What. A. Win.
That wasn’t supposed to happen, was it? Expectations from Reading fans going into this match were decidedly pessimistic. Sure, we’d drawn with a strong QPR side and beaten Peterborough United in midweek, but winning at league leaders Fulham? Come off it. This had three points to the home side written all over it; it was just a matter of how many goals they won by.
Yeh, about that. As frustrating as this Reading team can be to watch (and has been to watch in 2021), it sure knows how to defy the script. Yes we got lucky to a large extent - Fulham would have won comfortably had they brought their shooting boots - but putting this result down to fortune too much would be doing discredit to a fantastic Royals performance.
Simply put, Reading played like a side that knew it could win. Sounds simple doesn’t it, but when you consider the morale blow of how last season ended, how frustratingly the summer unfolded and how this campaign’s gone so far, that’s an impressive attitude to have at all, let alone in a daunting fixture like this.
Belief, spirit and fight were there in abundance at Craven Cottage. You could see it throughout the side - regardless of how experienced that player was, how familiar they were with their position in the team or how long they’d been at the club.
This was a unified, driven team display that the players should be hugely proud of. It's also one that Pauno should be massively encouraged by; he's taken plenty of criticism this season - some fair, some less so - but he’s overseen what looks on the basis of the last week to have been a profound turnaround.
It says so much that some of the real stars today were up against it in their own way, but still shone.
Luke Southwood was imperious in goal, despite this being the first time he’s started a league away game - let alone in front of fans, let alone against one of the best attacks in the division, let alone in front of a makeshift defence. Josh Laurent had to play most of the game at centre half after Tom Holmes’ injury despite - to my knowledge - him never featuring there before, but you wouldn’t have guessed it. Ovie Ejaria has understandably lacked sharpness after injury and Covid, but dusted off the cobwebs with two truly magical goals.
Let’s start with Ovie first. For all the defensive work Reading had to do, it was his brace that sealed the points. He doesn’t do simple goals though, does he? Ejaria opened the scoring in the first half with a real beauty, rounding off a counter attack by cutting in from the left and bending the ball inside the far post. And he made it two shortly after the break, getting on the end of a gorgeous Alen Halilovic dink before controlling and slotting home.
A brief aside here for how that goal felt in the away end. If we were ecstatic to go 1-0 up, going ahead 2-0 with a beauty right in front of the travelling supporters put us in dreamland. It’s moments of pure delirium like that which lockdown denied us, and I hope we never take for granted again.
Down the other end, Reading endured a battering from the hosts. This is a side that was top of the table going into Saturday for a reason, and is still likely to go up automatically; it was never going to be an easy or stress-free afternoon. But when you’ve got players like Laurent and Southwood standing tall at the back, you’ve got a great chance.
It was a team effort though. Reading’s discipline and work rate were terrific from front to back, and in truth I can’t fault anyone. I was particularly happy with Michael Morrison who, after some shaky performances this season, showed us why he’s so valuable. Time and again he was there to make a vital intervention. It must be such a boost for young ‘keeper Southwood, inexperienced centre back Laurent and new left back Baba Rahman (himself solid) to have a veteran like that to steady the ship.
It helped also that Reading had such good technicians higher up the pitch. Swift, Ejaria and Halilovic are not only great options on the counter, but also in keeping possession to relieve pressure on the Reading goal. The ball would have come back at the Royals that bit quicker and that bit more dangerously had we lacked those outlets.
Does this game mean Reading are suddenly the finished article? Of course not. There’s a lot of improvement to come as new signings continue to settle in and injured players come back. But are we on the right track? After one draw and two wins in one week - one of them coming in the toughest fixture of the season, absolutely yes.
Finally we’re looking up, not down. This should be a result and performance that, besides being hugely bloody enjoyable for all of us, also one that reminds the team what they’re capable of. It’s easy to forget after the start to the season we’ve had that Reading were chasing promotion last season.
Put in more performances like this and we’ll be doing the same this season too.