There’s something particularly sweet about an away win that wasn’t especially deserved, particularly when it comes in dramatic fashion. And that’s exactly what Reading got at Hull City on Saturday afternoon when Andy Carroll’s towering header from a last-gasp free kick was turned into the net by the Tigers’ Ryan Longman in the 94th minute.
Cue absolute pandemonium in the away end behind the goal, sheer disbelief and pure joy among the few hundred hardy souls who’d made the trek up to Humberside. Proper scenes.
For so long it had looked like a very different script was being written. I’d spent much of the game thinking I’d gladly take a point; this was a scrappy, low-quality contest that seemed logically to be edging towards a 1-1 draw, but knowing Reading’s luck it could well have ended in another late away defeat.
Reading have gotten used to that happening since the last international break. Grim memories of 2-1 defeats at Queens Park Rangers and Burnley were in the back of my mind as this match ticked on and Hull seemingly edged closer to a winner of their own. And with Hull now under the management of former Royal Liam Rosenior, you could just tell what the footballing gods had decreed.
It wasn’t that the home side outright deserved the points though. Hull had the better of the possession and number of chances, granted, but not to an overwhelming extent. Reading’s backline held up pretty well in restricting the hosts for the most part, with back-up goalkeeper Dean Bouzanis not called into too much action bar an excellent first-half save at 0-0, flinging himself to his left to push a header out for a corner.
That was undone shortly afterwards when Hull did open the scoring. In the ninth minute, Jacob Greaves found it far too easy to meet a corner and nod it home for 1-0. Getting more specialist centre halves back from injury will help Reading avoid such poorly conceded goals, but we must still do better.
And the Royals can count themselves lucky to have conceded just the once. Very lucky indeed. A first-half error from Mbengue wasn’t dealt with by the outrushing Bouzanis who missed his kick to present an open goal, albeit from a tight angle. The ball should have simply been slotted into the net, but the Hull player dallied, allowing Mbengue to get back and cover.
Had that chance been converted, it’s unlikely that the Royals would have come back into the game. Going 2-0 down away from home to a set-piece and defensive error is the kind of thing we’ve gotten used to seeing from Reading in recent years and it’s typically a decisive blow to morale - not to mention the boost to the home side.
This time however we had a moment of quality of our own. Reading didn’t look like scoring for much of the first half, but cometh the hour, cometh the Yaks. In his 150th appearance for the club, Meite pounced at the back post at a Junior Hoilett corner, turning the ball in past Nathan Baxter. A classic poacher’s goal from Meite.
If you were hoping for one side to really step it up at that point, or in the second half for that matter, you will have been disappointed. Neither team properly took charge for the rest of the contest; this match had all the hallmarks of a scrappy mid-table Championship fixture, and it’s telling that all three goals ended up coming from set pieces.
Reading have looked physically, mentally and tactically tired in recent weeks after an intense run of fixtures, and that multi-faceted fatigue again appeared to be at play this afternoon. The Royals struggled to get authority in midfield, build momentum and create chances all afternoon, not helped by the most established central midfielder (Jeff Hendrick) again letting the game pass him by.
It’s a pretty damning but not particularly surprising verdict on Ovie Ejaria that, even in these circumstances, he was overlooked as a second-half substitute. Instead, Mamadou Loum was the man to replace Tyrese Fornah as one of the two more advanced midfielders. It’s something Paul Ince tried in midweek at Watford, perhaps to facilitate Reading winning the ball back higher, but it didn’t work on either occasion.
Just over 10 minutes later, Paul Ince tried something else: Shane Long and Yakou Meite off for Lucas Joao and Andy Carroll. I can’t fault Ince for swapping out one centre forward or even two in theory, but when the resulting pairing is Carroll and Joao - two players who are stylistically too similar (static rather than mobile) - it doesn’t work.
Accordingly, Reading weren’t looking like grabbing a winner in the final 20 minutes or so. If anything, backed by an expectant home crowd, Hull appeared the likelier to sneak a decisive goal.
But when you achieve that most tantalising of football cliches - ‘winning a free kick in a dangerous area’, anything can happen. Tom Ince swung the ball into the box from the left wing, the towering Andy Carroll got up to meet it, he tonked it back into the mixer... and Longman applied the winning touch. Poor guy.
So much of football is about confidence and vibes, and this afternoon goes an awfully long to helping both. While I’m reticent to say this was a ‘must win’ (I’d have gladly taken a draw at any point until the winner went in), it was certainly a ‘must not lose’. Going into the international break with yet another defeat adding to the run of poor form would have strengthened the narrative that Reading are a team in freefall.
At the same time, I don’t want to get too carried away by this game. Reading really weren’t that great for a variety of reasons, and 99 times out of 100 we don’t finish the afternoon with all three points. This result is more about cracks being papered over than properly filled in.
Really though, the bottom line is the points tally. Reading won’t stay up on confidence levels, vibes or how far we’ve gone to deserve results, but on the actual results themselves. This win puts the Royals up to a very respectable tally of 29 points from the first 21 games (12th in the table), and the only sides to have won more matches than us are in the top three.
Reading have - again - got maximum points from a game decided by fine margins. Today is pleasingly similar to gritty wins before the first international break - such as Wigan Athletic away and Middlesbrough at home - the kind of results we probably wouldn’t have managed last season when this side consistently ended up on the wrong side of fine margins.
More results like this and we’ll be just fine.