Before I get on with talking about the match itself, I need to address the particularly sizeable, particularly angry elephant in the room. This has been a hugely emotional day for all of us. We all had a lot riding on this match psychologically, whether it was hope of a win to turn around our season or frustration about the club’s long-term trajectory - frustration that was articulated in a pre-match protest.
So seeing our optimism dashed and pessimism realised by yet another defeat (I’ve lost count of them at this stage) took its toll. The result itself was the latest in a series of gut-punches. Adding fuel to the fire though was the seemingly spontaneous post-match protest (although I’d disagree on it having value as a protest) that was a small number of fans running onto the pitch.
That protest seemingly split the fans down the middle. Was it justified or not? Personally I was strongly against, given that it didn’t articulate any message. All it did was make a sour occasion even more so, and I know I’m not alone in that viewpoint given that those supporters were booed and had a beer cup thrown at them. I completely get that people are angry and that’s what drove them to act as they did - we’re all angry about how the club is being mismanaged - but running on the pitch wasn’t helpful.
Calling them “brainless idiots” however, as I did in a heat-of-the-moment TTE tweet, wasn’t on. It’s really important for fans to come together and find a way forward collectively, even if the club struggles to do so, so me lashing out at other supporters went against that and was badly misjudged. While I stand by the sentiment that them going on the pitch wasn’t the right thing to do, I got my own response wrong and I hold my hands up for that.
Anyway, onto the game itself. For all the hype around the occasion, Reading’s brief for the match was clear: build on the positives that we saw late on at Bristol City, discard the sloppy moments and take advantage of a bumper home crowd’s support.
Reading did a pretty good job of that in the opening 46 minutes. While the Royals weren’t at their fluent best (not that they have been in a while), they did manage the match effectively and create chances, looking more effective when trying to win the ball back aggressively higher up the pitch. That was particularly pleasing given how outfought Reading had been in the reverse fixture.
After Viktor Gyokeres’ early effort was denied by Karl Hein, the hosts had the better openings, seemingly more often created down the left. Baba Rahman and Junior Hoilett offer a nice mix of technical ability and directness, combining nicely to stretch the game, and it was the latter that created the opener. His inswinging left-wing cross found an unmarked Lucas Joao who headed home for his first goal of the season.
Reading however, being Reading, couldn’t build on their lead. While the hosts looked buoyed soon after that goal and would go close to doubling the advantage through Tom Ince and John Swift, a second was elusive.
You could tell what was coming. Coventry had been well restricted for pretty much the entire first half... and then snuck in an equaliser right at the death through Reading academy graduate Dom Hyam from a corner (because of course). However you look at that goal - through the lens of general game management or set-piece defending, it’s an ugly one. But of course it’s nothing we’re not used to.
And thanks to how the midweek defeat at Ashton Gate went, we’re used to switching off right after half time too - a second 47th-minute goal in fact. Michael Rose had the simple task of nodding home a corner. The stats show Reading have been strong under Pauno at not conceding goals from the first contact at a corner, but the fact that we’ve now seen it twice in recent weeks (considering QPR’s fourth) to me strongly implies a broader problem of lax concentration breaking down basic organisation.
However, Reading managed to claw themselves back into the match with a corner of their own. This time Andy Yiadom popped up to bundle the ball home after Ince’s inswinger. At that point, the Royals should have been able to go on and look for the win. They’d shown they could fight back after going behind themselves, and with the backing of the home support I really felt three points were there for the taking.
That optimism lasted for all of eight minutes. Hoilett had already been booked by the time he lunged in for a second yellow card - a moment of madness from an otherwise cool and collected veteran. And then Ian Maatsen restored the visitors’ lead with the kind of comically deflected effort over Hein that only Reading could concede.
One man and one goal down, and yet, we weren’t done there. Boosted by the return of Yakou Meite off the bench a few minutes after Coventry’s third, Reading pressed forward in search of an unlikely equaliser. We almost got it: Meite powered down the right wing with a terrific lung-busting charge and set up Ince with a low cross... only for the loanee to blaze his shot off target. A golden chance missed.
The pressure kept coming but, a man down, Reading didn’t have enough in the end. Swapping Tom Holmes for debutant Kelvin Abrefa was an unorthodox idea, letting the full back provide the Royals’ right-sided width. He did a commendable job of that and only underlined my excitement in his long-term potential, but I can’t help but feel a more attacking player such as Tom Dele-Bashiru or Mamadi Camara would have been a better option.
Coming up short wasn’t for a lack of general commitment. As was the case in mid-week, “the Royals played like a team that believed it could get something”. It’s a distinct attitude to the one we saw in January when Reading would have known it was beaten at 2-1, let alone 3-2. There’s no prize for commitment though.
And I’m simply left wondering: if Reading can’t pick up points in a game like this, when will they?