In Greek mythology there’s the story of Sisyphus, a man in the underworld who’s doomed to continuously roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity. The catch however is that, each time he nears the summit, the boulder rolls back down the hill. Then he starts again and the punishing process repeats, over and over.
Watching Reading try to win (or even draw) a game of football is a little like that. The Royals got a lot closer to a positive result tonight than they have done in a while - although that’s not difficult considering how bad January was - only to come up short once more. And anyway, despite how well Reading played in the final 20 minutes or so in search of an equaliser, in the back of your mind you always knew the boulder would roll back down the hill regardless.
Reading had, aptly, given themselves the mountain to climb in the first place. The Royals’ defensive issues tonight felt more like isolated incidents than systemic failings in the mould of the Huddersfield Town and QPR defeats, but they still decided the game.
Bristol City found it too easy to get in behind through Andreas Weimann for the first and then to create an overload on their left for the second. There was fortune involved in each goal: Karl Hein’s one-on-one stop fell back to Weimann for the first while the second started and ended with an unfortunate Michael Morrison touch: a blocked clearance gave the ball away and he inadvertently prodded the cross into his own net. But sides that are more switched on than that don’t concede such goals so readily.
The timing of those goals was particularly galling, and telling of a team that needs to concentrate better: immediately before and after the break. Reading had been the better of the two sides in an overall poor first half, looking comfortable defensively but not that threatening offensively, and should have been in a position to hunt a win in the second half. But lapses in focus at key moments made that far more difficult than it needed to be.
Still, Reading gave it a damn good go in the final 20 minutes or so. Tom Ince’s magical footwork to win a penalty was the moment that kicked that spell off, with John Swift obliging by converting the spot kick. If we’re to stay up this season, we’ll have to rely on such flashes of individual quality.
From that point, for the first time in oh so long, the Royals played like a team that believed it could get something. Put tactics, injuries and everything else to one side for a moment - Reading have lacked self-belief for a while now. Even when a game’s been in reach, the players’ dearth of confidence in their own ability has been their undoing.
The spirit came flooding back in the closing stages at Ashton Gate though. Reading were quick, positive, stretched the play and forced half a dozen or so blocks with seemingly goal-bound shots. Junior Hoilett, Danny Drinkwater and John Swift were among those to go close; the Royals really weren’t all that far away from a second or third goal.
While it was encouraging to see how convincingly Reading pushed for an equaliser, in equal measure it was frustrating. This side can and should be able to play on the front foot, creating chances with guile and belief, but it needs to do that for much more of the 90 minutes, not simply the final 15-20. And it needs to get into that gear by itself, preferably from the start of a half, not relying on winning a penalty as the wake-up call.
Play like that more often and Reading will be safe from relegation, no doubt about it. But does this team have the character to summon the best parts of tonight’s performance again and demonstrate them more consistently? With this manager in charge I doubt it; it was telling that the performance was lifted by a moment made by a player (Ince winning the penalty) rather than a pre-match or half-time team talk.
Reading need to find lifts wherever they can though. Points are desperately needed and we’re running of time to get them.