Let’s rewind back to the end of October.
Reading were on cloud nine after their 4-2 win against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. This brilliant victory extended the Berkshire side’s lead at the top of the Championship table to seven points going in to the away fixture against Coventry City, in front of the Sky Sports TV cameras.
However, this game didn’t go according to plan.
After going 2-1 down in the second half, Reading were desperate to avoid their first defeat of the season. However, the points for the home side were all but sealed when Sam McCallum’s long range strike was totally misjudged by the Brazilian goalkeeper - and although George Puscas pulled one back for the Royals - it wasn’t enough to prevent defeat.
The shot stopper also faced criticism for his part in the second goal, for not pushing Fantaky Dabo’s shot around the post. Perhaps this was harsh but this was, without doubt, a bad night for him. But now it was time for him to respond - and that is exactly what he did in the following game against Preston North End.
Shortly after half time, he saved Daniel Johnson’s penalty to keep the score at 0-0, although the Royals went on to lose 3-0 that game. But this was the highlight of the game for the home side - and we all thought this would give him the confidence to overcome his earlier error(s) at St Andrew’s - regardless of how poor Johnson’s penalty was.
Despite this, there was one game left to go before the international break. Stoke City were the visitors to Berkshire, as Reading looked to prevent a third consecutive league defeat after being unbeaten in their first eight Championship matches. The home side got off to the worst possible start when Tomas Esteves’ mistake allowed Tyrese Campbell to fire the ball home and make it 1-0 in the 23rd minute - and we had a mountain to climb from there.
At this point, we needed to cut out any further mistakes - but Rafael’s poor ball led to Stoke doubling their lead before half time through Steven Fletcher. In all honesty, we didn’t look like getting back into the game after that - and the squad faced a long wait before their next tie against AFC Bournemouth.
Would the international break give the 30-year-old the opportunity to recharge his batteries and reset his mind? And also allow Veljko Paunovic to adapt the system to minimise any potential goalkeeping mistakes?
Well, he made another notable mistake on the south coast. With the Royals already 3-2 down with just over one minute to go until stoppage time at the end of the game, a mix up between Liam Moore and the Brazilian allowed Dominic Solanke to grab his second and Bournemouth’s four goal of the game. Both Moore and Rafael received criticism - but I’m not sure what the latter was trying to do there. It looked even worse on the replay and a distraught Reading fanbase was left even more dismayed by this howler.
Veljko Paunovic now faced a tough choice.
Would he persist with Rafael who made several mistakes in previous games, yet was one of our best players last season? Or would he give Luke Southwood a go in goal after waiting patiently for his chance? Southwood is an academy graduate after all - and has done very well out on loan at various clubs.
Jonathan Low ran a poll on this to see what Reading fans thought - and as you will see - the results were close with over 1,000 people participating:
Have seen quite a bit of talk among fans about dropping Rafael and giving Southwood a go in goal for #readingfc - keen to gauge the overall mood on this so let's have your views— Jonathan Low (@jonathanl50) November 21, 2020
As far as sample sizes go, that’s pretty decent - but where was I on this issue?
Here are my comments regarding this situation in my match preview for the following game against Millwall:
“In my last preview, I said Rafael needed to cut out silly mistakes if he was to keep Luke Southwood at bay. Unfortunately, he made two completely avoidable errors at the weekend: one in the first half when he dinked the ball in to a precarious position like he did against Stoke - and the one at the end which was punished by Dominic Solanke. For me, he gets one more chance.”
This game proved to be a turning point.
Against all odds and speculation over who would start in between the sticks, Rafael has fought back to show exactly why he was crowned the club’s official player of the season in 2019/20 - and made two tremendous saves against Norwich City in midweek.
Remember: his mistake against Bournemouth came just after the international break with a very busy fixture list ahead of the Royals. This mistake could have easily broken him, especially with the popular Luke Southwood as his understudy, ready to step up to the plate. And for the first time in his Reading career, Rafael’s place in the starting lineup was under severe pressure - something he never really experienced with his consistent performances in his first season in Berkshire.
For now though, the keeper has silenced his critics. Well done Rafael - and well done to Veljko Paunovic for keeping faith in him. Does it say a lot about the morale in the first team squad? I think it does. Let’s just hope he can perform consistently for the foreseeable future - and there’s no doubt he will make mistakes - that’s the nature of the beast when you’re a goalkeeper.
However, a talented keeper breeds confidence in a team - and that’s exactly what Rafael is.
What a bargain.