It couldn’t have been a much faster start.
Andy Rinomhota played the ball inside to John Swift, who took a touch before slipping it delightfully through the Charlton defence back to the academy graduate, now in the box and ready to shoot. But before he could do so, Deji Oshilaja barged into the back of him to force him into the ground. Penalty.
George Puscas stepped up, confidently converting straight down the middle as Dillon Phillips dived to his right. With less than three minutes on the clock, it was the earliest goal Reading had scored all season. After Tuesday’s bore draw with Huddersfield, it was a pleasant surprise to see the Royals start on the front foot, and the move to win the spot-kick was one of the most impressive attacking passages post-lockdown.
That was, unfortunately, pretty much as good as it got going forwards all afternoon. That’s not to say that the rest of the game was bad, Reading saw out the win after all, but it was hardly the performance that the encouraging opening had promised.
After going in front, the Royals had just one more shot on target in the entire game - Yakou Meite’s weak header from a corner - and no shots at all after the 28th minute. George Puscas and then Sam Baldock became isolated in the lone striker role, a predicament we are becoming increasingly used to seeing.
Part of the problem was simply that the team’s creative players weren’t creating. Michael Olise replaced Jordan Obita in the starting line-up and was full of energy but no end product, whilst there was little joy for Yakou Meite on the right either. Equally, Swift was comfortable in midfield and played a few nice passes, but it was hardly a mastermind performance that would have got Sheffield United or Leeds United salivating.
To combat this offensive deficiency, Mark Bowen did not attempt to liven the attack up with substitute forwards Garath McCleary and Lucas Boye, but rather he just abandoned the whole concept of attacking at all. Jordan Obita, Omar Richards, Chris Gunter and Liam Moore were all brought on at various points, meaning Reading ended the match with three centre-backs, three left-backs and one right-back on the pitch. Niche.
In their defensive shape, there is very little to criticise Reading for, which is perhaps unsurprising considering they are coached by two former defenders in Bowen and John O’Shea. Michael Morrison has become an unsung hero over the course of the season, and was imperious again at centre-back, winning everything in the air and putting in a couple of vital blocks. Alongside him, youngsters Gabriel Osho and Tom McIntyre have shone since coming into the side for the last three games. Gunter and Moore, who have lost their places to the academy duo, deserve a mention too, as they were equally solid when they came on with 15 minutes to go.
Charlton, desperate for even a point, piled on the pressure in the latter stages with a number of crosses and balls into the box, but a combination of strong defending and poor finishing helped Reading see the game out.
It is worth admitting that Reading got pretty lucky with the officiating on a couple of occasions. Chuks Aneke had the ball in the back of the net midway through the first half but was flagged offside, yet a second look suggested that the Charlton striker was almost certainly not. Then with five minutes to go in the game, Obita bundled Jake Forster-Caskey over in the box in a suspiciously man-handle like manner. Instead of pointing to the spot, the referee booked Forster-Caskey for diving. “We’ve been robbed twice today” tweeted Charlton’s official club account. It’s hard to argue otherwise.
The big question is how satisfied one can be with that game. The result is undeniably a good one - a win is a win as the cliché goes, and a third consecutive clean sheet is not to be sniffed at. Three points confirms mathematical survival, boosts hopes of a top half finish and means that the Royals will achieve their third best points total in the Championship since relegation seven years ago.
Yet there is still a niggling feeling that this game could have amounted to so much more than a 1-0 win secured by an early goal and some late backs to the wall defending. After such a quick start, why did Reading not attempt to build on their lead? Why was there such a disregard for attacking so early in the game? Why, when the result doesn’t really matter, was there not more of an emphasis on experimentation?
Mark Bowen may not have a defined style of play, but his philosophy is overwhelmingly defensive. A harsher critic may even label it negative. If it gets Reading promoted next season then there will be few people complaining. But it will not be a season for the purists.