I’ll cut to the chase and say that this won’t be positive. Regular readers will know that I’ve always tried to put a positive spin on performances and events at the Reading Megadome, but what I witnessed at this game won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
After the Leeds game, I mentally blocked out the next chunk of matches. Looking down the list, they were comfortable for us and seemed to provide enough opportunities for us to get well away from the relegation chaos, start thinking about next year and maybe get on another cup run in the shape of reaching the QFs. Wigan at home is easily the ‘most Championship’ game of the season, a fixture that is pretty sure to yield maximum points.
Leading up to the game, I was confident and happy we’d do this. There was no reason to think otherwise based on the context of the season where we’d done OK against teams around us, particularly at home. I left the house just before 7pm and got to the car park in record time (17 minutes, which is incredible). As I sped down the A33 (and no, I did not break the speed limit because I am neither a criminal nor a lunatic) I pondered the set up for the team.
Upon arriving at the car park (I paid in cash, again) I checked the news outlets for the team line up and to my horror, it appeared as though we were due to play 4-4-2. I will die on my sword for this, but this does not work with this group of players and it never will and I will fight literally anyone who disagrees. To my actual horror and to further intensify the feelings of doubt and concern that were rising in me like an obese chap’s cholesterol level, Araruna appeared to be playing on the right hand side of a four-man midfield.
At that point, I should have just got back into the car and gone home, had a bath and watched ‘Better Call Saul’ (series five currently streaming on Netflix). But no, I continued my stroll up the path towards the stadium. I was distracted slightly and temporarily by a bus dressed as a tiger (when I say dressed, I mean decorated). I don’t like buses, never have done, but this was bloody impressive, with realistic stripes in all the right places and aptly named ‘The Tiger’.
I got into the stand around 7.30, eager to soak up the atmosphere like a giant Berkshire-based sponge. Except there was no atmosphere. Perhaps the ongoing threats of snow, coronavirus and flash floods were keeping people away. Perhaps they didn’t want to see Wigan play. Perhaps they’d seen the team sheet before they’d left the house and decided instead to stick on repeats of ‘Gavin and Stacey’.
In the warm up, I noticed Rafa’s smart new haircut. But nagging thoughts still troubled me like an unpaid tax bill (I don’t have an unpaid tax bill). A sense of foreboding doom so strong could only mean one thing: maybe we wouldn’t win. Maybe we’d mess it all up. A win would have allowed us some breathing space, anything else would just pile the pressure on immensely.
From the kick off, the Dolan was negative. Wigan went for the big stuff early and set their stall out, Moore (Kieffer, not Liam) putting himself about and doing the ugly stuff well. So much so that he opened the scoring on 23 minutes, a goal that should have been dealt with from the cross but wasn’t, allowing him to fool everyone and backheel the white sphere into the onion bag. What was mild negativity threatened to break out into ugly, mindless violence as the Dolan was left reeling by this setback. So too were the players who immediately froze and began making even the most basic of errors. The players we’d relied on so much throughout the season (Pelé, Swift, Morrison) became strangers to themselves, their teammates and the fans by behaving as if they were on work experience.
As half time approached, I left my seat and slipped down to the concourse. I didn’t actually need anything, I just needed some air, like a dramatic middle aged woman at a party held in a stuffy community (or village) hall. I ended getting some chips from The Chipsmyth. They were great, really great actually, but I’m not going to go into detail because I’ve got bigger fish to fry in this article.
The chips had made me slightly dehydrated, so I queued for a bottle of water (£2.40, excellent). As I did so an older fan, resplendent in current replica shirt, Elm Park-era badge bobble hat, play-off final scarf and brown leather jacket began chatting to me. He suggested that this type of game just needed experience all over the pitch and it was hard to argue at that point. I may or may not have tweeted that the club should fold immediately and settled back into my seat for a surely more positive second 45.
Pelé and Araruna were hooked for Olise (should have started) and Adam (also should have started, maybe). They made little or no impact on the game, Olise marginally better than Adam. Around the 55-minute mark, I actually heard someone say “it’s because Gunter is injured”. This made me LOL inside my head (spoiler alert: my upcoming opinion piece is about Chris Gunter the Bionic Man) as I imagined our new Kenyan fans on Facebook doing their nut over a similar line of thought around Masika.
On 67 minutes, things became farcical. Wigan scored with a fluke shot it has to be said, but the shot itself nestled inside Rafa’s left hand post. Cue bedlam in the away end (if 20 people can actually cause bedlam) and exits being used by some Reading fans. Club 1871 began singing how rubbish we were (in a bit more colour) before we had our first real shot on target which tested the keeper on the 75th minute.
Just to repeat that: it had taken us 75 minutes to force a shot which we genuinely could have scored from, a full 25 minutes before the end of the game. Reading that back makes me want to vomit in my mouth. It was at this point that I left. I can’t tell what you happened after that because I didn’t listen to the radio, speak to anyone or acknowledge my existence as a Reading fan. I drove home in a silent fury, threw my season ticket in the bin, got in the shower and tried to forget about my night (except the Tiger Bus). After my shower, I calmly collected both my thoughts and my season ticket and made my way to bed. It was just before 10pm.
Before I went to sleep, I made the cardinal sin of going on Twitter, reading one tweet criticising Bowen for not using his third sub. In his defence, they were all so unbelievable shocking his hardest decision would have been who to take off. As I mentioned earlier, Wigan at home is so very Championship. It is so basic in its existence that it’s harder to lose it than win.
In the context of our season, this performance is very difficult to explain. But here’s the rub: Reading have failed to win these types of games over the last four/five years, which is the main reason for the dreadful league finishes, poor consistency and veritable conveyor belt of managers. Over Christmas, I was telling anyone who would listen that we were going up, simple as that. Since that golden of all golden periods, we have collapsed like a warm Easter egg. We’ve lost the intensity, the desire, the know how and the presence to get three points regularly.
Make no mistake, we are now in a relegation battle and the first game in that survival quest starts at home on Saturday against a team who are bang in form. History under Bowen tells us that the team are capable of a reaction after a poor performance, but the players need to want it, step up and do their individual jobs properly. If they don’t, God help the them if they put out another performance like that again.