If Reading do stay up this season, today could well be looked back on as a defining moment. The Royals were handed a big opportunity to open up that bit more breathing room on the bottom three thanks to Barnsley losing and Derby County drawing in the early kick-offs, and that opportunity was taken.
Simply put, beating Blackburn Rovers is absolutely huge. It’s certainly something we were optimistic about achieving after the unlikely point picked up at Bournemouth in midweek, but actually getting the job done feels like a massive step forward. And not only did Reading get the three points, but the deserved nature of the result and the defensive resolve to seal a clean sheet are immensely satisfying.
Josh Laurent will rightly get the plaudits for his stunning winner in the second half, but the quality and character shown by the whole team mustn’t be overlooked. While the first half was a much more aesthetically pleasing affair, with Reading creating numerous quality chances that oh so nearly went in, the second half was even more significant: one excellent goal and no shortage of discipline to grind the result out.
For the first time in a while, it feels like Reading are on the right track. The Paul Ince era appears to be kicking into life.
Unsurprisingly Ince made no changes to the side that drew at Bournemouth in midweek, although John Swift returned to the matchday squad, taking Kelvin Abrefa’s place on the bench. As for the formation, it appeared to be closest to some kind of 4-4-1-1, with Laurent significantly closer to Lucas Joao than Reading’s other central midfielders. The wide players looked too deep for it to be a 4-2-3-1.
Regardless, the main takeaway is that Reading didn’t kick into life until an enforced change - 32 minutes in - when Andy Rinomhota was taken off for Swift. Up until that point the game had been pretty low-key; Blackburn had the better of the play without properly threatening, while Reading were struggling to build up any momentum, although Tom Ince and Andy Yiadom both went close.
The morale boost in the stands when Swift came on was palpable, and his introduction had the more tangible benefit of giving Reading much more dynamism in the middle. All of a sudden, this was a cocky, proactive Royals side that knew how to take the game to the visitors.
Accordingly, a number of players went close to breaking the deadlock. Joao had a header saved from Swift’s vicious inswinging cross (the playmaker’s first involvement), Swift himself put a long-range effort just wide, Ovie Ejaria had a penalty shout turned down (probably correctly) and a Laurent blaster was well saved, before Joao curled a finish just past the far post.
Reading were doing everything but scoring. Really, had we managed to nab a few goals and go into the break 2-0 or 3-0 up, it wouldn’t have been an unfair reflection on the half’s action. The trick though was to keep that momentum going after the interval, and that proved to be easier said than done.
My read on the Royals’ midfield shape was that, in the first half, Swift took up Rino’s deeper position when the swap was made, leaving Laurent higher up, but this was swapped at the break. Paul Ince seemingly wanted to shore things up a bit by bringing Laurent deeper. That change made sense at the time, but I’m left wondering if it contributed to Reading losing momentum in the second half due to a lack of energy higher up the pitch.
Blackburn certainly looked much more imposing in general play after the break. The second half was, on the whole, one in which they controlled possession pretty well while Reading struggled to create. For a time, the Royals’ only second-half chance came from Tom McIntyre, who forced a save with a left-footed effort right after a set piece.
That was until the 78th minute. It’s pretty typical Reading that we couldn’t put away any of the better-quality chances when we were on top in the first half, but did manage to score an absolute rocket when the play was against us in the second. Swift burst into the box on the left, the ball was half cleared, and Laurent made the job of curling it into the top corner look easy.
1-0 Reading and the Mad Stad erupted. For so long it had looked like our chance was gone, that we’d be punished for profligacy in front of goal in the first half, but boy can this group of players surprise you.
Turning a 1-0 advantage into a 1-0 win was another matter though, and doing so required the Royals to do what’s often proved elusive this season: holding onto a lead late on. And perhaps just to remind us all of past collapses, Reading again subjected us to the nerve-racking experience of dropping deep, inviting pressure and offering nothing going forwards.
The ball kept on coming back at Reading in the closing stages, time and time again. But, time and time again, it was repelled. In fact, after Laurent’s goal, the Royals conceded just one shot: a long-range effort from Lewis Travis.
I’ve very much had my doubts over Paul Ince, but it’s hard not to give him credit after the last week. Reading have responded to a horror show at Nottingham Forest - correctly labelled as “embarrassing” by the interim manager - by picking up two hugely commendable results. The bottom line is that we’ve played two sides that could well be in the Premier League next season, only conceded once, deservedly taken four points and could well have had two more on Tuesday.
The substance to the performances and results borne from those displays speak for themselves. This finally looks like a side that believes it can stay up and really doesn’t fancy dropping into League One.
Again though, this isn’t the end. Far from it. The progress made this week can so quickly be undone with a defeat at Oakwell after the international break. That game is set up to be another huge moment in Reading’s season - just like the last time we went to Barnsley to kick off the final block of games in the campaign. I’m already nervous about it.
Perhaps we’d have been better served by going to Barnsley straight after this match rather than waiting for two weeks. But having a fortnight off does have a few benefits: it’s an opportunity to put in further work on the training ground (Reading still have a lot of room for improvement on scoring in open play); we should have a fully fresh Swift, Joao and Baba Rahman ready at Oakwell; and the Tykes have two weeks to soak in the pressure of how big that game is for their future.
After all, Reading’s future is in their own hands. Keep churning out performances and wins like today and that future will be in the Championship next season.