They say it’s the optimism that kills you as a football fan. I beg to differ; it’s apathy and that’s been a common feeling in the last few years as a Reading fan.
So we may just be three games into the new season, and it is still too soon to know whether replacing Mark Bowen with Veljko Paunović was a masterstroke, but let’s enjoy the moment. After all, it’s 2020! Did you sing “we’re top of the league” in your living room, because I did!?
The consensus before the game was that the trip to Cardiff was Reading’s toughest game of the season. In the end, even the most biased Cardiffian would find it hard to disagree that the Royals were deserved winners.
Reading were dealt a blow before kick off when John Swift was ruled out. According to Jonathan Low, the midfielder may be out of action for a while due to a hamstring injury. Of course, as everyone who watched the game on iFollow knows, Tim Dellor did warn us not to trust everything we see on social media, so good luck with your move to Sheffield United John!
As the game started, I was probably not the only spectator who initially thought there was something wrong with my screen. For the whole of the first 45 minutes one half of the pitch was in a shadow that on screen was barely watchable. On many an occasion, Reading’s players were near invisible to me in their dark red away kit.
Thankfully, one neat move involving Lucas João and a penalty incident (that was clearly not a penalty) with Michael Olise, it did not matter. There was little between the teams in the first half, though the Reading fan in me thought we just about edged it.
That in itself was progress from last season given Cardiff reached the play-offs. It was good to see Reading look a solid outfit who had the potential to cause trouble. João came closest for the away side following his deadly combo of strength and skill. Cardiff’s one decent chance came through ex-Royal Sean Morrison’s header from a corner.
The second half was only a minute old when Reading took the lead. Olise’s superb free kick headed home by Michael Morrison. Cardiff twice went close through a Will Vauk’s drive and a deflected Leandro Bacuna shot that Rafael had to save with his feet.
Those half chances aside, it was Reading who were in control and were clearly the better side. On 65 minutes they got a deserved second, when they again won the ball back in midfield and a swift counter attack saw Josh Laurent play in João, who twisted and turned, before firing past Alex Smithies.
This game was another example in the importance of João to this Reading team. Not since Jason Roberts has one player’s presence improved the Royals so much. His ability to hold the ball up and bring teammates into the game is vital to Reading. His strength and the way he can turn on a sixpence to get a shot away means the opposition can never rest.
Unfortunately with four minutes to go he picked up a shoulder injury that forced him off. We can only hope that was down to precaution. Losing him, Swift, Yakou Méïté and Felipe Araruna, who also both went off injured, would be a big blow to a Reading squad, already without Andy Yiadom, that is now so small that we had three centre backs on the bench.
Before João left the pitch, Cardiff did pull a goal back through Lee Tomlin. That was the first league goal that Reading have conceded all season, but one of the most pleasing aspects of this display was Cardiff’s inability to create a decent chance all game from open play.
Reading’s nerves were tested when the referee somehow found nine minutes of injury time. In recent years Reading have struggled to see out games, but this time they passed the test with flying colours. Notable mentions should go to Tom Holmes and George Pușcaș who combined to win a number of throw-ins and free kicks in the Cardiff corner.
So three wins out of three! This is the first time that Reading have ever managed three straight wins at the start of the season in the second tier of English football.
Before the game, Paunović has said that, while happy with the results in his first two league games, he still saw room for improvement. That was a sentiment I felt watching this match. Reading were solid in defence, but there were still times when they showed their inexperience in possession and could have been more decisive.
Ovie Ejaria and Olise still have a tendency to hold onto the ball too long, in the first half Araruna and Laurent occasionally sold each other short, and Yakou Méïté would not be Yakou Méïté if he did not trip over himself at some point in the match. On the other hand Méïté, Ejaria and Olise all made fools of Cardiff players, so we know the potential individually is exciting in this young team.
It was clear from opposition managers’ comments last season about Reading that there is a lot of talent and potential in this squad. Whilst historically Reading have tended to be more than the sum of their parts, in recent years it has felt like we were better on paper than reality.
Cardiff are a physical side but Reading were never bullied. Strong in defence, flair in midfield and one of the Championship’s best strikers is a nice mix. Our next game against recently relegated Watford will show how optimistic we should be.
There was a joke going around Europe in the summer asking “what borders stupidity?” The answer: “Wales and Scotland!” Reading may be heading back to stupidity, but in one corner of it the locals do not need to feel stupid for being optimisitc, because “we are top of the league!”