Admittedly, I had a slight nagging doubt at the back of my mind this morning. The return of Reading fans for the lunchtime kick-off against Nottingham Forest was billed as a really special day and rightly so: Sky Sports viewers had the privilege of watching the first game at the Madejski Stadium with non-cardboard fans in attendance (!) since March. Would the Royals’ performance live up to the occasion, or - in Burton Albion 2017 fashion, would it crash and burn?
I needn’t have worried. Reading’s 2-0 win was one of the most comfortable and drama-free victories you’ll see from the Royals at the Mad Stad. As with the 1-1 draw against Sheffield Wednesday in the week, Reading benefitted from a red card - although in this card it came seconds before we opened the scoring, rather than some time after the opposition had done so.
Ryan Yates’ sending-off, just 14 minutes into the contest, meant the game was only going to go one way. Forest were always going to find it difficult against us, given their low position in the table, and accordingly play a reactionary game - trying to contain and frustrate us rather than being more proactive - but the red card cemented that.
Whatever their game plan at 1-0 was, it didn’t have an impact. Reading were dominant in terms of individual ability, work rate, energy, organisation and spirit, meaning the visitors never threatened to gain a proper foothold in the match. It’s that side of our game that really impressed me: despite our position in the table and winning position, there was never any sense that Reading would rest on their laurels, lose focus and assume the game was already won.
Credit in that regard is due all over the pitch. Although midfield ball-winners Josh Laurent and Andy Rinomhota were the obvious examples of Royals getting stuck in (as they always are), the work rate and focus everywhere was clear to see. Pauno’s “non-negotiables” pay dividends.
Excellent team spirit is also that bit easier to come by when there’s a home crowd roaring you on. Although there were only 2,000 Loyal Royals in the East Stand, it felt from Y23 like there were a lot more; the returning supporters’ boisterous attempts to create an atmosphere - despite the lack of numbers - meant it felt like an away day.
It’s the random little moments from the fans around you that really make match day what it is. Whether it was the familiar shout of “you’re sh*t... AARRGGHHH!!” when the Forest ‘keeper took a goal kick, Anthony Knockaert being booed (as he always is by Reading fans), attempts to get Pauno to wave to the supporters (he obliged on the second attempt after being told by someone on the bench) or the jubilation of celebrating a goal that’s been scored in front of your own eyes... we’ve taken it all for granted and I’m so glad it’s back.
Anyway, I digress.
Reading’s dominance of proceedings meant they could look to build on the 16th-minute lead through Lucas Joao’s penalty. That looked most likely in the Royals’ free-flowing, dangerous spell shortly after the opening goal, with Michael Olise and Ovie Ejaria both particularly key in Reading turning the screw on Forest. However, they couldn’t unlock the opposition enough to double the Royals’ advantage; Olise found Yakou Meite in behind for Reading’s best chance from open play in the game, but Meite lacked composure and blasted his shot off target.
It’s telling though that, for all Reading’s possession (we finished on 65%) and territory, it was a set piece that created the second goal. Olise found Michael Morrison with a vicious out-swinging corner, with the veteran centre half gratefully nodding the ball home for 2-0 on 53 minutes. It’s his second of the season, and on both occasions he’s been assisted by Olise.
From open play, although I would hardly say Reading were toothless, we lacked the ruthlessness to really put Forest to the sword in the second half. The Royals couldn't quite find that cutting edge from team moves to unlock Forest, get in behind and create clear-cut opportunities.
I’d put that down to two things. The first isn’t too much of a problem: Reading took their foot off the gas somewhat at 2-0, making sure they retained their control of the game but without really playing like they wanted to put Forest to the sword and score four or five goals. Given the accumulation of games and fatigue that we’ve had recently and will continue to have for some time, conserving energy is a good idea.
Pauno even made sure to give his key players a slight breather. Omar Richards, Olise, Ejaria, Meite and Joao were all off the pitch by the 86th minute, meaning there was a bit of game time for Lewis Gibson (at left back for the first time!), Sone Aluko, Tomas Esteves, Alfa Semedo and Sam Baldock.
The second issue is more problematic: this Reading side doesn’t really know how to break down teams that sit in a low block and invite pressure. We saw that at Hillsborough, particularly in the second half, and a similar theme emerged at the Mad Stad on Saturday. In fact, the Royals registered just one shot on target from open play in the second half - an Olise effort from outside the box shortly before the corner for 2-0.
Being able to do that isn’t easy, and it’s an issue that’s reared its head on numerous occasions at this club in the post-Premier League years. But it’ll become a more frequent occurrence in the weeks and months to come as an increasing number of opposing teams realise that sitting off Reading and staying compact is the best way of getting a result. Improvements in this regard are necessary.
On this occasion though, it wasn’t a problem. Reading got the job done and made it look easy.