What. A. Win. Not to rest on their laurels after an impressive away win at Deepdale to round off 2019, Reading pulled off an even better victory at Craven Cottage to kick off 2020.
Again, before the game I really didn't think Reading had a win at such a tough away ground in them, but again I underestimated this side. The Royals are now unbeaten in their last six games - having conceded only twice in that period - and have every right to dream about where this season could take us.
That we pulled off this result with the same team that's been pushed hard over the Christmas period - and again had to chase the ball for much of the game while Fulham threw the kitchen sink at us - speaks volumes about the character of this team. Reading are pushing themselves that bit more and running that extra yard to get the points.
Mark Bowen will quite rightly take a huge amount of credit for the recent run of form, but the way the players have stepped up to the task in recent weeks has been remarkable. With Blackpool coming to the Mad Stad in the FA Cup on Saturday, the players have more than earned a break.
A little surprisingly, Bowen opted to send Reading out unchanged at Craven Cottage, going for consistency - and possible rising fatigue - over rotation. That meant sticking with a 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 formation that's looked solid defensively and dangerous going forwards. After a few weeks of struggling in the absence of Ovie Ejaria and John Swift, then experimenting with different formations to replace the old 3-5-2, Bowen's struck upon the right formation.
Normally, at this point I’d go through how the game progressed from start to finish. But, in this case, the pattern of the match was very straightforward: Fulham dominated the match in terms of possession and territory for most of the afternoon, often leaving Reading camped in their own third. It was a real backs-to-the-wall job - even more so than against Preston North End, who had also had much more of the ball than the Royals, albeit with less cutting edge in the final third than Fulham.
That was particularly true early on, when Rafael made a string of top saves in quick succession to prevent the Cottagers from taking the lead, and late on when - with Reading’s lead halved to 2-1 - they threw the kitchen sink at the Royals in search of an equaliser.
Mark Bowen said after the Preston match that he wanted his team to enjoy defending, and for me that was again a key reason for Reading holding out for their win. Although the team’s discipline, organisation and the manager’s impact were all crucial, the Royals’ defence and midfield really relished doing a top rearguard job.
I’ve not even got to Reading’s goals yet: two composed finishes to cap off well-worked moves that say two key things about the Royals’ attack:
- Despite how good defensively we are at the moment, we’re still capable of scoring some really lovely team goals.
- Earlier in the season, Reading were letting some big chances go begging. As Steven highlighted on New Year’s Eve, we’re now much more clinical in front of goal.
The first of those goals was a carbon copy of the opener at Deepdale. Ejaria again getting involved in a central area, drawing a few defenders to allow Tyler Blackett to get in around the back with a delayed run - before his pinpoint pull back was converted by a deft finish from Swift.
As much as he’s won deserved praise this season as a creator, Swift’s demonstrated in the last few games just how dangerous he can be when he’s playing higher up the pitch. Three goals in his last three - one screamer from outside the box and two more cutter finishes from close range - show he sure knows how to finish.
The same can also be said for Charlie Adam who scored his first goal from open play of the season. Ejaria was again involved in the build-up, this time more directly by taking on Blackett’s role of getting in around the back and sliding a low cross back that begged to be converted. Adam, who’s been rolling back the years in recent weeks, obliged.
Cue the ~2000 away fans, packed into one corner of the Putney End, exploding with joy.
The atmosphere in that away end was really quite something. On a high after a particularly enjoyable last few weeks, the Royals’ travelling contingent made a racket all afternoon, and went wild each time a Reading goal went in. We’ve been up against it the last few times we’ve gone to Craven Cottage, so the relatively unlikely goals we’ve scored - Jordan Obita in 2017, plus Swift and Adam on New Year’s Day - felt that bit more special than most goals.
There’s nothing quite like those moments of ecstasy when the ball hits the net, you almost fall into the row in front of you, the guy next to you screams into your face and you hug about four different strangers.
This period of revival isn’t just about Reading getting better on the pitch - it’s also about improving morale in the fanbase too. The support improved a lot in 2019 after a fairly miserable 2018 that left many feeling apathetic and detached, but more matches like that glorious 2-1 win at Fulham will take it even further.
It’s been so long since I last heard chants about promotion from Reading fans who weren’t just taking the piss. But, at Craven Cottage, we had “EIEIEIO” and “pump it, the Royals are going up” among others, and boy was it fun.
It really feels like something special is happening at the moment. Reading are coming together on and off the pitch - who knows where it could take us?