As I walked down the heavily armed Second World War trench that transports visiting fans to The Den, I was 100% certain we were going to lose to Millwall. Everything pointed to it.
Mark Bowen had just been rewarded with a new contract – sure to lose. We were on a ten-game non-losing streak – sure to lose. Hordes of happy Berkshire boys were in full song insisting that we were going up – sure to lose. Bowen had just been nominated for manager of the month – sure to lose. Jon Dadi Bodvarsson was in their match day squad – sure to score. Clearly the football gods had decided we needed a lesson in reality. And so it transpired. Brutally.
From the first whistle to the last, Millwall came at us like a pack of pit bulls who’d had their testicles slapped. Not for a moment did they let up. 97 minutes of relentless snapping at heels, biting tackles, getting there first and arriving in threesomes. Every time Ovie Ejaria or John Swift got the ball, they were given a split second to dwell on it, then bam. In came a pit bull. And another. And another.
So that was the first part of their game plan – bite and harry the Berkshire poodles into inconsequentiality. The second part was even simpler. Get the ball wide. And centre it. Sooner or later eight-foot-tall centre forward, Matt Smith, was sure to head it in. The first half consisted of pretty much nothing else. Cross after cross came flying in, and only a heroic stint with his head by Michael Morrison and a marginally less heroic contribution from Liam Moore kept them at bay. Rafael was alright, too, although dealing with cold winds and eight-foot-tall forwards is definitely not his forte.
Reading had lined up in their predictable recent formation with Ejaria on the left as the rapier and Yakou Meite on the right as the club, and with Sam Baldock replacing the much-missed Lucas Joao in the middle. It didn’t work. From the off, Millwall targeted the Reading left, where Ejaria was leaving Tyler Blackett to fend mostly for himself. Meite, meanwhile, blundered about on the right getting relentlessly dispossessed. I presume he was in the side for his heading ability because nothing else makes sense.
It didn’t help that the pitch looked as if had been ploughed up to grow marrows. Or that the ball went mysteriously wrong soon after kick off. It was supposed to be round and firm – good for passing – but this one was squarish and soft – not good for passing. Rafael complained, and it was changed. Later in the game it had to be changed again. All very strange. As was the weird interruption which saw the referee stop the game and march over to the two managers to update them on nasty home crowd behaviour. Most of us imagined it was to do with racism. The half-time announcement blamed it, instead, on homophobia. Apparently, the home fans had been jeering the linesman. Millwall. You couldn’t make it up.
We had one chance in the first half. Mind you it was a really good one. Just before the whistle, Rafael booted the ball upfield and somehow it fell straight into the path of Baldock who looked certain to score as he bore down on Bialkowski. But he dawdled and out of nowhere a pit bull appeared to block the shot. Brilliant defence from Murray Wallace. Bad hesitation from Baldock.
Getting to half time at 0-0 was an achievement. And given how successful Bowen’s half-time talks and re-arrangements had previously been, I fully expected the Biscuits to come out for the second half with a new approach. Instead, it was Millwall who upped their game. They snapped into even more tackles and won even more second balls. More and more crosses rained in. Jed Wallace, the annoyingly effective pivot in their midfield, sprayed it left, then right, left, then right. Smith was getting his head to everything. They were sure to score.
Before they did, however, we had our second decent chance of the game, when Swift stretched out the longest leg he could manage to get on the end of a fine cross from Blackett. Another inch and he would have had it, a certain goal. And who knows what would have happened then. But no. A few minutes later, Wallace put in another of his laser crosses, there was another mad scramble in the Reading goal mouth, and this time Smith got his toe to it rather than his head, and in it flew.
Reading brought on Puscas and went for an equaliser. After an unusually nice bit of build-up they got the ball to him in front of goal. Puscas immediately fumbled it in typical Puscas fashion. A couple of passes later it was in our net. Bodvarsson, of course.
One corner in the entire game. Not a single shot on target. Millwall had 22 attempts on goal (though it seemed like more). We had eight (though it seemed like less). Has the Bowen bubble burst, or was it just one of those games? Hmmm.