Friday night’s win over Bournemouth was impressive enough, given the performance and quality of the opposition, but one thing in particular has stayed with me in the subsequent couple of days: I really, really love this team.
It’s easy to say that after an excellent result and we’ve had plenty of those this season - wins over Watford, Blackburn Rovers and Bristol City all stand out in particular - but this occasion at the Mad Stad felt even more special. The way the match unfolded, both on and off the pitch, for me made clear just how immensely likeable this group is and how the bond between it and the fans really is.
Fundamentally, this feels like what a Reading team should be: an enthusiastic, hard-working group, primarily made up of academy graduates and younger players who’ve been given a chance to impress after not getting it elsewhere. To a man, they’re revelling in the prospect of being part of this club and are fiercely ambitious to take it to the next level.
So when the scoring on Friday was opened by Josh Laurent, a lovable guy who’s been a revelation since making the step up from League One in the summer, then doubled by fan-turned-academy-grad Tom McIntyre, and tripled by mercurial talisman Lucas Joao, I didn’t just feel happy for the team - I was delighted for those players personally.
I could have said the exact same regardless of who scored though; Reading’s work rate and spirit were terrific to a man on Friday night. No exceptions.
It was the performance of a group of players that had each other’s backs and were adamant that, by hook or by crook, they would win. In the first half that meant outright dominance of the game, and in the second it was a steadfast refusal to allow Bournemouth a sniff - like when Tom Holmes dived in front of a close-range shot and those around him celebrated as if he’d just scored.
There was so much to love about what happened off the pitch too. In the Sky Sports studio as a pundit for the evening, Liam Moore was gushing in his praise for Tom McIntyre, who he called his “son”, and McIntyre returned the love on Twitter after the game.
Some guy you. Much love big man ❤️— Tom McIntyre (@Tom5Mc) January 30, 2021
Injured striker George Puscas was not only part of the matchday group - Veljko Paunovic even let him give a half-time team talk. That says a lot about the trust Pauno puts in his players, how keen he is to keep injured personnel involved and how strong the sense of camaraderie is in the group. It must be if the manager is willing to give Puscas that responsibility and those on the pitch respond so well to that pep talk in the crucial second 45 minutes of the game. Going by how resolute Reading were to see the result out, you have to think it was a damn good team talk.
I even love the fact that Pauno told the press after the match that he would celebrate the result with a long night of drinking beer, playing the guitar and reviewing the game. I’m not sure exactly why I like it so much, but it does go to show how likeable and charismatic a man he is. You just know that spending a few hours with Pauno - drinking beer, talking about football and listening to him playing the guitar - would be a great time.
Those moments from Friday night may seem pretty innocuous, and perhaps I’m getting a bit over-sentimental about the small stuff. But sentiment means a lot in football at the best of times, and certainly when fans have been shut out of stadiums for most of the last 12 months.
It’s also something that we haven’t been able to take for granted at Reading in recent years. Fan apathy was particularly bad in 2018 during the final months of the Jaap Stam era and dull spell under Paul Clement, and although Jose Gomes did a lot to improve the situation, progress wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The manner of his departure, and ironically also that of successor Mark Bowen, at the time left a sour taste in the mouth.
This season though, it feels like new life has been breathed into this club, and a huge amount of credit is due to the manager, squad and those working behind the scenes. Sure, results have played a huge part in that, but there’s substance to this team that runs deeper than what you can see on the league table.
Reading have changed a lot throughout this campaign already. The Sky Sports commentators spoke during the Bournemouth game of the Royals going through three phases: the incredible first eight games, the subsequent run of four straight defeats despite playing pretty well, and everything since then. That last period, during which the squad has often been battered by injuries, has been one of inconsistency.
The constant factor throughout the campaign though has been the squad’s character. That’s true of first-team regulars, the fringe players called on to step into the breach and everyone in between; they all play with a level of commitment and joy that makes following Reading such an endearing prospect at the moment.
It’s exactly what a Reading team should be like.