“It’s tough now looking at the results we have had - but at this moment we see who are the real men, who really wants to fight and help the team be better. I know I have these men in my group and I know with our togetherness we will be there at the end of the season.”
Looking through Jose Gomes’ post-match quotes on Sunday afternoon, it was that section that stood out to me. It’s notably blunt and cuts to the heart of an issue that not only made sure that it was Blackburn Rovers who came away with the three points on Saturday, but could also derail Reading’s season if not dealt with promptly: mentality.
Despite a poor start to both halves of the match the Royals were never out of the contest, and the final portion of the game should have seen us bombard the Rovers goal in search of an - admittedly undeserved - equaliser.
But that takes the right state of mind, which Reading simply didn’t have. Rather than dusting themselves off, finding that extra bit in the tank and pushing for a goal, the team seemed to shirk from the challenge. It was as if we were two or three goals down at that point, not one, and the away side found it much easier than they should have done to see out their lead.
In fact, from the 70th minute onwards, Rovers had more of the ball (176 touches to 153), and had as many shots as we did (four each). George Puscas’ header was easily kept out, Liam Moore had two efforts - a decent header well-saved and a blocked shot from outside the area, and Andy Yiadom blazed off target after driving into the penalty box from the right. For a period of the game when we should have been mounting the pressure, that’s just not good enough.
Working out why this lack of fighting spirit manifested itself against Blackburn isn’t that straightforward. Although Reading already had form for failing to make comebacks in the league this season - Saturday continued our 100% record of losing in the Championship this season when conceding the first goal - it’s not been due to an underlying lack of character.
For instance, the Royals very nearly completed comebacks at Hull City and Middlesbrough - in the first case fighting from 2-0 down at half-time to almost salvage a point, and in the second bombarding Boro’s goal but being denied by an impressive Darren Randolph. Otherwise, Reading came back from a goal down to Wycombe Wanderers (admittedly a poor performance on the whole), and dug in for solid results away to West Bromwich Albion and Huddersfield Town.
There are of course worse examples, such as the limp defeat to Charlton Athletic (albeit to a very good side) and opening-day loss to Sheffield Wednesday (albeit before new signings came in). Nonetheless, the performances we’ve put in this season aren’t the typical signs of a team that doesn’t know how to fight.
With all that in mind, the Blackburn loss should be kept in context: a much worse display than what we’ve already seen this season, and certainly a worryingly bad performance that shouldn’t be excused, but not the sign of an ongoing problem. Or at least not yet. Matches like Reading’s defeat to Blackburn - when a poor mentality is exposed - can be the prelude to a slump.
Comparisons with the ill-fated 2015/16 campaign have been numerous, and there’s a particularly pertinent one right now that Reading should learn from. Steve Clarke’s talented side, made up largely of new expensive signings, quite simply had a great mentality until it didn’t. Initially, it was capable of digging in to get great results in tough games: Brentford away (3-1 win), Bristol City away (2-0 win), Burnley away (2-1 win) and Middlesbrough at home (2-0 win).
However, when the first big test of character came along - the shock fightback from Fulham at Craven Cottage to come from 2-0 down to win 4-2 - Clarke’s side couldn’t recover. Reading had won six games in eight before that day, but would get just seven more across the rest of the season.
This takes me back to what Gomes said after the Blackburn game: “At this moment we see who are the real men, who really wants to fight and help the team be better.” It is of course his job to do all he can to make sure that result is an aberration - a shock to the system that gives the team a kick - but the players themselves need to take responsibility.
Fortunately, that can start almost immediately. A cup game in mid-week to a strong Premier League side in Wolverhampton Wanderers - essentially a write-off from our point of view - should be treated as the time to do whatever necessary to make an immediate response. Anyone who didn’t pull their weight on Saturday can come out for those that watched on from the sidelines, itching for their opportunity. There’s nothing like healthy competition to keep players focused.
If Reading don’t get on top of this problem, and make sure mentality isn’t an ongoing issue, we could be in for a long season.