I don’t remember how often in recent weeks I thought we’ve reached the ultimate low point. Kidderminster Harriers away, Fulham or Luton Town at home… there were so many disappointments and frustration grew each game.
It seems even worse than our last season at Elm Park or the first two years at the Madejski… Wednesday’s relegation “battle” at Peterborough was unfortunately another example of that, mainly because you could have the impression that some of the Reading players just didn’t battle hard enough and give their all.
So, who is to blame for all that? The club directors? The manager? The players? Surely everyone has their fair share. We could keep talking about all these aspects for hours. But bearing in mind the importance of the upcoming matches, the only thing that counts is to finish the season at least 21st, it doesn’t matter how. We can only stick with the team we got.
And to be honest, I also feel for some of them. Watching the likes of Tom Holmes or Andy Rinomhota I don’t have any doubts that they care a lot about this club. Independent of how deep the disappointment had been after each lost game, when kick-off gets closer there is only one feeling. The hope that this team finally shows some passion and willingness to get the turnaround. This Saturday at Preston was no different to that.
So here we go. Pauno’s line-up offered no big surprises. After 82 minutes against Peterborough, Yakou Meite went to the bench as Junior Hoilett returned from his one-match suspension and started at left-wing. Overall, a comprehensible decision bearing in mind that Meite was out injured since June of last year.
What could we expect now? Another humbling performance? Another low-point? The first minutes indicated the contrary. Reading looked focused and concentrated right from the beginning and converted their first attack directly into the lead.
John Swift’s cross from the right found Lucas Joao inside the box. His first attempt was saved as well as Michael Morrison’s try from short range. The ball fell again to the big Portuguese who made no mistake this time and scored the opener after just two minutes. The perfect start for a team that had won none of their last 12 matches…
That early lead gave the Royals a confidence boost. The back four looked much more solid. And whenever the ball was won in defence we quickly attacked over both wings and showed some quality offensive play.
Some 15 minutes later Lucas Joao demonstrated in style why he was our top scorer last year. He burst through the centre, dragged the ball beyond a defender and fired it into the top left corner. A brilliant goal and what a relief! The way that double-lead was celebrated on and off the pitch clearly showed how many people were still involved that cared about Reading Football Club.
In the 37th minute, the Royals' number 18 nearly scored a hat trick. Tom Holmes played a nice flick-on into the path of Joao, who had his shot saved by keeper Iversen.
Five minutes later the young Reading defender was involved in another big goal opportunity, this time on the other side. Holmes needlessly tried to get past Preston striker Sinclair who robbed the ball, but thankfully blazed it over the bar. A lucky moment for the visitors. Somehow you got the impression that this might be our day…
Soon later it was half-time and we were leading deservedly 2-0. What a strange and unfamiliar feeling that was. But there were still long 45 minutes to go. Recent weeks showed how easily we were capable of conceding goals, so there was no way to let up.
And the Royals seemed to know what they had to do as they started the second half on the front foot. Within 120 seconds Pauno’s men had three golden opportunities to make it 3-0.
First Iversen saved a great free-kick from John Swift with his fingertips. Then Reading’s number 10 played a nice back pass into the middle, but both Yiadom and Morrison couldn’t convert the ball into the net. From the resulting corner, Lucas Joao had his header saved on the line. It was all Reading.
Eight minutes later it was rightfully 3-0. And what a fantastic goal that was! Drinkwater won the ball in midfield, passed it to Swift who played a beautiful one-two with Joao and sent the ball coolly past the home side's keeper.
Game over? Not with Reading! Less than 60 seconds later the Royals looked unsorted in defence for pretty much the first time. Johnson found some space down the middle and made no mistake with his shot from inside the box. Game on again!
Tom McIntyre then made his return as Baba Rahman had to come off injured. Good to see him back on the field. When passion and concentration were badly needed to survive the Preston attacks the Royals showed exactly that. Only a bad back-pass from Drinkwater, who generally had one of his better games, gave the Lilywhites a clear goal opportunity. But captain Michael Morrison was quickest to react to block Archer’s shot from the edge of the box.
After 67 minutes Yakou Meite replaced Junior Hoilett. And just when you felt the Royals had survived the worst minutes, a goal scramble after a corner resulted in Preston’s second. Archer tipped the ball in from a couple of yards out. Incredible!
A nervy 15 minutes lay ahead as the Lilywhites went all in and put Reading under constant pressure. A header from substitute Evans went just wide. This time though Pauno’s men seemed to have learned their lesson and defended a lot better than in recent games. If a situation could symbolise the fighting spirit today it was maybe Tom Holmes’ flying block that prevented Bauer from having a free shot on goal.
For the last seconds Tom Ince made way for debutant Brandon Barker. A tense five minutes of added time were followed, but then referee Busby blew the final whistle. Thank God! 3-2 to the Royals! Massive win! Massive three points! And what a relief! Reading finally returned to winning ways.
Credit to the whole team who frighted today as a unit. This is exactly the way how we need to perform. Hopefully, this first win since the end of November will give everyone a much-needed boost. The following weeks will show the significance of this afternoon. How badly I wish that Peterborough was the ultimate low-point we have now left behind…
But then again Reading wouldn’t be Reading (these days) if there wasn’t surprise news ahead not even an hour later, as the club confirmed officially the contract of Veljko Paunović had been terminated by mutual consent. In addition to that, Paul Ince, father of loanee Tom, was appointed to take charge of the first team alongside academy manager Michael Gilkes on an interim basis as a permanent manager will be searched.
Astonishment! And what a strange timing! For many weeks Pauno was the central point for all critics. Eight defeats in a row spoke for themselves. But exactly when the Royals managed to win their first game in 2022, they part company…
Still, the decision is comprehensive. A change on the coaching bench might liberate the players from some extra pressure. On the other hand, there will be no room anymore for further excuses. Now it counts. Even though it somehow feels like a relief (I’m sure for Pauno as well) and despite all negativity of the last weeks in my opinion Veljko Paunović deserves credit.
He guided the team through probably one of the most difficult periods in the club’s 150 years of history. He didn’t complain much about the financial situation or the transfer embargo. He tried to bring the club as a whole forward. He tried to unite players, staff, supporters and directors in order to move all together in one direction.
It didn’t work (in the end), but that’s football. Thank you Pauno for your two-and-a-half years with this club and all the best for the future! And of course, good luck to Paul Ince and Gilkesy! They will definitely need it…