Come the final whistle the Reading fans celebrated more for this hard-earned and thoroughly deserved point against the perennial Championship yo-yo specialists, Norwich City, than the rudimentary dismantling of Huddersfield Town a few days prior. A very firm indicator of the progress made by the club since the Bowen/Ince regime began.
Before the game, most would have bitten their own arm off for a point. Many would have foreseen another Sunderland, maybe even another Fulham-type result – after all, we were still playing 80% of the same crew that have started every other fixture versus a former Premier League outfit.
We would have forgiven the team if they looked a bit leggy or just plain knackered and succumbed to another battering. But belief goes two ways; the fans always feed off the players and their own belief is now melding into ours. Maybe we’re a bit more than pig with lipstick on than we thought.
For the first 15 minutes or so, we shadowed Norwich like a boxer analysing a bigger, badder foe. With Mamadou Loum and Tyrese Fornah returning to their starting positions in midfield, both took a bit of time to get back into their groove. We paid Norwich a bit too much respect, but that’s a common trait of ours. Whether it’s to size up our opposition or a reticence to go balls-out too much or too soon, it’s what we do.
Against Sunderland, this bit us on the backside as we never got going as a result, but here we used it as a springboard. It showed that we believed we could hang with Norwich and began to take the game to them more. As the half went on, we looked the more likely scorers and possibly could have done so via Hoilett’s excellent cross for Ince to miss by a whisker. Prior to that, Andy Carroll nearly scored his first goal at the SCL with a trademark header.
Norwich had lots of possession but had nothing to show for it, which was largely down to our shape and organisation. Not for the first time has a team with loads of possession failed to break us down. With just one shot on target which they duly scored from, it’s a statistic to be very proud of.
Of all the new signings it would be safe to say that Jeff Hendrick has taken his time to impress. Whilst being ever-present, he has rarely been anything other than steady, neither shining brightly or dull as dishwater, just somewhere in between. Goals often can mask performances but he truly did have his best game for us too. Throughout his career, Jeff has always got this kind of goal in his locker, but nobody really expected him to score but score he did as defenders merely watched him control the ball to strike home beyond Tim Krul.
As mildly maligned as Hendrick has been, he has not yet let us down, has been quietly reliable without ever being as dynamic or demonstrative as Tom Ince, say. Much like the team itself, he goes under the radar, which is no bad thing.
Another elder statesman of the side continued to confound with a dazzling performance at right wing-back, a position that one would doubt that Junior Hoilett would ever think he would excel at, but here we are!
Hoilett often performs better in the bigger games and this was no exception. Fleet of foot, replete with fancy footwork, he gave Sam Byram a torrid time in the first half especially. But his defensive work is also to be applauded. Previously, he has been prone to flying into challenges when higher up the field through bad timing but that has improved markedly under Ince.
Few would have thought that the diminutive winger could be moulded into a solid, dependable wing-back that can perform at both ends of the pitch. Proof indeed that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Huge props to Uncle Dave!
In context, this result was huge. Not just for the fact that we didn’t lose or get battered, but we proved that we could take on the big boys and come away with a deserved point and a more than credible performance. Bearing in mind that the starting XI did not cost any more than 84p and a bag of Buttons, we are truly punching above our weight in that respect. The fans appreciate what is being achieved in the opening months of the season. The message, the vibe, the overall ethos of the club that is changing before our eyes is nothing short of miraculous.
There will still be dangers ahead which could all come crashing down with our third game in six days against the fakes down the road, but that would be understandable considering the de rigeur injuries and the rigours of the Championship, but even if we do lose, it will not be through a lack of effort and heart.
One thing we have learned from this performance is that this group are continuing to believe in themselves and now can prove it also. Being third in the table is starting to feel like less a fluke than we ever thought, and that feels very, very strange.