Do you remember the days when we were desperate for football to no longer be played behind closed doors, so that we could revel in the joy of watching Reading Football Club in person? Well, perhaps lockdown football wasn't so bad after all.
Simply put, the less said about Reading's humiliation at Huddersfield Town, the better. I feel a sense of sympathy for those others who made the long trek up to Yorkshire, and one of irony too - that Reading put on their better performance at this ground when no one was there to see it but saved this one for later.
The damning thing about this display wasn't that Reading were outclassed. Huddersfield were decent enough opposition and deserved a comfortable win, but at no point during the 90 minutes did I feel the home side were putting in a '4-0 performance'.
They didn't need to though. Reading rolled over defensively time and again, showed little fight to get back into the game and didn't have the quality in the final third anyway.
Side note: as I write this report on my phone, I'm stood in Leeds station waiting for my train back to London. Having noticed the lack of bags of sweets at WHSmith and Boots (it's one of those days), I've walked to M&S instead. In doing so, I've shown more desire than most of the team did today. I also wonder if the bag of wine gums has better defensive organisation than Reading too.
All in all, it's the kind of afternoon I really thought we'd moved on from. Despite the failings last season you got the feeling that Pauno had instilled some real fight in this side. His public insistence on ‘non negotiables’ was, to my surprise, something that actually had substance to it. I'd even seen that fight - to varying degrees - in defeats to Stoke City and Bristol City this season.
But on the basis of the defeat at Huddersfield, that fight has been drained out. Reading needed it from kick-off as a reaction to previous defeats, and even if it didn’t come then, it should have arrived in response to the opening goal or a half-time team talk. Not so: this looked like a beaten team at 1-0, let alone 2-0, 3-0 or 4-0.
Given that the last of those four goals came as early as the 68th minute, we were given a particularly depressing elongated finale in which to wallow in our misery. Humiliation from the scoreline and embarrassment from the performance, it was a painful experience in the away end. Reading may not have conceded a goal in that period, but it felt very much as if the hosts could have added a fifth or sixth if they’d so wished.
Pauno didn’t have many cards to play today, but he didn’t play them well. Injuries to Tom McIntyre and Femi Azeez (they’re both out for 2-3 months) meant starts for Tom Holmes and Junior Hoilett. While the latter of those switches made the sense, the former meant a shoddy back-line setup, with Andy Yiadom pushed over to an unfamiliar left back role. Specialist left back Ethan Bristow was fully available but was kept on the bench throughout.
Up until the 39th minute, things weren’t going too badly. Reading weren’t all that convincing defensively with the hosts getting joy down the flanks against a makeshift full-back pairing, but I didn’t feel that Huddersfield were about to score. Neither side got into a particularly good flow going forwards and both were liable to sloppy errors in open play. A poor contest all round, with Huddersfield striking the woodwork from a free kick the closest either team came to finding the net.
That was, of course, until the 39th minute. In a move depressingly familiar to defensive calamities of late, Yiadom was done far too easily on the left, a low cross went through Andy Rinomhota’s legs and was converted from close range. The parting of the Reading sea.
“Ok lads, don’t worry, we’re still in this, we can repeat the last game here and come from behind to get something in the second half”... or so I thought. Any realistic hopes of a comeback after the break were shattered in the 51st minute when a deep free kick from the left found Matty Pearson in acres of space a matter of yards outside Reading’s goal, and he had the simple job of making it 2-0.
Reading seemed to actually start playing at 2-0 and briefly showed some intent going forwards. Not that it led to the Royals actually looking like they’d score. As was the case throughout the match, Reading lacked the ideas to open Huddersfield up from open play or set pieces, or get service into Puscas.
Is that such a surprise for this XI? Dele-Bashiru was again played out of position as a wide player, while Hoilett still appears to be getting up to speed after his summer arrival (Pauno did at least make the sensible decision of putting Hoilett on his stronger flank, rather than keeping TDB there). With more to come from the wide positions, we can’t just rely on Swift coming up with the goods each week, and there wasn’t realistically going to be much attacking threat from out-of-position full backs either.
Regardless, Huddersfield didn’t have much difficulty in turning a poor afternoon into a dire one. After Dele-Bashiru lost the ball in midfield, Sorba Thomas charged forward, met minimal resistance from Liam Moore and made it 3-0. Danny Ward tucked home for 4-0 minutes later. He’d been found in acres of space in the middle (surprise) after Holmes had been done on the right, with Reading’s centre backs nowhere to be seen.
Four cases of awful defending, four cases of goals being handed to Huddersfield on a plate. They’re the hallmarks of a side that barely remembers how to guard its own goal and lacks the basic levels of organisation and willpower to put up real resistance.
Reading’s issues - both defensive and across the rest of the pitch too - run deep and don’t stem from just one factor. You can point the finger of blame at the manager, players, poor luck with injuries, lack of signings, the psychological effects of last season and perhaps even the departure of well-respected coaches John O’Shea and Eddie Niedzwiecki.
So solving them isn’t easy. It certainly can’t be done by sacking the manager - something that’s been widely discussed since full time. This needs to be a club where people on and off the pitch take responsibility for getting out of ruts, coming up with solutions to the problems that afflict the team, rather than the situation being reduced to “sack the manager”.
Anyway, there’d be little point in doing so before we know what he can do with the next few weeks. Besides the hugely useful international break - which needs to be capitalised on for the purposes of improving tactically and mentally - fresh options coming into play will be a Godsend too. Having Baba Rahman, Ovie Ejaria (who’d make a far more solid left flank between them) and others in contention should be a morale boost as much as anything else.
Take advantage of that and we’ll be able to move on from today’s horror show. But if we don’t, today could be a sign of more to come.