Apologies for the cliched title, but that’s the biggest takeaway from Reading’s 1-0 loss to Luton Town. Yes, we may be out of the FA Cup, having against been knocked out of a competition for the second time this season by the Hatters, but the Royals’ young talent gave us real cause to be optimistic for the future.
Attentive to the need to rest his senior side, Veljko Paunovic made nine changes to the team that started at Huddersfield Town a week ago. Sone Aluko and Tom McIntyre were the only survivors from that XI, and although there were a few other faces that have featured a fair amount this season, Reading had no shortage of new prospects on the pitch at Kenilworth Road.
Oli Pendlebury was handed his debut in the middle of the park, while Jeriel Dorsett and Jayden Onen started at centre half and out wide respectively for the first time. There were also debuts for Conor Lawless and Mamadi Camara off the bench late on, while Dejan Tetek and Nahum Melvin-Lambert once more came on from the bench.
What’s more, the fact that we’re now able to talk about some youngsters on the day - like Luke Southwood, Tom McIntyre and Michael Olise - as relatively experienced heads in situations like this shows how well the academy production line has been churning in recent years. All in all, 14 of the Royals’ 18-man squad had come through the academy.
Reading’s young side put in a commendable display. Granted, Luton were on top for large spells of the first half and Reading struggled to open the Hatters up for really clear-cut opportunities as they chased an equaliser after the break, but no one appeared out of place at this level. Pauno would have been looking for composed, steady performances as signs that he could trust these academy lads in the future, and he got that.
The manager often talks about the culture he wants to develop at the club - in practical terms meaning plenty of spirit and hard work shown throughout a game, even when Reading are trailing. On the basis of how this rookie team fought back from a below-par first half to boss the second period, and to keep going until the very end, that culture runs deep.
The first half was a scrappy period, low on quality from either side, but one that Luton had the better of. Reading struggled to get going in the first 20 minutes or so as the Hatters penned them in effectively, stifling any attempts to convincingly break out on the counter or build possession.
Although the Royals did ease the pressure somewhat, Luton had plenty of joy throughout the first half down their right. As Matthew Williamson highlighted on Twitter at the break, Hatters right back James Bree stayed wide when Reading were defending narrowly. This meant Bree had plenty of space to work in down that side - to the extent that he could loft in a cross on the half-hour mark that George Moncur volleyed home.
Reading did manage to grow into the game towards the end of the half. Aluko and Pendlebury had efforts wide and saved respectively, while Olise showed his creative spark in the final minutes before the break.
Although Danny Hylton had a good chance to double the hosts’ lead, only for Luke Southwood to smother the ball before it could be knocked into the net from a few yards out, the second half was pretty much all Reading. Alfa Semedo, Tomas Esteves, Michael Olise and Sam Baldock were among those to come close with efforts from range, some of which were nearly converted on the follow-up.
The crucial point there was where Reading were shooting from. Although the visitors were working Simon Sluga, those long-range efforts would have had to be something special to beat him. What the Royals really needed was a target man to work off, thereby allowing the attacking trio to play more intricate moves and get in behind Luton. Baldock very much isn’t that striker.
Reading’s best chance of the afternoon came in different circumstances to the bulk of the second-half opportunities. Esteves was particularly influential after the break, often driving infield through the middle while Onen stayed wide, and the two combined to create a glorious opportunity for Aluko. Onen played Esteves in behind down the right after Reading overloaded that side, and the young right back drilled a low cross in for Aluko... only for it to be smashed against the woodwork.
It was a true sitter, and one that you’d back anyone to score. Even I would have converted it and I can’t run for 20 seconds without getting out of breath. Maybe Aluko overthought it; he had plenty of time to work out what to do with the loose ball before it arrived at his boot and perhaps he was caught between power and placement. In situations like that, going off pure instinct is typically better.
Whether motivated more by a genuine attempt at winning the game or wanting to try out new players, Paunovic made four substitutes late on: Tetek, Lawless, Camara and Melvin-Lambert were all introduced for senior players (Aluko, Semedo, Olise and Baldock respectively). Those changes ended the momentum that Reading had built up in the second half to that point - especially as the last three of them came in a triple swap.
Reading were however able to create two more great opportunities late on - both in the same move. Melvin-Lambert was set free and only had the keeper to beat, but couldn’t keep his effort under the bar, and Onen put the follow-up over the top. Both should have scored in, but went agonisingly close.
It would have been a deserved finish for a Reading side that more than held its own, and probably deserved to win - based on the volume of chances created after the break. The Royals finished the match with 18 shots (7 on target) to Luton’s 8 (4 on target). It wasn’t to be, but Reading can still come away from this game with their heads held high.
In truth, Paunovic will probably be very pleased with how the afternoon panned out. A host of first-team players got a well-earned rest, their younger counterparts demonstrated that they’ll be useful options in the future - perhaps off the bench this season, and exiting the FA Cup means a less congested fixture list in the weeks to come.