The wait had been a long, long time coming but finally we did it - 129 days later, a home win to celebrate. The joyous relief of the fans was indeed a joy to see as fans left the SCL Stadium. The long trudge homeward bound felt not so long and not so arduous for once. We may have had bodily parts that were twitching like the nose of a rabbit by the end of the game because of the cold, but man alive, it was worth it.
Any club which replaces its gaffer hopes and expects a ‘new manager bounce’. For many outlets the arrival of Paul Ince has been scoffed as being a bit of a comedy appointment. But, based on this game as a snapshot of what he’s all about, it was made clear of what his approach contains and it’s deadly serious.
First and foremost: hard work. To a man they put in a hell of a shift. Players were given different tasks that were rarely apparent under Pauno. Andy Yiadom stood out as being controlled in his forays forward; his role was more to look after his winger and negate his actions.
Only until later in the game did he really return to his buccaneering role where he won the penalty which John Swift duly tucked away. Andy Rinomhota too is firing on all cylinders with his high-energy pressing and commitment after returning to full fitness.
Similarly, Lucas João put in a lot more work defensively, closing down much more, chasing down second balls in our own half. One memorable moment stood out; during the last knockings of the game he sprinted to close down a Birmingham attack, whites of his teeth showing, full of determination. It summed up what the message from Ince must have included: Work Hard. Work for your teammates. Nothing comes from being passive.
Prior to the game, every fan would have been wondering what differences would be tangible from the new management team. While the formation was the same, the application was different. Very different.
The tempo was raised, the pressing was aggressive, we were proactive instead of reactive. We adapted tactics after half time, too. In the first half, Tom Holmes (as an example) was reticent to knock the ball long in possession which put us under pressure. In the second half we gave the ball back to Karl Hein more to launch forward instead. One of many small things that Ince implemented but wasn’t going to persevere to make something work just because.
If it didn’t work, he changed it. Simple things, but the players were tuned into what was asked of and they all bought into those ideas. That couldn’t be said as much under Paunovic.
Shake it up, baby, Swift and João
Our resurgence of form has been an obvious result of the whole team becoming a more cohesive and functional unit, but the performances of John Swift and Lucas João have been instrumental in the two wins on the bounce. Both have provided goals and assists aplenty. When they tick, Reading tick.
João is back to full fitness and it shows. As soon as he received the pass from Swift on the edge of the box it was reminiscent of the beginning of last season when everything we touched turned to gold. The trademark switch from left to right, followed by the lethal stroke into the bottom corner. It was textbook João.
The partnership between the two is what we have been missing for large parts of the season. It’s a thing of beauty; an utter joy to see. On their own they could provide our safety in the Championship.
Whistle while you work
Another notable difference was an audible one inside the SCL. Once you heard it, you couldn’t unhear it. If you didn’t hear it, but you will now, and I have no regrets!
Alex Rae’s communication via whistling commands to the team throughout the game could even be heard from my vantage point in the Sir John Madejski Stand. Like an angry budgie, chirping tweaks and tweets to get tighter, to move wider, come shorter. Just one of many changes from the new interim team that had fashioned a win in just a few short days since their arrival.
What we felt as a result was a heart-warming and hard-earned three points. The sounds of a victory.