The Royals came into the Millwall game, as we all know, off the back of four straight losses, topped off by the disaster-class that the players put in during the second half at Bournemouth.
That second half on the south coast on Saturday lunchtime sunk in so much, for me anyway, not just because we lost the game, but also because of the manner in which we lost the game. Capitulating performances like that can live a lot longer than 90 minutes.
This is why this game was so, so important. The players needed to show something, anything that could prove that there was still life in them - because there would’ve been a lot of Loyal Royals dreading this match, as it had all the potential to be the next nail in the proverbial coffin of Reading’s promotion charge.
But it wasn’t. And the players did show something. It may not have been a lot, but it was something - and, come the end of the season, we may well look back at this game as a turning point and a sign of what this team is made of. But whether or not that happens now lies completely in the hands of the players and Pauno.
Onto the game itself...
For the large majority, the first half was very, very dull. And not a lot happened, at all. Reading started the game like a team who had lost their last four games - nervy and tentative.
Throughout the entire game in fact, the players seemed more focused on making sure they didn't do anything wrong rather than trying to do something good - which may have been a bit of a blessing in disguise, as I don’t think any of us could’ve got through another game with several individual mistakes.
The game was always going to be a matter of getting back to the basics that made us such a good team in the opening parts of the season. Solid, mature and no-nonsense at the back while still looking threatening and clinical going forward. I think we did the first half of that well, but struggled with the second bit all evening.
We all know The Den by now, and even when there aren't thousands of fans singing(?) “Miiiiiiilllllllllllllll” for 90 minutes, it’s still a difficult place to go and play football. It might just be me, but the pitch there always looks bobbly and uneven? Anyway, it showed as we struggled to create anything of serious note until after the interval.
Even though we did show defensive improvement in the first half, we still managed to find a way to go into half time 1-0 down as Jed Wallace planted his free kick into the upper echelons. Fair play. However, it was never a free kick in a million years, unless my eyes were deceiving me.
Then came the change that shouldn’t have had to be a change. Michael Olise should’ve started the game and I still don't know why he didn’t. Pauno has seemed hell bent on starting Alfa Semedo in the number 10 position, and for all the qualities Semedo has, he just isn’t suited for that position. He’s a square peg in a round hole.
Olise certainly proved a point. As soon as he came on, we started to look a lot more threatening - that is no coincidence. Olise came over to the left-hand side as Ovie moved into the middle, and it worked for the time being.
It worked so much that Olise managed to bag himself an assist, dinking a ball through to Lucas Joao who duly dispatched the equaliser. Joao was virtually non existent up until that point, but he proved his irreplaceable importance to this team once again.
After that, I was quite disappointed with us to be honest. For five or 10 minutes after the goal we really looked like going on to grab a winner, but we did that without really managing to create another clear-cut chance. And credit to Millwall, the hosts managed to worm their way back into the game and put us back on the back foot.
As we began to tire, which several of our players did, we looked more than happy to soak up the pressure and see out the draw - which, to me, showed that the team that we loved watching in the first eight games is not a distant memory.
Our entire early season success was based upon our ability to defend resolutely and soak up pressure. We did that again against Millwall, for the first time since our last league victory, but we just didn't pack the sucker punch that we’ve dealt out so many times already this campaign.
Rafael popped up with two key saves in the second half to cement his place as Reading’s number one (was that ever seriously in doubt though?) as we went on to pick up our first point from a losing position - which I think is much more important than a lot of people realise.
We’ll only know the true importance of this result come circa 2:30pm on Saturday afternoon. If the players back this up with a win against Bristol City, happy days. If they don’t, the clouds will continue to hover over our season.