I’ve been writing this column for a while now and have been lucky (or unlucky) to write on a range of outcomes for the Royals. There have been times when we’ve been utterly shambolic (Wigan at home last season) or outrageously superb (Blackburn away a few weeks ago). Never would I have thought I’d have to write about a 3-0 loss at home that we didn’t deserve. Yes, you read that right: we didn’t deserve it.
Before I go on, I’d just like to make something clear: I hate Stoke. I really, really do. It doesn’t matter who manages them, who plays for them, what season it is, what division they are in. Not even the fact that Joe Allen (one of the most underrated players of our generation) is on their payroll can save them. I’m pretty sure not even Stoke fans actually like them. So the fact we lost to them made me want to be physically sick...
I suppose the first place to start would be the formation set-up. Not sure about anyone else, but I was completely befuddled by the shape and supposed set-up of the team. I understood the team selection in terms of personnel, but my God, how they were supposed to set themselves up was a complete mystery. On top of this, I was amazed that we we were on both “proper” football channels on Sky and yet both featured crowd noise. Why would you do that?! Genuinely?! What’s the point? It’s bad enough we can’t be there, but to have noise from people that don’t exist is just like mocking us really.
It was refreshing however to have commentators that actually knew about the game. Andy Hinchcliffe (Hinchdog to his mates) made the point that the last few days for Reading would have been more about the mind than the body and he’s spot on there. We weren’t awful against Preston, but goals win games (ooooh, cliche time) and we scored none. Indeed, the other chap with the microphone whose name I don’t know was also very good, and I respected him greatly for the words he used about us.
With the early (or earlier than usual) kick-off, my eating clock was all over the place. I’d risen early and consumed breakfast. By the time the game kicked off, I was famished. What I should have done was eaten brunch, a meal made up by middle-class restaurants like Bill’s to encourage 30-something-year-old mothers to begin drinking early whilst eating breakfast food and be appreciated for it by the Instagram generation. I didn’t eat brunch and I regretted it.
Had I been at the Mad Stad, I probably wouldn’t have gone “full lunch” either, so I grabbed a coffee and some cappuccino-flavoured biscuits from Ikea and went upstairs (ah, I forgot to say I watched this game from my bedroom so as not to be disturbed).
Four biscuits in and it didn’t take me long to realise we’d lose this game. I’m not being a negative nelly, but we almost started too quickly, gave all our cards away and let Stoke come at us. Of course, on 23 minutes they made the breakthrough. Some really immature defending from Esteves gave them the goal and then we just began chasing the game. Fletcher (who I really don’t like) knocked another one in 10 minutes before the half time klaxon and that was that.
Half time saw me sit in silence and watch the cat snore on the bed (she’d joined me fairly early on in the half for her midday nap). I looked at the stats but that didn’t make me feel any better about anything at all. I hoped that Pauno was kicking cans of Carabao (I know we aren’t sponsored by them anymore, but still...) and telling everyone to grow up and sort themselves out. We weren’t bad, we were just naive and neglectful.
The second half started and, again, you couldn’t fault our drive and effort. The fight was there, as was the ability, but when you are playing a team who put 11 men behind the ball (fair play to them) it’s always going to be mega tough. There were some subs and a change of shape around the 63rd minute, but it didn’t make much difference other than make everyone realise that we need our key players back soon.
Stoke made it 3-0 (I mean, when in Rome...) and that was Crufts. The worst part about it was that I still had half the day to be annoyed about it. The defending for all three goals was shambolic, really - and that can’t continue. Likewise, not scoring and taking chances puts pressure on the rest of the team and those mistakes only become more apparent. Every single stat from the game said that we were better than Stoke and I would agree with that, but as we’ve seen in the last three games, those statistics mean zilch if we don’t convert the chances.
The fact remains we are still top by a single point. It also serves to show everyone involved that this league is as open as a Tesco in a pandemic. With the international break now upon us, it will give the club valuable time to get players back and allow Pauno to get across his ideas even more and continue to embed the culture that saw us shoot up the league. For me, 4-2-3-1 is still the way forward, but with our best players on the pitch (another cliche, you’re welcome).
The other players on the edges of the squad need to make more of a step up now and learn that system more fully. Although it seems a lifetime away, that game against Bournemouth in two weeks’ time is a real test of not only our credentials but also how much the players want to remain top. It’s up to them to take their chances and get back to winning ways so we can take about wins we deserve rather than losses we don’t.
Until next time.