Light always follows darkness, this is fact. Resurrections are nothing new. Indeed, the greatest piece of fiction ever written tells us that a chap called Jesus rose from the dead in spectacular fashion. The large question of the week (well, since around 10pm on Wednesday night anyway) for Royals fans was whether Reading could produce their own resurrection to prove that they weren’t just a massive bunch of let downs, part-time footballers and that they weren’t just at the club to enjoy superb car leasing rates from premium sponsor Select Cars.
The morning of the game saw every form of weather imaginable, certainly in Upper Tilehurst anyway. Rain, wind, bright sunshine, sleet and then grey cloud appeared in the sky over the good County. Would this be a twisted metaphor for the goings on at the Berkshire Stadium come 3pm? Would those Tykes from Yorkshire come down and cast a misery spell over the club like Wigan did so superbly on Wednesday night? The only thing that was 100% sure was that changes would be made to the starting 11. They had to be. Who came in and who dropped out remained to be seen, but deep down, Mark Bowen must have known that he couldn’t get away with fielding the same team after the utter horror show served up against the Latics.
I’d be lying if I said I’d not been on Twitter more, sulked more, or panicked that little bit extra about football-related topics more since Wednesday evening. If you weren’t there, it’s easy to get the sense of absolute despair caused by the result. Reading fans are excellent at drama, but it was truly abysmal. My instant response was that it was a shock in terms of the season, but not from a recent history point of view. Indeed, a wonderful article by our own Tom Harrow-Smith sharing some of the statistics from the last 10 seasons confirmed that the poor home form and performances are nothing new. The most important thing on Saturday was the reaction and the three points.
The journey to the stadium was straightforward enough. The train from Tilehurst was sparsely populated, as was Reading Station and the queue for the bus. While people waited to get on, the bus behind shocked everyone in the vicinity by sounding its panic alarm involuntarily, filling the damp air with loud screeches of “this bus is being attacked, call 999 immediately” repeatedly. The sudden alarm startled everyone, not least the three Reading Transport employees who scrambled toward the empty vehicle in a desperate bid to quieten it. Was this an omen for the game ahead?
Panic over, our double decker made its way along the A33 towards the Mad Stad. I became aware of a conversation between two fans who were pension-age gentlemen. They were both talking about Our Saviour Mark Bowen and how they felt he couldn’t motivate the team, how he was tactically clueless and that Reading were “really pissing boring”. Aside from the hilarity caused by the last sentence (doesn’t even make sense you plonkers!) I disagreed with everything they said, but I kept my counsel because I’d been taught from an early age to respect my elders and not question people with noses that appear to be ravaged by the affects of excessive consumption of ‘proper’ alcohol, and voices that sound like they have been eating cigarettes since the age of five.
As I left the bus, I was alerted to the news that there were five changes to the starting 11 and in truth, the players dropping out could have no complaints. At first glance, I felt it was ballsy of Bowen to leave out Liam Moore, but I then found out he had been ill in the lead up to the game. Rino deserved his chance and it appeared that The Welsh Pep had gone with a more attacking and fluid 4-5-1 scenario and that Swift would be the middle man of that five. I personally prefer it when he is more advanced and not too deep, but it would be interesting to see how it would pan out over the course of the 90.
I made way my across the car park and into the hotel to meet my long-time friend Milan. He had his kids with him and we chatted about all the large topics: Coronavirus, commuting to London (which I don’t do), Lego Star Wars, family SUVs and LOL dolls (he has a boy and a girl and so I needed to find common ground with both). He’d taken them to Smyths Toy Superstore on the industrial estate before the game as bribery to sit through 90 minutes of probably really crappy football and, foolishly, he’d allowed his son to buy a Power Rangers sword.
This, as you can imagine, sent the stewards on gate five into an absolute meltdown. Several opinions were needed by the very serious folks in orange jackets who eventually concluded that the sword was a) not a risk to anyone on account of it being made in entirely of plastic and b) that although it was an unusual item to bring into the seated bowl, it didn’t actually appear on the ‘prohibited items’ list published by the club.
Sword and humans safely in, we missed the savagery of the final flurry of sleet as the teams made their way out into a chilly and windswept stadium. Reading started well without posing any real threat to the Barnsley goal. The fans were in good voice and Bowen looked reasonably relaxed on the touchline, unlike his counterpart in the visitors dugout who appeared to be dressed in fancy dress and jumped around like he was in panto.
Gerhard Struber, the Barnsley manager, is also the owner of a name that sounds a bit like a hearty German meal made from potatoes and has a face like a cracked patio. We took the lead just before the halfway point of the first 45, a goal that had it have been scored against us would have seen more ugly seat banging and negative chanting. It was an absolute farce of a goal, but one that we desperately needed to calm everything down.
Reading instantly relaxed and Olise was afforded some space on the wing to get things moving, as was Swift in the middle who was able to create some half chances. George looked lively up front and it appeared it wouldn’t be long before we’d get the vital second goal to kill game. Just before the half was out, Rafa made a wonderful double save and the Royals held their breath both on and off the pitch, the half-time whistle killing the tension and sending everyone down to the concourses happy.
A quick cappuccino and a doughnut which had an edible Reading badge transfer on top of it was consumed. This doughnut, made by Warings Bakery and sold by Anonymous Coffee in an exclusive collaboration, was slightly more dense in texture than the ring doughnut previously eaten from the same people. It also had jam in it, which was a welcome surprise and was very, very sweet. A quick glance of the programme reminded me of the hilarious badge Barnsley used to have with ‘Toby Tyke’ on it (who I believe was supposed to be some sort of bulldog) and the very real struggle I endured when collecting Merlin’s Premier League 98 Sticker Collection in trying to obtain said badge as a shiny sticker.
The second half’s tempo seemed to be set at ‘testimonial’ from both teams as sloppy passing and a lack of attacking urgency belied both teams’ desperate need for points. I noticed that the ball boys/girls were now wearing new bibs which read ‘Please throw me the ball’, as opposed to the ruder, blunter ones they wore towards the end of last season which just said ‘Throw me the ball’. This, I felt, was a nice touch and a bit more respectful.
The same could not be said for a small contingent of Barnsley fans who took it upon themselves to get as high as they could in their stand and goad both the stewards and members of Club 1871. Quite what had gone on remained unclear, but the situation was exasperated by a second goal for Reading, slotted away beautifully by George who had turned his marker magnificently and kept a cool head to double the lead and pretty much seal the deal just before the 60th minute. That kept the stewards up there very busy for the last 30 minutes of the game.
At this point, Bowen relaxed and began changing things up, no doubt with one eye on Tuesday’s FA Cup game. Olise was taken off for GMac and a few minutes later Meite was hooked for Masika. I imagined the keyboard warriors in Nairobi going crazy at his first appearance on Berkshire soil, such was the desperation from them to see him play. He made himself useful and showed some nice touches to bring to life the closing stages of a dull game, but ultimately these flashes of brilliance amounted to nothing and the game wound down without further incident. Club 1871 were in full voice as the final whistle blew and the players trudged off to reset the clock ahead of a game that will surely test them to the limits on Tuesday. You could sense the relief of the result, putting the Royals a full eight points above the dreaded dashed line.
The truth is that we never got out of second gear and had Barnsley been playing until midnight they wouldn’t have scored. If they manage to stay up it will be a miracle as they looked lost and dejected the minute the first goal went in. Reading will have to play a lot better to beat literally anyone else, but the most important thing was the +3 and the reaction to Wednesday.
The large question of the day for me though: would Moore have started had he been fit? Miazga coming back is perfect timing and he looked comfortable in possession, of which he was afforded plenty. Swift made sensible choices and did the defensive work he needed to whilst George looked sharper in the lone role. The decision for Bowen on Tuesday now is largely down to shape and whether he wants to attack rather than nullify our opponents.
As I walked out of the stadium on the final whistle, bright sunshine filled the sky above me. How long that sunshine will last this season is another thing altogether. For now though, I’m just pleased that the dark clouds of this week are gone and we can look forward to Tuesday with a much-needed win under our belts. Light does indeed follow darkness.
Until next time.