The pressure was high before kick-off. On manager Veljko Paunovic, the team and every single player. No doubt that this was a massive game for Reading Football Club. A very decisive one for the course of the season. A strong and positive response was needed after the shocking cup defeat against Kidderminster.
During the week Pauno expressed in his usual passionate style that he was full of belief to get back to winning ways. The question was only how much time he would get. Many expected that the result against promotion contenders Fulham might decide his future.
Once again, he faced a selection dilemma. The list of non-available players was as long as ever (Michael Morrison, Tom McIntyre, Liam Moore, Andy Yiadom, Baba Rahman, Alen Halilovic, Ovie Ejaria, Felipe Araruna, Yakou Meite, Lucas Joao).
As a result, Dejan Tetek started as right-back and Ethan Bristow occupied the position on the opposite side. In front of the midfield duo of Josh Laurent and Danny Drinkwater, Junior Hoilett played on the right, Tom Dele-Bashiru on the left and John Swift in his usual playmaker role behind lone strike Andy Carroll. Only five players were on the bench.
Clearly, the last things Pauno and his team needed were further injuries… A brave wish that lasted exactly five minutes. Scott Dann, one of the few experienced players, had to come off with muscular problems. Mamadi Camara came on, Josh Laurent moved into the defence, with TDB partnering Danny Drinkwater in the middle. Hoilett switched to the left as Camara started at right-wing.
Surely the start couldn’t get any worse? How wrong one could be! Without real pressure, new central defender Laurent played a shocking no-look back pass to Luke Southwood. At least that’s what he intended. Who Laurent hadn’t seen was Fulham’s Harry Wilson in the middle. From a short distance the visitors’ number eight made no mistake. 1-0 to the Cottagers, 12 minutes played.
Game over already? At least you couldn’t blame the Royals for a lack of passion and fighting spirit in the first half. Pauno’s men showed a positive reaction, throwing their bodies into every tackle, trying to find their way back into the game. With every minute belief seemed to grow. The supporters played their part too and rewarded the young Reading team’s performance by pushing the boys in blue and white on.
Exactly when the Royals had their best spell, the visitors nearly scored a second. 22 minutes were played when Bristow miscalculated a long pass and gave Wilson the chance to break through. His shot from close range went just wide. Four minutes later lively Mamadi Camara then had Reading’s best opportunity: Junior Hoilett burst down the left and his cross seemed to be cleared easily by the Cottagers’ defence, but Camara was quickest to react and had his beautiful back heel blocked away with an incredible save by Fulham keeper Rodak. That could have been the turning point. Soon afterwards Andy Carroll was unlucky to have two superb strikes (rightfully) ruled off for offside.
On the other end, Southwood made a brilliant safe in the 36th minute to deny Mitrovic his 23rd goal of the season from close range. Just when the last seconds of the first half were ticking away and you thought it wouldn’t be the worst thing to go into the break trailing 1-0, to regroup and search the equaliser… Fulham scored again. Tom Holmes went into a 50-50 tackle, referee Andy Woolmer decided it was a penalty and Mitrovic stepped up leaving Southwood no chance. 2-0 Fulham at halftime.
What could be expected now of this Reading team in the second half? A humiliation by the visitors? A historical comeback? For the first minutes the Royals set deep, left Fulham all the possession and tried to wait for their own opportunities with quick counter-attacks. At least that seemed to be the game plan. After 52 minutes Pauno brought on Andy Rinomhota for Dejan Tetek. Definitely good to see him back on the pitch.
In general, it was a quiet start to the second half. But after only eight minutes the last bit of hope was already destroyed. Fulham showed all their quality with a perfect one-two on the left. In the middle Wilson was quickest to react and tapped in his second of the night.
Still, Pauno went all-in in the 63rd minute bringing on George Puscas for Danny Drinkwater. Against clearly superior visitors the Royals tried to avoid the feared humiliation. They were just not good enough. A powerful header by Mitrovic was deflected by Tete into the net. 4-0.
From that moment on Fulham rolled over a helpless home side. Clear goal opportunities nearly every minute. Two decent safes from Southwood were not enough to wake his team up. Neeskens Kebano slid in to convert Wilson’s cross for the fifth and four minutes later a set-piece led to the next one. Without a defender near, Adarabioyo powered a header past Southwood who had no chance.
Unfortunately, it was still not the end. Even though the Cottagers slowed down the tempo in the last quarter they were able to score the seventh. Serbian international Aleksandar Mitrovic raised his goal tally to 24. Soon after it was thankfully full-time. A devastating second-half performance ended in a shocking home defeat. The Royals stay 21st, three points above the relegation zone, having played a game more than Peterborough in 22nd.
Unquestionably the low point of the season (until now at least). So, who’s to blame? The boos at the final whistle indicated the main one is Veljko Paunovic. In football and in a situation like this the manager is always the first to go. I’m not saying that this would be a fault, but Pauno must be surely one of the unluckiest managers the Royals ever had. I really feel sorry for him. During his 17 months with the club, he was never even close to have the full squad available. He didn’t have the possibility to bring in the players he needed, at the time he would have wanted…
Without judging what the club should do, one thing is 100% clear. Changes need to be made. We need to have a team on the pitch that is willing to give their all to avoid relegation for this club. We need a unit where everyone is fighting for the other. From now on we have 22 finals. Everyone has to understand how high the stakes are. No more excuses. The result on the pitch is the only thing that counts. Come you Rssssssss!