After what has so far been the most exciting start to a Reading season in years, it appears the Royals’ injury crisis is beginning to expose the cracks in the squad’s depth. Reading’s depleted squad put in a shift in the second half against Brentford, but still it looks like 2020 is going to end with a tough Christmas period for the Royals!
Let’s take a little Holiday pause from those worries. Cast your mind back to this time last year. After beginning the 2019/20 season on such a high of optimism, Reading looked set for another uncertain year with Mark Bowen parachuting himself in to fix the disorganised mess Jose Gomes left behind. This little four-game streak though turned out to be a great holiday surprise!
It showed off the best Bowen’s Reading team could be, featured great goals of all varieties and even included a starring role for a late-stage Charlie Adam. So with fond memories of the Madejski Stadium reindeer in your mind, let me take you on a Christmas vacation through the best period of the 2019/20 season.
December 21st: Derby’s lack of discipline
I was at this game, and the main thing I remember is just how lucky Derby were to keep TEN men on the pitch! Derby ended the game with eight yellow cards and a red, and if it happened at a more competitive point in the match, you could’ve reasonably expected that Forsyth would have been sent off for his last-ditch challenge that led to our second penalty.
Reading weren’t fantastic in this game: they actually had fewer shots than a Derby side that was down to 10 for over 85 minutes. The game was notable for a lesser-spotted feature of Reading formations: two men up front! They were even a classic little-and-big-man combo, with Lucas Joao and Sam Baldock both getting the call. Yakou Meite filling in on the right-hand side of a midfield diamond meant the usually defensive-minded Bowen gave us three starting strikers in the 11!
After an early Meite run caused alarm bells to sound in the Derby defence, Yakou was cynically chopped down by Malone for an obvious penalty and Derby were down to 10 men. Adam stepped up to dispatch a very professional finish into the back of the net. This Christmas run was certainly Adam’s best contribution to the team last year as he faded once the results took a turn again, and Pele secured the starting spot.
Still, for these two weeks, Adam looked like the man who was promoted with Blackpool: pulling strings in midfield with a delightful mix of accurate long balls and clinical short passes around the box. Adam was never going to be a Reading legend, but I remember his Christmas-time contribution fondly.
Another who had a great Christmas run was Joao. His smart finish on 58 minutes against Derby helped to calm the nerves against a team that was still attacking, and his run into the box that earned our second penalty and third goal of the day sealed the deal. Unlike Adam, Joao’s form at this time has turned out to be a small taste of the deadly finishing the Portuguese has unleashed this year. Hopefully the rumors of Joao’s possible involvement against Luton Town on Boxing Day are true and he can create some more happy Christmas memories for all of us!
December 26th: Swift wonder goal vs QPR
Boxing Day football was a mixed bag last decade. In fact, this tight result against QPR (deja vu?) was our first Boxing Day win in three years and one of only three from 2010-2019. This one is memorable thanks to Rafael’s fantastic reaction saves towards the end, one of which was from Eze’s brilliant turn and shot in the box, and of course, THAT goal from Swift.
This was a tightly contested match from the start: Ovie Ejaria and Swift both came close early on during the same sequence, but couldn’t get the better of Lumley in goal. Swift would get a second chance later on from almost the exact same spot on the field however, and this time Lumley stood no chance.
The ball is cleared out of the box after a Reading corner. Swift is in the right place at the right time to control the ball with one touch, and then send the sweetest screamer you ever saw slicing into the top corner. It’s a fantastic goal and a moment of quality that makes you really miss Swift’s presence on the pitch, but also excited for what he could add to this year’s competitive team. Seeing #10 on the subs bench on Saturday as has been rumored would be the best Christmas gift possible for Reading fans!
Rafael made a string of fantastic reaction saves towards the end of this game that truly highlight his best qualities. He may not be able to remember his best one though, as the force of impact was quite something! Minutes from the end, Hugill made powerful contact with a cross within the six-yard box. The sheer momentum would’ve beaten many keepers but Rafael employed an innovative solution to stop the cannonball: his own face.
Hugill was astounded and lay prostrate in disbelief for some time after. Rafael seemed to be ok: he punched the air shortly after the save was made, though nobody would blame him if he was swinging at imaginary opponents!
December 29th: Glimpses of Joao’s potential
First things first. I’m unsure if this is a controversial opinion in the Reading universe, but I loved this away shirt. I have my own, with Swift emblazoned on the back, and both the home and away kit both this year and last year has really made the transition from Puma to Macron feel less like the downgrade it did at the time of the announcement. Anyway, I suppose a game was played as well, and this game marked the first of two great results Reading picked up while their own goal was being peppered.
Despite the heavy workload for Rafael, Reading were 2-0 up in a flash in this game. Firstly with some fantastic passing and quick footwork from Swift to shift the ball across his body and finish. Secondly with a powerful shot from Joao, driven across the goal. Ejaria hit the post with a fantastic effort and we thought we had a third with Joao bundling home the rebound. Unfortunately the offside flag was raised, and Joao was denied a brace.
It’s hardly surprising that this game both began and ended with great saves from Rafael. He was so alert for the entirety of this run and it’s likely where much of the goodwill from independent outlets (including The Athletic) came from when placing him right at the top in their end-of-season rankings last year. His final save in this match was the polar opposite of his nose-stinging reaction save against QPR, as he calmly sat on Clarke’s close-range shot (literally) to end Preston’s threat.
A banner game for Joao that certainly showed us glimpses of his personal future, but the flow of play also tipped us off to the type of storm Reading would have to weather in their next game.
January 1st: The pick of the bunch
Reading fans could’ve been forgiven at the end of the first day of 2020 for thinking that it was about to be a fantastic year! The Royals recorded arguably their win of the season at Craven Cottage, with a performance that left Bowen “disappointed we conceded a goal” (he always was “defensive-minded”). This was a game between a lowly opponent and a high-flying promotion challenger, and it began that way, with Rafael pulling off a remarkable triple save from Mitrovic, Decordova-Reid… and Decordova-Reid again!
Reading’s midfield flowed dangerously going forward however, with Adam again pulling strings from deep. Elsewhere in the midfield, Swift and Ejaria joined up multiple times in a play that ended with Reading’s fine first goal: featuring a finish that Swift virtually passed into the net.
A second Holiday period goal from Adam contributed further to the effort from midfield, with the Scot chugging into the box and powering home at the end of a slick move. Both Reading goals had come from similar places on the field, but Adam’s was certainly the more agricultural finish of the two. Joao then came close to continuing his brilliant holiday season, but was denied at close range by a speedy save from Rodak.
Fulham then turned things up a few notches, as a team now in the Premier League will do from time to time. It’s likely here that Rafael truly sealed his position as the fans’ player of the season last year, as he was called into action repeatedly before the end of the game. First, he got down quickly to meet Cavaleiro’s corner-seeking missile, and finally he jumped high to pluck Mitrovic’s looping header away.
Exhausted but happy, Reading ended the game with 28% possession, but all three points!
Happy Holidays to all from myself!
While it’d be nice to be writing from the play-off positions right now, it’s fantastic to see this team playing good football again. It certainly wouldn’t be out of line to expect the team to bounce back after the injuries.