For the second year in a row, Reading will visit Barnsley on April 2. This year though, they’ll do it in very different circumstances. In the course of 12 months, both teams have gone from somewhat surprising charges toward the Premier League to being locked in a tense battle to avoid League One.
The match on April 2 2021 also fell on the first matchweek back after the March international break. Reading picked a line-up not dissimilar to the one they could be expected to show on Saturday. The squad featured Josh Laurent, Ovie Ejaria, Lucas Joao, Michael Morrison and Andy Yiadom - players you’d expect to see in the squad again this year. Barnsley’s team featured four of the same players who lined up in their most recent fixture: a 2-0 loss to Sheffield United.
Barnsley had made an incredible run into the play-off places that had culminated with them leapfrogging the flagging Royals in the previous match week. Reading’s rush for the play-offs had always been supported by their amazing start, but now they were on a three-match winless run and things were starting to look like they were slipping away. With Bournemouth ready to pounce with a game in hand, lose or draw this match and a chance at the play-offs would be out of Reading’s hands.
Barnsley started the game in the ascendency. Their style under Valerien Ismael was direct and physical and for a while, it was enough to pin Reading back. Our team was undoubtedly the more talented, but Barnsley matched talent with intensity. After a middling half then, it was Ejaria, the subject of last week’s Musings, who helped Reading to a halftime lead. Bursting forward, he controlled a wonderfully weighted lofted ball from Rinomhota with his left foot and finished with his right.
Finally, it looked as though Reading’s fortune might be turning, and with time to get their stuttering playoff push back on track. But in a moment of madness in the box, Yiadom conceded a needless penalty. He pulled down his man and the Royals were pulled back. They would get a glorious chance to restore their lead only minutes later though: a chance that may be our most infamous of 2021, if not this entire fledgling decade.
If you’re not already 100% aware of the chance I’m alluding to, it’s the chance that led to the worst miss of Lucas Joao’s entire Reading career. You’re probably now on the same page.
After a scintillating first half of the season in which Joao was unplayable, his confidence had been deteriorating since a late penalty miss against Preston North End in February. As the weeks dragged on and Reading began to struggle more to pick up points, it was clear from Joao’s body language that he wasn’t as sure of his ability as he once had been.
In a vile turn of fate, that loss of confidence would come back to bite us at the worst possible time.
There’s no need to describe this miss other than to say it was a gut-wrenching moment to watch, and for me: the worst moment of 2021 for Reading in a year full of bad moments. It encapsulated everything that had been slowly going wrong for the team in the past few months, and led to a wealth of mockery and attention from the football world. It’s a gigantic part of the collective reason we all wish we could forget this game, and the main reason we can’t. The rest of the match played out after the miss, but Reading were shell shocked, and by the end did well to leave with a point.
By the end of the day, Reading sat inside the playoff places, but perilously close to falling out, with Bournemouth chasing with a game in hand. Once they won that game, Reading were unable to claw their way back into the playoff places again. As injury time played out at Oakwell last year, it felt as though the final bit of air in the balloon went out.
Though Reading could have done more in the following games to avoid falling to a disappointing seventh-placed finished, the Barnsley game is the one I remember as the back breaker for the squad. The match itself, and losing our playoff place, remains incredibly frustrating. It stands as such partly because of the result and the impact on our season, yes, but also because Barnsley’s miraculous run to the playoffs last year was so evocative of the kind of club Reading was a decade ago.
Late surges in 2010/11 and 2011/12 saw our Royals compete for and then burst into the Premier League on a wave of smart business, sheer bloody mindedness and force of willpower. That feeling, however we remember it, was clearly present at Barnsley under Ismael, and how he must regret having left now. Their regression to the mean this season has been clearly helped by poor management, but goes some way to showing how far above their weight they were punching. It stung to watch a club ride a wave of momentum past us, especially when it felt like we had lost our ability to generate the same.
A year on, the match falling on the same day again is of course purely coincidental. But it’s difficult not to feel the potent sting of Reading’s lack of progress since that last year. Management failings, injury crises and our points deduction have ensured that this season has been a struggle. And yet, Reading still sit outside of the relegation zone, with a great chance to pull away for good when they play Barnsley.
Barnsley have also had a rough year. They could have expected a drop-off after losing Mowatt and Ismael in the summer to a doomed project at West Brom, but after his initial replacement Markus Schopp made such a horrible mess of things, the Tykes have been generally glued to the foot of the table all year.
There cannot be any heed paid to that. Reading must be solid, efficient and ruthless against Barnsley. Given that drawing the game will put us two games clear of any challengers with an easier run in to boot, Reading can afford to play conservatively but must take their chances with aplomb. We may expect to be under the kosh for a while against Barnsley - they have been playing better under Asbaghi and will be just as determined as we are. After all, they know this is their last big chance to make the final weeks of the season matter.
But Reading’s defensive shape has been far better in recent weeks, and the return of Baba Rahman should go a long way towards balancing out the back four. Losing Yakou Meite and Andy Rinomhota hurts, but the other players have seemed happier and more expressive on the field in recent matches. We should have more than enough to replace Meite’s current production level elsewhere: Tom Ince clearly isn’t going anywhere and on the left, an elated Junior Hoilett should absolutely go straight back into the team.
So the defence has improved, and our attacking crop of players remains the best of the bottom four clubs. Therein is the truly exciting thing about this match: it really feels winnable and as such, it's the best opportunity Reading are going to get to open clear daylight to the bottom three. The fans seem to sense it too, and are traveling to Barnsley in large numbers. Three points would be the perfect way to generate a party atmosphere in the stands, and to help the players banish the demons of the 2021 edition.
Winning the game will put Reading a minimum of seven points clear with seven games to play and, given that no team in the relegation zone is picking up points at a point-per-game pace, you’d expect that to be the ball game, pun intended. Moreover, with a three-game swing needed to turn that gap around, we might expect that the less committed players at Barnsley, Peterborough, and Derby might be tempted to down tools.
All that said, it is imperative that Reading’s players remain calm if they lose. They’ll still have a small cushion, but would overall need to focus on one game at a time without panicking about the gap to the drop. A mental breakdown at this stage would likely be fatal for the club’s Championship status. But after the positive last week before the international break, Ince appears to have succeeded in creating a calmer, happier mentality at the club.
A year will have passed since we last played at Oakwell when we kick off on Saturday, and for the most part, it’s been a disappointing one for Reading FC. But if the Royals can get a vital win, perhaps the year to follow can go in a better direction. On the back of Laurent’s amazing match-winner last time out, and with the seemingly improving mentality at the club, it’s in reach.
In every sense, it’s a huge one this weekend. The club won’t know if they’ll be a Championship or League One club in 2022/23 on Sunday, sure, but afterward we’ll all have a much clearer picture of how comfortable the final weeks will be. Whether in the stands at Oakwell, watching from near or afar or following in any other way you can, let’s all collectively hope for a better April 2 this year… and maybe a Lucas Joao hat-trick.