Despite being close neighbours, the rivalry between Wycombe Wanderers and Reading is pretty much non-existent. This reflects the former’s history as a non-league side but the Chairboys’ willingness to allow the Royals’ women’s and under-23 teams to set their stall out in south Buckinghamshire has ensured friendly relations, while both teams hate Oxford more and Wycombe’s traditional rivals are actually Slough Town.
After a flurry of league meetings around the turn of the Millennium, Reading hadn’t made the trip to Adams Park, bar friendlies, since 2002 and the appetite for tickets for the short journey perhaps makes an argument for an even further degree of regionalisation in the Carabao Cup. In short, this was a far more greatly anticipated encounter than a run of the mill home game against a Peterborough or a Plymouth, so often the bill of fare at this stage. Hence, 2,000 Reading fans occupied the eastern extremities of the stadium, using programmes, backs of hands and baseball caps to follow the early action in the light of a fierce sunset.
Reading fielded a strong team in an experimental formation. Many fans have been calling for a three-man centre back trio and they got their wish with Liam Moore joined by Michael Morrison and Tom McIntyre; Moore again on the right-hand side and signalling manager José Gomes’ determination to stuck with the captain in that position.
This necessitated the deployment of a wing back system with the energetic Omar Richards perhaps more suited to the strategy on the left than Andy Rinomhota on the right while newcomer Pele again anchored the midfield behind Charlie Adam and the returning Ovie Ejaria. Up front, Lucas Boyé performed as a roving false nine behind George Pușcaș while João Virgínia made way for Rafael between the sticks.
Wycombe arguably fielded a more weakened side with livewire winger and new recruit from QPR Paul Smyth not even in the match day squad. Also missing were key midfielder Dominic Gape and recognisable front duo Fred Onyedinma and Adebayo Akinfenwa.
The result was early pressure in spades from the Royals. Ejaria slid back into competitive action with aplomb, his tricky feet denying Wycombe possession continually, allowing a platform for the silky passing of Charlie Adam to run the show. With Pușcaș and Boyé in particular showing clever movement up front, several chances were carved out – Boyé being denied by keeper Ryan Allsop from a tight angle before having another effort saved from six yards. Later, Pușcaș mistimed a header after Richards had made a rare foray all the way to the byline.
All in all, encouraging, but the lack of finish led to a levelling out of the opportunities and Wycombe tested Rafael with a couple of long rangers. Adam began to tire and Reading’s threat from the right was reduced by Rinomhota’s unsuitability to the wing back role.
The nerves that set in when chances go unplundered were there for all to see after half-time – Boyé having exited the fray at half time for the second time in four days, on this occasion due to injury and making way for Sam Baldock, the son of Steeple Claydon making an appearance on the fields of his home county. Things became brittle with Adam continuing to huff and puff, Ejaria proving to be less effective and Pele guilty of a couple of clumsy challenges that resulted on free kicks for Wycombe in dangerous areas.
Still, the three-man backline was doing a good job of snuffing out the Chairboys’ midfield domination – that is until a free near post header from the diminutive Alex Samuel flew past Rafael.
Cue John Swift, subbed in for Adam and immediate in his impact – a delicious through ball converted by Pușcaș at the second attempt. Thereon in, the sides traded blows with Baldock seeing a header tipped over and Danny Loader coming on for Ejaria. That is, until a tense last few minutes.
With Onyedinma and Akinfenwa pitched into the action, their physical presence did ensure further jitters and Wycombe hit the woodwork twice in the closing stages, including the very last second.
Throughout, Rafael proved to be a commanding presence and while his holier than thou pointing to the heavens – and the crossbar – at the final whistle was perhaps a bit over the top for staid old Buckinghamshire, it proved a portent of what was to come.
With the two clubs separated by about 20 miles of countryside but with no direct train line, fans were grateful for a lack of extra time and penalties ensued. Rafael kept to the letter of the rules by wiggling sideways along the goal line and made good low saves from Nick Freeman and Onyedinma.
As debuts go, it’s hard to think of a better one for a netminder and Reading’s outfield players duly tucked away their spot kicks – after Pușcaș, Baldock and Swift had scored, it was left to Danny Loader, ‘one of our own’ despite being on Wycombe’s books as a kid, to score the winner.
In all, this was a reasonable performance from Reading and while being taken to penalties by much weakened lower league opposition is no great shakes, the canny management of Gareth Ainsworth would never make Wycombe an easy place to come. Most importantly though, Rafael’s heroics – and in particular the vociferous reaction from the away fans – have done much to boost the mood ahead of tougher tests to come.