The whole point of football games is that, at end of the day, they’re contested on a level playing field. Or, rather, that they should be. It should be the case that, for all the varying factors on budget, experience and everything else, it’s fundamentally a case of two teams of 11 players competing under a fair set of rules.
Today though, it certainly doesn’t feel like that’s true. Referee Jeremy Simpson’s failure to award an absolutely stonewall penalty for a clear foul on Tom Ince, late on with the score at 1-1, was a complete injustice. There’s no other way to put it. Reading may have missed the spot kick or conceded a subsequent equaliser anyway, but that’s besides the point; we should have had a penalty. The fact that Burnley went up the other end immediately afterwards and secured all three points added insult to injustice.
I hate sitting here and having to whinge about officiating after a game that shouldn’t have been settled in such a fashion. It was a compelling contest in its own right, Reading resolutely holding firm against the odds and Burnley desperately trying to unpick our defence.
I wish I could lead on, well, literally any of the other plot points from today. There’s so much to discuss about Reading defensive resolve, the mentality to hold out against (on paper) superior opposition and the frustration of seeing the Royals again blow a lead on the road. Any of those should have been the key takeaway from today. Instead, we have to suffer the consequences of the referee’s incompetence.
The real twist of the knife is just how unremarkable this all is. Championship referees making f**king dreadful decisions is a tragedy as old as time; we’ve all seen these cock-ups so many times before and we’ll doubtless see them plenty more times this season, let alone next season, and the next... and the next.
On the face of it, introducing VAR would help. There’s no way Reading aren’t awarded a penalty if that foul is reviewed. Then again, it’s entirely besides the point - anyone refereeing a Championship game should be able to spot that incident and give a penalty without the help of VAR. They shouldn’t need help to do the basics.
I’m angry but I’m not at all surprised. Knowing our luck this’ll happen again at Luton.
Anyway, enough of that. Today doesn’t deserve to just be remembered for someone’s incompetence, so let’s talk instead about a Reading side that got so much right.
Going into today, few gave the Royals much of a chance, myself included. Travelling to an in-form, strong Burnley side after our own recent away defeats all seemed to point to Reading being beaten. Getting anything out of this match looked a tall order, even if you knew that this side also has a big performance in its locker (see: Norwich City at home).
However, although Reading did make mistakes and did get lucky at times, for the most part they were excellent. The Royals effectively restricted a confident Burnley team which dominated possession and tried to craft chances from open play - but weren’t able to do that as much as they’d liked.
In fact, Burnley had to wait until the second half for any shots on target at all. Actually, they only managed three in the entire game, with two of those hitting the back of the net. Reading were well organised and refused to budge.
Doing that with any line-up would have been impressive enough, but Reading had to hold out with a makeshift backline. Paul Ince had set his side up with Amadou Mbengue and Baba Rahman as wingbacks, either side of Andy Yiadom, Tom Holmes and Tom McIntyre. However, a 34th-minute forced withdrawal for McIntyre meant Mbengue being shunted into an unfamiliar left-sided centre back role which he kept for the rest of the match. Still Reading held firm.
Down the other end, there wasn’t too much in the way of clear-cut chances to get excited about, although openings were there to get at the hosts on the counter. In Tom Ince and Yakou Meite, the Royals in theory had the right strike pairing to exploit those openings.
It worked in practice too. In the 56th minute, Yakou Meite headed on a long kick downfield from Joe Lumley, Tom Ince got in behind and finished with aplomb. Right in front of the away end. Beautiful stuff.
It’s a combination which has worked for Reading before. Meite and Ince combined for a similarish goal to put the Royals 2-0 up at Swansea City recently, and Ince Snr will be glad to have an effective attacking combination such as this to call on in the tricky away games. Scoring goals in open play on the road had been an ongoing problem under Ince’s management, but Meite and Ince are starting to resolve that issue.
It’s the stuff in our own third that needs working on. Reading had the lead for 10 minutes before Benson Manuel (a Football Manager regen name if ever there was one) slammed a left-footed shot from the edge of the area into the bottom corner after the Royals had failed to clear their lines properly.
If I were a neutral, I’d have said that was a deserved goal. Burnley had looked the more dangerous of the two sides over the course of the game until that point (bar our opener), so 1-1 wasn’t unfair in that light.
Still, Reading had the chance to make it an unlikely 1-2 late on. Ince’s penalty shout wasn’t a moment in isolation - the Royals put on a fair amount of pressure and did look serious about pushing for a winner. Instead, we were left to rue that non-decision while Anass Zaroury tucked the ball in at the back post, converting a cross from Benson.
It was a frustrating defensive lapse but, in truth, a moment many of us would have been expecting. Burnley had a full half hour of game time (including injury time) after the equaliser to get at Reading and find a winner; given their quality, form and home advantage, it was always going to be a tough ask to deny them. That doesn’t take away from the frustration of another lead blown or the anger at injustice suffered, but it’s important context nonetheless.