We didn’t lose. That might feel like a small reward to come out of such a big game, but in reality, it was the one thing Reading simply had to achieve at Barnsley. And, given that defeat looked to be on the cards for so long at Oakwell, the sheer relief when Josh Laurent prodded the ball home in front of the away end is hard to describe.
Seasons hinge on moments, and Reading’s may well hinge on this one.
Had Barnsley been able to hold onto that 1-0 lead, it would have been a hammer blow for Reading and shot of adrenaline for the Tykes. Reading’s five-point gap would not only have been cut down to a precarious two, but momentum would have shifted firmly into the Tykes’ favour.
But in a moment, that all changed and Reading seized back control of the relegation race. Michael Morrison teed up Laurent, Laurent slammed the ball into the net and the 1,800 raucous Loyal Royals in the stand behind that net went ballistic. It’ll be a long time before I get to be in the middle of a goal celebration of pure elation like that again.
There’s just something so perfect about a late goal of huge significance, and Reading are starting to develop a habit of scoring them. Paul Ince will take a lot of pleasure from seeing how well his side keep plugging away and manage to come up with a moment of magic when it truly counts. Laurent rocketed one in from range to beat Blackburn Rovers in the 78th minute last time out, while Tom Ince found the top corner in the 83rd at Bournemouth two matches ago.
As it happens, today’s 1-1 played out pretty similarly to the 1-1 at Bournemouth: concede an early goal, play poorly in the rest of the first half, improve in the second, grab a late equaliser. Although the last part in that list is ultimately the most important, the first two meant Reading made things harder for themselves than they needed to be.
Reading had actually been the better of the two sides at 0-0, playing on the front foot in the opening minutes. But all it took was a lapse in our third to give the hosts a leg up, Barnsley finding it too easy to work a chance in our left-back spot before Carlton Morris curled the ball inside the far post.
At that point the Royals should still have been well up for the challenge, given what was at stake, but we saw little evidence of that in the rest of the first half. While Reading had plenty of possession they had little idea what to do with it, regularly knocking the ball around the back and too often then losing it with an attempted long pass. While a lot of that can be put down to a lack of movement higher up, really Reading needed more initiative from the defenders. A ball over the top from Morrison to get John Swift in behind was a nice example of what more could have been tried.
Other chances did come, but they were few, far between and wasted. Swift and Ince both could have done better with Ovie Ejaria deliveries, but Ejaria himself was guilty of profligacy with his crossing. One opportunity to put the ball into the box actually ended with him slipping and skying the ball.
Boos at the half-time whistle were appropriate for the showing, although they quickly turned to roars of encouragement as the players headed down the tunnel by the away end.
Reading were better in the second half, but it certainly wasn’t an abrupt improvement in the manner of the Bournemouth game. Improvement did gradually come though: Lucas Joao (who’d barely been in the first half) put a header wide from a corner, Ince danced into the area off the right with some great footwork (but was booked for a dive), while Tom McIntyre and Ejaria both had shots blocked.
The Royals needed a substitution, but as in previous games it was slow to come. I’d have got Tom Dele-Bashiru on for Laurent earlier in the match to add some more impetus in midfield; Ince did introduce Dele-Bashiru, but did so for Ejaria in the 78th minute. That meant a rejig: Laurent to 10, Swift to the left wing. And, aptly, those positional changes appeared key to the goal. Swift cut in from the left to deliver and Laurent was on hand in front of goal to prod the ball home.
At that point, only one team looked like winning it. Reading were in the ascendancy and pushed for another goal, one which would have taken the roof off if it’d been found. Swift went close to grabbing it via a curling effort (parried for a corner), as did Ince (shot blocked for a corner).
But Barnsley had other ideas. The hosts mounted a few late attacks of their own - a save from Orjan Nyland and block from McIntyre proved crucial. They were handy reminders of just how valuable a point really was - Reading could have won this game, but they could well have lost it too.
This game doesn’t mean a decisive swing in the relegation race in Reading’s favour, but that wasn’t crucial. At the end of the day, we’re one match closer to the end of the season with the five-point gap maintained and a potential calamity avoided.