messed up the second. Loader missed the third when it seemed impossible not to score. To be fair, the one-handed claw pulled off by Lee Camp in the Birmingham goal to divert Loader’s prod was almost in the Emi Martinez league of point-blank saves.
Apart from one extraordinary run on the right by Vassell which started in his own half and ended with him slaloming past several Reading defenders before firing straight at Martinez - phew! - it was all Reading.
The only serious threat from the Blues came from the extraordinary long throws of Mark Roberts - long, low and scudding - the best I’ve seen since Rory Delap. Otherwise, Moore and Miazga had them in their pockets. And then, who should suddenly appear in the Club 1871 arena but Yakou Meite, who buried himself in the crowd and broke some kind of Reading record for getting himself photographed.
As for Portugal Day - a sea of red and green flags, balloons, wrap around skirts and hi-viz two-tone tops turned our corner of O Estadio de Madejski into a little chunk of the Iberian peninsula. One chap even turned up as a giant bottle of port. Saude to him!
Garry Monk must have fired a few choice chavisms at his bewildered team at half time because Birmingham came out meaning business - or at least trying harder than they had. A smart tactical switch pushed their full backs wider and cut off the big diagonals to Gunter that had been so effective in the first half. So our exciting and marauding wing back became more like the Chris Gunter of old. Decent defence. No attacks.
With the wings closed down, Reading began trying to play down the middle more and to utilise the speed of Loader, Olise and Barrett. But the balls to them tended to get overhit, and we weren’t as penetrative as we had been in the first half.
Birmingham, meanwhile, saw more of the game. Having been left out of the starting eleven, Jutkiewicz came on for Vassell with 20 minutes to go and he and Adams became more effective without ever really looking as if they would score.
Unfortunately, the same was true of us. Olise, who’d shown flashes of extreme nippiness and trickiness on the right wing, was taken off after 70 minutes and Mo Barrow came on in his place. I thought he’d go on the right as a straight replacement for Olise but he went up the middle instead while Loader dropped back to that ambiguous midfield position they call ‘no buraco’. In the hole.
The idea was clearly to hit the notoriously speedy Barrow with long balls over the top, and we had several goes at it, but none reached him cleanly. In the end, Mo only had one go at goal, an ambitious bicycle kick from a cross by Teddy Howe - the CEO’s boy! - which flew over the bar at pole vault height just before the final whistle.
By then, the game had long ago decided it was going to end in a 0-0 draw. Not even the extraordinary sight of the entire Birmingham team joining Reading to form a guard of honour for the retiring John O’Shea when he came on as a 90th minute substitute for Barrett - we hadn’t finished yet! Why the politeness? - could detract from a sense of the season petering out, gently.
A decent game. Reading looked promising for most of the match. Lots of talent in the young ranks. Things look good for next year.
I made up the Portuguese saying at the top. Sorry. Sue me!