Yesterday I recapped the highs and lows of the first half of Reading’s 2021, and now we’re onto the less fun six months of the year. The July-December period allowed for some great memories, typically on the pitch and away from home, although there were some gut-punches off the field.
High: Femi Azeez signs on (July 2)
Continuing from May and June, Reading’s best moment of July was a young player committing his future to the club - in this case Femi Azeez. The forward had been top scorer for the under-23s the previous season, so keeping hold of him was good business. It’d age well too, as Azeez would go on to establish himself as an option at first-team level in 2021/22.
Six other, more junior academy players also agreed new deals: James Holden, Lynford Sackey, Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan, Harvey Collins, Kian Leavy and Malachi Talent-Aryeetey.
Low: Michael Olise leaves for just £8m (July 8)
I could have gone with a few things for July’s low. Yakou Meite’s long-term injury was suffered this month, Reading’s only pre-season wins came behind closed doors and we were seemingly struggling to even sign triallists Achraf Lazaar and Kyle Edwards. But the cherry on top was losing Olise for just £8m due to a clause in his contract.
As with Richards going for nothing, Reading were short-changed for a marvellous young talent that had been produced in-house. In truth, we may have struggled to tie Olise down to a contract at all in the first place without that clause, but only getting £8m felt like robbery. Under more normal circumstances, you’d have expected the Royals to pocket at least £20m - a transformative fee for a club in our situation.
High: Danny and Dann (August 30)
It took Reading a while for their transfer business to get going (after the start of the season in fact), but when it did, we didn’t mess around. Six players joined in the closing weeks of the window, with the highlight being a high-profile double signing on the eve of transfer deadline day.
First Scott Dann was snapped up on a free transfer, then fellow Premier League veteran Danny Drinkwater agreed to a loan move from Chelsea. While we’d be disappointed (for a few months at least) in Reading’s inability to sign a new striker on deadline day, these two additions capped off some very respectable summer recruitment in the circumstances. They also made for an important morale boost in the wake of what had happened two days earlier...
Low: A rout at Huddersfield (August 28)
This game feels like the moment at which Veljko Paunovic’s stock decisively fell, at least in some quarters of the fanbase. While the team’s results and performances later improved for a time, the 4-0 rout at Huddersfield Town capped off an awful start to the season that made calls for the manager to be sacked louder than ever before.
The contest was dull but relatively even in a first half led by the hosts (1-0), before yet another set piece goal was conceded after the break - a recurring theme in the opening weeks of this season. Reading then capitulated to let in two more. It was an embarrassing afternoon, and one that stood in complete contrast to the hard-working, disciplined and organised performances that had defined the start of Pauno’s first season.
High: Winning at Fulham (September 18)
And yet, Reading were still capable of pulling off a shock. Few people gave Reading much of a chance at Craven Cottage, certainly not many of our own fans, but the Royals put in one of their best performances in recent years to defeat a largely Premier League-quality side. It was thanks to Ovie Ejaria’s well-taken brace and an excellent defensive display from then-new first-team ‘keeper Luke Southwood and makeshift centre half Josh Laurent (among others).
It was also a special moment for the fans. This was Reading’s first away victory in front of supporters since before the first Covid-19 lockdown, so for it to come in such a difficult match and with a bumper travelling support was a real high of the entire year.
Low: Collapse against QPR (September 11)
From a high against one West London side to a low against another. In the 78th minute, this game would have gone down as a contender for September’s high, with Reading 3-1 up against a strong QPR team in great away form. By full time though, the Royals had collapsed to a 3-3 draw. Step back and look at things with a little more cold objectivity, and it was still a decent point. But the manner in which that result came certainly felt like a gut-punch.
High: Withstanding a siege at Cardiff (October 2)
Reading’s October wasn’t that great; the only two highs to choose from were respectable but not hugely impressive 1-0 wins against Cardiff City and Barnsley either side of the international break. While the latter capped off the Royals’ best run of form this season (five wins from six), the former deserves praise for its sheer stubbornness.
The hosts managed a whopping 27 shots while Reading came up with just two - only one of those was on target and it was the decisive moment, via Junior Hoilett. The Royals soaked up a huge amount of pressure, seemingly being content to sit deep and demand Cardiff come up with answers. While it wasn’t pretty, this game proved that - on our day - we can see a match out without having to rely too much on individual goalkeeping heroics.
We’d see further evidence of that the following month.
Low: The second-half horror show at home to Blackpool (October 20)
This is an odd team to understand sometimes, isn’t it? With Reading 2-0 up at half time against Blackpool, a few days after the Barnsley victory, you’d have put good money on the Royals’ form being extended to six wins from seven. Reading hadn’t been all that great in the first half against the Tangerines, but surely we had enough to see the game out?
Not at all. The subsequent 45 minutes were probably the most abject Reading have put up under Veljko Paunovic. The two-goal lead was surrendered in a 16-minute second-half spell, and with the exception of a glaring miss from George Puscas at 2-0, the Royals barely looked like getting out of their own half after the break. Blackpool were every inch a hard-working, positive team that refused to accept defeat, and Reading had no answers whatsoever.
High: A proper performance (November 27)
There were a few highs to come out of November that I could have gone with. Jahmari Clarke’s impressive brace at Birmingham City, Andy Carroll’s ‘Royal boat’ celebration at Swansea City and the fact that we finally beat the Jacks after 13 years would have been worthy winners. But I’d be remiss to not go with the team display itself - one of Reading’s best of this season so far.
Andy Yiadom summed it up perfectly when caught on camera by the club in a post-match celebration video: “That’s a f**king proper performance bro, that’s a f**king proper performance.” Reading had scored three good goals, twice immediately responding to Swansea finding the net, and done a marvellous job in withstanding the hosts’ pressure. Real quality shown in attack, defence and game management.
Low: The points deduction (November 17)
While not a reflection of how Reading have acted in 2021, this was the moment the club’s past caught up with it. The Royals had spent recklessly in the first few years of the Dai era and the EFL didn’t forgive or forget it, handing the club a deduction of six points and a business plan to abide by over the course of the next 18 months or so.
There were silver linings to this cloud - finally getting clarity after two months of speculation, plus a nine-point deduction being avoided - but it’s still an awfully big cloud that will hang over this club for quite some time. While the business plan gives Reading a route to operating more sustainably in the future, it also makes retaining players and building a squad for next season a challenging prospect.
High: Tom Holmes’ wonder goal (December 4)
Match postponements meant Reading had just the two games in December: a dour 1-0 loss at West Brom and underwhelming 1-1 draw with Hull City. Although Tom Holmes therefore pretty much gets this high by default, leaving it there would be underplaying a wonderful finish.
It was the perfect way for Holmes to score for his boyhood club for the first time. With the ball loose from a corner, Holmes acrobatically smashed it into the net over his head from a few yards out. It was not only a fantastic finish, but also somewhat reminiscent of two other highs from earlier this year: fellow centre back Michael Morrison’s surprising goal at Bristol City and fellow academy graduate Michael Olise’s moment of magic just before half time against Derby County.
Low: Luton postponed, celebrations put on ice (December 15)
Of the three matches put back due to Covid-19 concerns, the home game against Luton Town was certainly the most significant. It’s the game Reading Football Club should have been using to celebrate its 150th birthday. While pushing the celebrations to February to mark the 150th anniversary of Reading’s first match is a good substitute, a lot of work had been put into the Luton game behind the scenes to make it a special occasion.
Really, this should have gone down as one of our biggest highs of the entire year: a rare bumper crowd for a unique event. It’s grimly ironic, and representative of the sheer bad luck this club has got this year, that it instead went down as a low.