About halfway through the second half of Reading's 1-1 draw with Nottingham Forest, a question crossed my mind: are there better ways to draw than others? At that point, it was 0-0, Reading playing out a goalless stalemate. Yes, that result would extend our unbeaten run and add another clean sheet to our tally, but in contrast to a terrific recent of form in the Championship, it'd be pretty disappointing.
By full time though, I had an answer to my query: a resounding yes. Reading had, in a matter of minutes, gone through all the emotions. Initially the fairly ‘meh’ feeling that naturally stems from an underwhelming 0-0 at home, then the last-minute heartbreak of a scrappy goal from a dubiously awarded corner... and then to ecstasy.
When Jordan Obita's pretty speculative cross from the left was turned in at the near post, the roof came off. The Mad Stad exploded in joy, several players jumped into the crowd, and some punters in Club 1871 even took the chance to rub it in the away end's noses by charging across the tarpaulin barrier. The way it was celebrated, that goal felt like a winner. Although it in reality only restored parity to the scoreline - parity that was thoroughly deserved - the emotions of that goal were so much more profound.
Forest's earlier sh*thousery only made Reading's goal that bit sweeter. Particularly in the second half, the visitors had taken any opportunity to slow the game; players stayed on the floor too long and took their time over dead balls. Some - on several separate occasions - clutched their faces after pretty innocuous challenges in an apparent attempt at getting a Reading player sent off. The away side thus established themselves as the afternoon’s pantomime villains - and who doesn’t like seeing the bad guys get their comeuppance?
Throw it all together and you get a thoroughly satisfying afternoon. It may not have been significant in terms of the league standings - Reading would have been 14th on Saturday evening whether the equaliser went in or not - but it is significant in terms of the direction in which this team is moving. That equaliser may not necessarily have come out of strong character per se - it was after all from a fortuitous deflection from a fairly hopeful cross - but it undeniably strengthens the resolve of a side that was already full of belief.
That kind of belief can go a long way in this division. It’s a key component of one of the more tired (but true) cliches in the game: getting results when playing poorly is the sign of a good team.
A below-par performance
Reading certainly weren’t at their best on Saturday. The first half played out largely as you’d expect for two good, in-form sides that had naturally lost some momentum after not playing a league game for 10 days. There were chances at either end, yes, but both teams were guilty of some sloppy play and neither really took charge of the contest.
From the Royals’ point of view, a lot of that was down to the absence of Lucas Joao. The summer signing took a while to get going in Reading colours, but he played a vital role in the recent surge up the Championship, not only scoring four goals but also leading the line effectively.
Reading don’t really have anyone else in the side quite like him, and the lack of such a target man was problematic on Saturday. Sam Baldock, covering for Joao after scoring against Blackpool last Saturday, can’t be faulted for his work rate but comes up short in key areas: he struggles to impose himself against centre backs when his back’s facing goal, and can’t win headers. Because of that, throughout the game when Reading needed an outlet for the defence or someone to play off through the middle when going forwards, we didn’t have that option.
It wasn’t entirely down to Joao’s absence though. Reading had been sloppy in the first half and needed a gentle kicking from Mark Bowen at the break. That’s exactly what they seemed to get, and duly started the second half noticeably quicker, more intense and with added aggression.
The first portion of the second half was exactly what Reading are capable of doing at the Mad Stad: getting the ball forward quickly but intelligently - particularly through John Swift and Ovie Ejaria, often down the left flank - and making sure the ball kept on going back at the opposition. Whenever an attack broke down, Reading were alive to counters, quickly winning possession back and going again. Forest were rattled by the intensity, prompting one of their players to take his time over a throw in to slow the tempo down, while forcefully gesticulating at his teammates to make sure they followed his lead.
Reading’s momentum did subside over the course of the second half, made worse by the enforced withdrawal of Ejaria on 80 minutes. With both him and Charlie Adam off the pitch in the dying stages - the Scot was withdrawn as is customary a few minutes earlier - the home side lacked that bit of spark and ingenuity to muster a push for a late winner.
Forest didn’t seem to have a goal in them either though... until they did. A dubiously given corner caused pinball in the Reading box before Ben Watson eventually lashed home then charged over to the Reds’ dugout to celebrate. If that had been that, Reading would have felt hugely aggrieved.
Just to clarify, that Forest goal shouldn't have stood for three different reasons:— Olly Allen (@OllyAllen_) January 11, 2020
a) not a corner
c) ball goes out of play
VAR would have had a field day.
But we didn’t need to. Reading dug out a late equaliser and went home the happier of the two sides. It may be another game without a clean sheet and an end to the winning run in the Championship, but we keep picking up results.
And as the cliche goes, that’s the mark of a good team.