Reading team: Rowley, Abdul-Salam (Bristow 45’), Ashcroft, Holzman, Stickland © (Abbey 63’(Nyarko 90+1’)), Purcell, Osorio, Scott, Senga, Camara, Ehibhatiomhan
Two splendid strikes from the Royals granted a first league victory since August, sending visitors Middlesbrough under-23s back up the M1 empty-handed.
There were starts for Jack Senga and Hamid Abdul-Salam in place of Malachi Talent-Aryeetey and Kelvin Abrefa, following the latter’s red card against West Bromwich Albion last week. There was also a first league appearance for goalkeeper Matt Rowley, who replaced Harvey Collins between the sticks. In some positive injury-related news, Mehmet Ali also named a bench that included recent absentees Nelson Abbey and Ethan Bristow.
The game got off to a nightmarish start for Reading, with Rowley conceding a penalty in the opening two minutes. The young goalkeeper quickly redeemed himself however, getting a strong palm to the resulting spot kick to keep it out.
Boro were not discouraged by Rowley’s early penalty save, and the visitors did find the opener in the fifth minute. After evading a few Royals defenders, Joe Gibson lashed an effort towards goal that looked to take a deflection before hitting the back of the net.
Reading looked for an equaliser, and a succession of chances came through some dangerous-looking set pieces. The first from Ben Purcell found the head of Claudio Osorio, who was denied brilliantly by the visiting goalkeeper, before Rashawn Scott’s looping free-kick was headed wide by skipper Michael Stickland.
On the half-hour mark Rowley was called into action again – the league debutant got down well at his near post this time to beat away a powerful strike from William Kokolo.
And in the 34th minute, Reading scored the equaliser with a powerful strike of their own. Jack Senga picked the ball up in midfield and drove at the Boro defence, which backed off, giving him an invitation to fire a low, driven shot in to the bottom corner of the visitors’ goal.
If you thought that goal looked nice, we came close to an even better strike just moments later – in the 37th minute, Osorio cut in from the left before unleashing a wicked effort against the crossbar from 20 yards out.
And before we headed in to half-time, there was some fleeting danger in Reading’s box. A crucial block from Louie Holzman prevented a Boro effort from flying towards goal, leading to a roar of approval from his centre-back partner Stickland.
Half-time – Reading U23 1-1 Middlesbrough U23
The second half began with a substitution, as Abdul-Salam was replaced by Ethan Bristow. On one hand it was a shame to see Abdul-Salam go off, as I thought he’d looked good throughout the first half, but equally it was great to see Bristow back in a Reading shirt again following his recent injury spell.
The visitors applied some early pressure and were kept at bay by Rowley, who commanded his area well. In the 59th minute Boro almost regained the lead after a well-worked free kick, but Joe Gibson couldn’t find the target.
A few moments later some quick feet from Mamadi Camara fashioned a chance for Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan, but the striker’s effort flew over the bar.
In the 63rd minute we saw another encouraging sign from the bench as Stickland made way for Nelson Abbey, handing the captain’s armband to Osorio in the process. It was hugely encouraging to see Abbey involved with the team again, having not featured for Reading since playing for the first team against Swansea City in the League Cup in August.
Reading continued to exert pressure, and in the 76th minute they were rewarded. A headed clearance from the Middlesbrough defence could only reach the edge of the box, where Osorio was lurking – he kept his eyes firmly on the ball before hitting a delicious volley into the bottom corner. The lads clearly enjoyed it too, judging by the celebrations on the touchline.
Osorio’s goal brought the Royals to life, and a flurry of late Reading chances almost gave us a third goal. A well-hit effort from Scott stung the palms of the Boro goalkeeper, before a slightly mishit Bristow cross almost caught him out.
The boys in blue and white then calmed things down, seeing the game out in a mature and professional manner to secure all three points at the final whistle.
Full-time – Reading U23 2-1 Middlesbrough U23
The Royals’ first league win since August is a very welcome one, allowing them to leapfrog Middlesbrough up into 11th place. The Royals sit on 14 points, two ahead of 12th-placed Nottingham Forest – although Forest have played one less fixture.
The boys’ next match takes place on Friday, when they’ll travel to Norfolk to take on league opponents Norwich City under-23s. It promises to be an enthralling fixture, with 11 goals scored across the sides’ previous two meetings.
The Royals will then return to the Select Car Leasing Stadium on Monday 13th December, when they take on Charlton Athletic under-23s in the Premier League Cup.
Three fabulous points
On a night that included Andy Carroll and Alen Halilović at the SCL Stadium (quite why Carroll wasn’t in Paris for the Ballon d’or was unknown, as he was surely a contender?), it was the young Royals that pulled off a comeback to secure three points. And, just like their first-team counterparts on Saturday, they did it through hard graft with some moments of real quality.
First five minutes aside, Reading were the side in the ascendancy. They showed an aggression and desire to win, exemplified by shouts of encouragement after a well-timed challenge or a crucial block. This aggression nearly boiled over on the hour mark after some committed challenges from both sides, and at no point did Reading look like they wanted to back down from the battle.
There’s a long list of players that deserve the plaudits for this desire, and none more so than Ben Purcell. While we’re more used to seeing him swing in set pieces or try to dictate play with sweeping passes, I saw him getting stuck in time and time again, tracking back and nipping away at the Boro attackers. After one example of him putting his body on the line in the 12th minute, other players followed suit, which set us up for the dogged display we were treated to.
The tenacity showed by the lads provided the platform for the win, but it was some individual moments of magic that secured three fabulous points. Senga’s strike was a beauty, topped only by a sweet volley from Osorio, who was excellent throughout the game. I’ve sung the praises of Osorio before, and he hasn’t been at his best at all times this season, but when he is it is brilliant to watch.
And to finish on another positive from tonight, it was excellent to see both Bristow and Abbey make their returns. Not only do they provide more options to a defence that has been blighted by injuries so far this season, but Bristow also provides a crucial attacking outlet on the left. Hopefully it won’t be long until we’ll see some other absentees return – and then the boys can really kick on.