God I love this team.
Not just for the results. Four wins on the bounce at the start of the season (three of them now with clean sheets) is great, but the pure spirit that made them those victories possible feels really special.
You could see it throughout the game, and across the team. It’s one thing to see the usual suspects like Rino charging around like mad men to close down the opposition, but quite another to see players who’ve previously been criticised for a lack of work rate fall into the same bracket.
But that tenacity was universal. George Puscas put in probably his most complete performance so far, getting stuck into challenges in uncharacteristic fashion and not giving Watford a moment’s peace. The same was true of the much-maligned Sone Aluko, who seemed to be a man reborn as Reading’s central playmaker.
Reading’s mounting injury list meant there was a number of square pegs in round holes on Saturday afternoon, but you’d be forgiven for not noticing that. Tom Holmes filled in admirably as Reading’s third-choice, makeshift right back, while centre back Tom McIntyre and rookie central midfielder Dejan Tetek adjusted well to their number-10 and left-wing roles respectively.
The Royals have had more than their fair share in recent years of players looking out of place when asked to do an unfamiliar job, but no-one looked out of place on Saturday afternoon. It’s as if the team gelled through sheer force of will.
When you’ve got such an ethic in your team, you can beat anyone. Watford may have been favourites going into the game, while Reading may have a string of injuries and a need for new signings, but true team spirit and the wonderfully cliched never say die attitude get you points when you don’t expect it.
With that as the platform, Reading only needed the one goal, and it came from a man that was only in the team as a consequence of the team’s injury problem: George Puscas. The Romanian did really well in the 41st minute to receive the ball off balance from Holmes, spin and fire past the goalkeeper - albeit with a deflection.
It’s the kind of chance that he may well have spurned on another day, but the sharpness he showed to convert that opportunity was the sign of someone with confidence to spare. That commodity hasn’t always come easily for Puscas, but credit to him, he responded terrifically to the challenge put in front of him by Pauno: Lucas Joao is my first-choice striker - this is your opportunity to change my mind.
Doing so will take more than scoring goals, which is of course only part of what Joao offers to this team. To match his teammate, Puscas had to be a real presence on his own at the head of Reading’s 4-2-3-1, both in and out of possession, but he passed that test with flying colours.
His colleagues at the back were even more impressive, and they deservedly picked up a third league clean sheet in four. That was no mean feat given the Premier League pedigree on show in the Watford team; the Hornets could even afford to introduce veteran striker Glenn Murray late on in search of an equaliser.
And yet, despite Watford’s quality, Reading’s defence rarely looked stretched. There were nervy moments for sure, such as when the visitors got in behind down the Royals’ right flank early on, but the hosts never really looked on the ropes. For the third time this season (clean sheets in all cases), Reading the game with just two shots on target conceded - and one of those was from outside the box.
Put it all together, and there are really encouraging signs about this team. Despite only joining the club a couple of weeks before the start of the league season, Pauno’s already instilled a level of fight and belief that’s been sorely lacking in recent years at the Mad Stad.
Just how far those qualities will take us is yet to be seen, and Reading’s success this season will inevitably rely on other factors. Signings are crucial, not to mention gelling those additions into the Royals’ new-found team spirit, as is the need for Pauno to improve Reading’s use of the ball - particularly in the final third.
But those things are all for another time. For the moment, we can enjoy a truly special start to the season.