Once again, this fixture created anything but a squib that was as damp as the weather. It wasn’t quite as breathless as the classic 4-4 draw of last season that pretty much sealed our safety in the Championship, but it still had all the hallmarks of another hard-fought encounter. The win that lifts Reading into touching distance of the top six, but still only seven points off the relegation zone.
Such is the customary madness of the Championship, so close to dreamland but just enough to points to be able to breathe. All the talk may be of staying in the top half or play-offs but a seven-point gap doesn’t scream “guaranteed safety” to some Scrooges! Humbug, etc.
As was also customary was the polarised football on show. Swansea with their forever slick, possession-based game versus our rudimentary, route-one, heart-on-sleeve approach. If games were purely based on stats, then Swansea would have won by a street, as they usually would do, but fortunately they are not. What can’t be quantified in numbers is the sheer will and determination that we possess, especially at home.
Swansea time and again used Ryan Manning in his left-back quarterback role to progress their attacks (and why not, he was exceptional), but that was also where the problem lied - they forgot to attack from anywhere else. Whether that played into our hands is up for debate, but possession is only good if you do anything with it. Swansea kept relying on Manning to cross from deep and most of the time we dealt with it well.
What we showed and have showed time and time again is the organisation and togetherness that epitomises the whole ethos of the club. We know what we are, we know we’re not flashy, we know we’re not a whole number of attributes that could be attributed to other clubs that are not in the (self-imposed) position that we are in. But what we do have can’t be bought – a team spirit borne out of necessity and buckets of experience coming to the fore.
The experience of Joe Lumley, Junior Hoilett, Andy Carroll and match-winner Tom Ince could well have been the difference between the two sides. All four knew how to handle the occasion with minimal panic. Unlike Yakou Meite who, despite earning the free kick that led to the opening goal and the corner that that earned the foul in the box, took a dreadful penalty that shaped his performance from then on. It was no surprise that he was taken off early in the second half. The miss clearly had weighed heavy on his mind, but that’s Yakou – his emotions can help or hinder in equal measure.
On the flipside to that, our shape began to alter as we introduced more substitutions. These changes of personnel caused positions to change but ultimately to no real detriment. We were still solid and (fairly) composed aside from Mamadou Loum who racked up another booking that was as sure as Boxing Day followed Christmas Day.
What was again pleasing to see is that all the substitutions made sense and did not diminish the quality of the team. Slowly but surely, we have arrived in a point where the team cannot be guessed game in, game out. We have options aplenty in defence now to mix and match. If only midfield had the same!
Manager Paul Ince cited that Baba Rahman was looking tired from his World Cup exploits and deployed Tom McIntyre at left-wing-back in his place. At first this helped a great deal in nullifying Swansea’s attacks down the right-hand side with Meite, McIntyre and Naby Sarr combining well at times to good effect.
The Swiss-Army knife of McIntyre is a bonus to have as he keeps us defensively solid. This does compound our play as being purely counter-attacking because he’ll never be a marauding wing-back, however. It’s a tricky balance but after shipping three goals in the first half against Birmingham City, Ince possibly thought it best to be more solid against the fluid Swansea attacks. A decision that proved to be pivotal and correct.
And so, we roll on to the next bonkers set of fixtures that include the troubled Norwich City, the recovering West Bromwich Albion, the Michael Beale-free Queens Park Rangers and promotion-chasing Sheffield United. Only two of those are at home where we are, undoubtedly, at our strongest. We may have to hope and pray that we can come away from that set of results with at least six points, but hopefully more.
But if this performance is anything to go by, the determination and spirit can defy all the statistics and pretty possession play. Whether it will be enough to survive the month ahead remains to be seen but we’re still fighting and that’s all you can ask from a squad that been assembled like misshaped Lego bricks and a soggy Christmas cracker. It continues to defy logic and we won, live on Sky!