For the opening match of the WSL season, and our first visit to Leigh Village, we decided to make a day of it. We set off early from Reading and, on route, with a late plan B decision diverted to Chester Zoo - where the meerkats never fail to entertain.
At kick-off, in the impressive multi-use stadium a smattering of blue and white RFC fans could be seen dotted around the stadium - a good effort for a long journey and Friday night match. We found ourselves sitting by a couple, Kieron and Britney, who turned out to be good childhood friends of Gemma Evans, Reading’s recent signing from Bristol City. They travelled, from South Wales, to support, as they also do. A kind and nice touch for Gemma’s debut for the Royals. With a trip to the SCL stadium in the week, it was good to see Kieron fully kitted out in the blue and white hoops, complete with a RFC ‘Evans 5’ flag over the chair.
Following the new WSL TV deals agreed, this was the first match of the season and, unsurprisingly, live on Sky TV, never one to miss an opportunity.
Emma Harries got the season underway, kicking off towards our end of the ground, Emma looking proud and majestic (Madejskic?) in the yellow away kit.
For the first 20 minutes I thought Reading settled really well, confidently, passing the ball around and were very much in control. So much that Rachel Rowe, early on, found herself in space, just outside the box, and hit a shot hard and fast but just over the crossbar. Looked a very promising start.
Unfortunately, RFC couldn’t keep this control and Man Utd slowly but surely worked their way back into the match, without really threatening. Man Utd fans reacted like the meerkats we witnessed earlier in the day, with every United attack upfield.
Halfway through the first half Man United had a great chance to open the scoring after a defensive calamity, reminiscent of the penguins we’d seen earlier in the day, left Grace Moloney stranded. We were very lucky to get away with a shot that sailed over the bar when it should have been 1-0 to the home team.
Grace Moloney, as customary, was booming her commanding instructions (that you can probably hear back in Reading) to her defence and team members.
Five mins before time, the deadlock was broken when Hanson professionally tucked the ball away, into the bottom left-hand corner of Grace’s goal. A pass and move off the training ground, and, disappointingly, straight down the centre of the pitch. A perfect slide pass, in between the centre backs finding Hanson with the nice finish. A shame just before half time, but was it the time for our Simod Cup final kit to work its magic and come back from 1-0 down as we did so on that fateful day?
Just before the first-half whistle, United were on the attack again, with a fierce shot poleaxing Deanne Cooper, while using her body to block the shot just before half time.
For all the early composure and control, apart from the early effort by Rowe, there was unfortunately no other notable effort by the team in yellow.
The second half started promisingly when Brooke Chaplen unleashed a great effort that smashed and rattled the crossbar, bounced on the goal line (where’s the goal-line technology?), back high up in the air with Harries unable to get to this to finish the opportunity.
The Royals quickly came to rue this chance as United’s slight number 17 scored the second to put them 2-0 ahead. Batlle, from the edge of the box, placed a right-foot finish perfectly into Grace’s top left-hand corner. A nice goal and one for the Sky TV cameras. A tough ask and some Steve Coppell bouncebackability required from here.
The Reading manager, Kelly Chambers, never one to panic, only made one change during the match: the introduction of Jeon for captain Tash Harding who had a disappointing match, for her standards, on the right-hand side. The captain’s armband passed to Brooke Chaplen.
This meant a slight change of formation with Harries replacing Tash wide on the right and Jeon supporting Chaplen in attack. Jeon almost immediately got in on the action with a low diving header, wide of the goal, from a Harries cross.
Another Harries cross and this time Eckland should really have done better. There seemed to be a flurry of late crosses fired in from Harries, more than the previous 70 mins.
Even after this late effort, Man United saw out the match, which finished 2-0, but still looked dangerous on each counter attacked.
A shame as I genuinely thought, mad hoped, that Reading might get something from this match. A good debut, goal excepted, by Gemma Evans and Faye Bryson with Rachel Rowe industrious and skilful as ever. Kelly Chambers has a precariously small senior squad of players and some very difficult matches ahead, with Arsenal visitors to the Select Car Leasing Stadium next week.
One criticism: what’s with that goal-kick routine? Centre back Cooper passing across the goal to keeper Grace Moloney... without what seems a real plan from there?