So, alas, it’s all over. Reading’s excellent start that left them at one stage eight points clear at the top has now been reversed. The Royals sit eight points outside the play-offs, with no hope of a late surge. It’s still been a season of serious growth: the run of one win in nine games can’t entirely erase that truth. That said, it’s clear that missing the play-offs is a serious disappointment to both the fanbase and the team themselves.
Often, watching the games over that nine-match stretch, I was left with a sense of deja vu. There was a sense that Reading were repeating the same mistakes over and over: capable of understanding what was going wrong, but not capable of decisively fixing it. Thanks to that sense of repeated mistakes, I think it’s possible to point to three away games as exemplifiers of everything that began to go wrong over the past three months.
This is of course a little reductive. Other moments in other games surely cost us as well, but these three away days neatly sum up what went wrong. They serve as tent poles for when the sinking feeling began to set in, and they’re what I’ll focus on today to hopefully help you with your grieving process for a season that has now come to an end.
Preston North End 0-0 Reading
Sunday January 24, 25 games played, five points clear
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before in recent months: despite the Royals’ pressure throughout the second half, the goal just eluded us, and we had to settle for a point.
Usually, the logic is clear when you’re looking to get promoted: you win your home games and you draw your away games; anything else is a bonus. Preston were still looking good at this point in the season, sitting just eight points and four places behind Reading, and had already decisively beaten us at the Madejski. A tight 0-0 draw then, in which the Royals had the better of the contest, doesn’t seem like a bad result when considered in isolation.
This game would unfortunately show the first signs of a dip in Joao’s form however, when he flashed a penalty low and wide in the 83rd minute. We couldn’t have known it at the time, but this event, along with others that came soon after, seemed to cause a change in Joao’s mental state that has persisted ever since.
I wrote an article after this game about how it left me feeling frustrated. At the time, I opined that it was “good frustration”, and that it showed how far we have come. After our run of one win in nine games, that statement seems just a little optimistic, and the frustration experienced at Deepdale became all too common as the season went on.
There were many games in the final months that felt as though the fates had simply conspired to stop Reading from scoring that day: this was simply the first of them.
Wycombe Wanderers 1-0 Reading
Tuesday February 23, 32 games played, five points clear
This really feels like the moment the team started fearing the worst. Despite our early-season win against Wycombe feeling anything like the formality some other teams saw this year, expectations around the fanbase were rightly that this was a game you had to be winning comfortably if you really were a play-off team. So when it all went wrong, the first seeds of doubt began to creep in, seemingly for the team as well as the fans.
Coming into the game, it was bittersweet to see two former Royal regulars in the lineup for Wycombe. Jordan Obita had just joined from other local rivals Oxford United, and Garath McCleary even played a role in Wycombe’s goal: a bundled finish from a corner that Reading simply couldn’t clear. After that, Reading settled into what would become a very familiar routine: endless waves of attack against a team content to sit back and make the Royals look very short on ideas. Finally though, Andy Rinomhota was bundled down in the box, and Joao, after his miss against Preston, had a chance to redeem himself from the spot.
Unfortunately, because nothing went right that night, this was the moment that Joao found himself taken off penalties after yet another miss. This one was courtesy of a janky-looking stutter-step run-up and a sturdy crossbar. Pauno spoke of players crying in the locker room afterward, and with what we know about Joao’s fluctuating confidence, I struggle to imagine the boss wasn’t referring to the Portuguese.
Credit to Wycombe, they came out in this game absolutely desperate to beat Reading. They fought for every ball and though their goal and the game itself were scrappy: they deserved their win on the night but alarm bells were ringing at the Madejski.
Barnsley 1-1 Reading
Friday April 2, 39 games played, one point clear
Anticipation for this game built for weeks. It came as the first match back after the international break, and a tantalising match-up between the two “upstart” promotion contenders. Reading, despite what the Sky Sports commentary would’ve had you believe on the day, were the better team too. They understood what Barnsley were going to try to do, so matched their intensity and offensive press with calm defending and quick passing. Moreover: they created chances. Yakou Meite made his own early on with a piece of determined running, but caught a bobble just as he shot when clear through.
Finally, the pressure told and Ejaria latched onto a ball from deep before slotting a calm finish past the keeper. At half time, the Royals were deservedly on top.
In the second half, two moments of madness conspired to turn a good performance into a sloppy one. First, Andy Yiadom needlessly threw his man to the ground in the box, earning Barnsley a penalty and gifting them a foothold in the game.
Then Joao missed an open goal so bad that it’s still tough to look at.
Much has happened in the past few weeks to cement our seventh-placed finish: the performance wasn’t good enough against Luton Town and quality players killed us against Swansea City, but this miss feels like the moment the season was lost. If Joao had scored that goal and Reading had won, they would’ve had the points advantage coming out of the game and a huge confidence boost going into the final stretch. With a draw, they had to spend the following weeks chasing Barnsley, and never really seemed to regain the necessary confidence to secure a play-off spot.
As we’ve seen far too often in recent weeks, Reading huffed and puffed until the 90 minutes were up, but the bounces just didn’t quite find waiting attackers, and the game fizzled out with Reading dropping yet more points. The frustration I had spoken about in January was back, and seemingly for good. Unfortunately, this time the consequences were far greater.
If the off-season goes well and Paunovic is able to tinker with his squad a little, then I think that the consistency should help us to another good season next year. Hopefully, whatever happens, we won’t have to watch the season slowly fade out again as we have done over the past two years. I’m disappointed that we’ve missed out this time though, and these three games really feel to me like the moments the dream slipped away.