It was a match that Reading needed to win to kick-start their season. With 89 minutes on the clock it looked like another disappointing afternoon and another opportunity missed. And then Rachel Rowe had other thoughts, scoring two goals in two minutes – the 90th and 92nd – to win the match and grab a vital three points and a much-needed confidence booster.
In a similar style to last season, Kelly Chambers’ team had lost their opening four WSL matches and found themselves second from bottom, only on goal difference (thanks to the two goals last weekend against West Ham United), to today’s opponents, Leicester City. So this was an early ‘six pointer’ and a big match for both teams.
Kelly Chambers made two changes from last week’s starting line-up – both to Reading’s defence – with Faye Bryson returning to right back and Diane Caldwell as right centre back. The young midfield dynamo Tia Primmer and experienced centre back Deanna Cooper were on the substitutes bench.
The Royals’ manager has appeared to struggle not only to settle on a starting formation but also on what players to select to fit into the chosen positions. Today, Chambers started with a back four. Captain Emma Mukandi going to left back meant that, once again, Lilly Woodham was pushed higher up into a more attacking left wing role, and Charlie Wellings was on the right flank. Justine Vanhaevermaet sat in front of the back four and Amalie Eikeland moved from right back to attacking central midfield alongside Rachel Rowe, with Natasha Dowie leading the charge.
It was a first half that saw Reading on the offensive. The opening quarter of the match included a Lily Woodham header and a long-range dipping shot from Justine Vanhaevermaet both going over the Foxes’ crossbar.
Leicester, largely on the back foot, also picked up two early yellow cards, Erin Simon for a foul on Lily Woodham and Shannon O’Brien for a drag-back on Faye Bryson.
It was therefore a surprise, on 36 minutes, when Leicester opened the scoring. A counter attack saw Natasha Flint with a lot to do, looking up to find Gemma Evans and Reading keeper Jacqueline Burns still to beat. Flint’s right-foot strike from the edge of the penalty area somehow found its way past both players and nestled into the bottom right-hand corner of the Reading goal. This was Leicester’s ‘first goal’ of the season (from a Foxes player) – their only other one being chalked up as an own goal.
A disappointing half time score and 0-1 to Leicester after a bright start by the Royals and a first half largely controlled by Reading. Another motivational half-time team talk was required from the Reading manager.
It wasn’t until the 65th minute that Kelly Chambers made another tactical, and unusual, change with a double substitution – Tia Primmer in a more attacking midfield swap for Justine Vanhaevermaet and right back Faye Bryson replaced by centre back Deanna Cooper filling that role. A third substitution, with eight minutes remaining, saw Natasha Dowie leaving the field and midfielder Sanne Troelsgaard taking up the striker’s role.
It looked like Reading had missed a big opportunity when Emma Mukandi broke down the left and put in a perfect cross where a diving Charlie Wellings saw her header go wide – when she would have expected to do better.
With time running out, on 90 minutes, Reading won a corner. Rachel Rowe swung in the right-foot delivery that eluded everyone to cross the line – the referee waving away the protestations of the Leicester goalkeeper, Kirstie Levell. A sigh of relief amongst the cheers of the home crowd.
Last week Rachel Rowe came in for praise from Kelly Chambers for her performance and never-say-die attitude against West Ham. I’m sure this will again be echoed today as Rachel Rowe wasn’t finished. Just two minutes later (with six minutes of time added on) she drove forward and unleashed an unstoppable right-foot power driver from distance – the crowd were as jubilant as surprised in what was, until the final few minutes, looking like another disappointing match.
The second half also saw Reading winning the yellow-card count with Faye Bryson, Rachel Rowe and Amalie Eikeland all going into the referee’s notebook.
In a similar swing and twist to my initial draft notes for the match report, the Royals also, bizarrely, find themselves in ninth position ahead of Liverpool, Brighton & Hove Albion and, of course, Leicester.
Let’s hope this is the kick-start that we need and provides a confidence booster for another tough test (aren’t they all?), next weekend, against Manchester City. See you there.