Be honest: you weren’t expecting that, were you?
At half time, Reading’s trip to Birmingham City looked exactly like the games we’ve gotten used to seeing recently. An OK first half, but not enough quality in the final third to turn any promise into goals. There was even room for a howler at the back from Liam Moore to gift the hosts an early lead.
Fears of another tired display after the break and limp defeat sprung to mind. Surely we’d wither in the second half again, right? Wrong.
Reading’s second-half performance at St Andrews was a proper antidote to everything we’ve seen in that period of the last four games. The Royals had belief, intensity, an effective tactical switch from Pauno, and two quality strikes from rookie Jahmari Clarke. I’d started to forget was a goal was, let alone an equaliser, let alone a winner.
Clarke’s brace was one hell of a way to announce himself at senior level. Both times he looked every inch a confident, experienced centre forward who knew where the net was and how to get the ball there. If he had any nerves or doubts, he did a perfect job of hiding them.
Goal one: Clarke met Swift’s inswinging powerful cross perfectly, turning the delivery into a bullet that slammed past the goalie and into the back of the net.
Goal two: Pinball in the Birmingham area as a couple of shots, including one from Clarke, were denied. Third time lucky, Clarke pounced and rifled the ball home in front of a jubilant away end.
Such quality in front of goal has been what Reading have badly lacked in recent weeks. While the performances have often had promise - typically in the first half - the final touch hasn’t been there. You have to think that, against Blackpool, Blackburn Rovers, Bournemouth or Millwall, Swift’s inswinging cross would have been harmlessly headed off target, and the pinball for the second would have ended in the danger being cleared.
Not this time though. 1-0 down at half time and staring down the barrel of a fifth consecutive defeat that would have heaped yet more pressure on, Reading needed someone to step up. Cometh the hour, cometh the Jahmari Clarke.
Putting the result down to just Clarke wouldn’t be quite right. There’s been a bit of discussion in recent weeks - unfairly in my view - over Pauno’s supposed lack of a plan B when he needs to change the game. If there were any questions to be answered on that front, he did so effectively with a neat half-time tactical switch in formation.
Before the break, Reading had again lined up with a back three. But while Tuesday’s set-up had looked to me more like a 3-5-2, with Swift given a free role off lone striker Puscas, the one at St Andrews was more reminiscent of a 3-4-3. Tom Dele-Bashiru lined up a bit deeper next to Josh Laurent, with Swift and Ovie Ejaria off Puscas.
That allowed Reading a decent amount of possession in midfield, but seemed to deny the Royals much cutting edge in the final third. Reading had difficulty creating anything of note in open play, failing to break the hosts down.
Pauno was uncharacteristically bold with his half-time change, considering how late he usually leaves it to alter things. Besides Clarke’s introduction, the 3-4-3 was binned off for a 4-1-4-1: a formation that Pauno’s used a few times this season now. Going to that set-up effectively meant one fewer defender, with Tom Holmes going to right back rather than right centre back, Dele-Bashiru going to the left wing and Yiadom becoming more of an out-and-out winger.
The approach play wasn’t always that brilliant, often relying on Yiadom’s driving runs down the right, but Reading looked much more confident, fluid and purposeful going forwards in the 4-1-4-1.
Credit also must go to the players’ mentality. You wouldn’t have been surprised to see the Royals’ heads drop as the game progressed - not just from the early goal, but also due to going a while without getting one of their own. Fighting back took patience and real fight; Reading displayed both to turn a loss into victory.
It certainly wasn’t the second-half performance of a side that doesn’t have character. While the players have looked badly fatigued in recent weeks, I’ve not felt that those four consecutive defeats came about due to a lack of the right spirit. As much as Clarke’s impact and the formation switch helped, that underlying spirit played a key part too.
This game is worth its weight in gold to Reading, who have a significant morale boost at a time when it was most badly needed. Defeat would have exacerbated the downwards spiral that’s built up steam in recent weeks, even if that’s been largely propelled by a factor outside the manager’s hands: injuries.
Three points on their own are good enough, but the manner in which they came made them even sweeter. This was no lucky win: Reading performed well, the manager played his part with a positive half-time change, and the result was an unlikely comeback victory. Those are difficult to achieve for any side, let alone a club that’s been bad at getting them in recent years, let alone one in the form it’s been in.