There’s many things that Reading FC in the last few seasons have taught us. Firstly, don’t get too high when we win or even draw an eight-goal classic with nigh on the last gasp of the game. Secondly, don’t expect that to be a catalyst for future results. Thirdly, you know we’ll get absolutely battered in the next game. These types of cycles are often repeated, but that’s life as a fan of this club in 2022.
Fortunately, for many a Reading fan we’re sanguine about this. We know what we are. We know where we’re at. There’s the disparate bunch of talented but inconsistent few that can be matchwinners on their day, but likely some will soon be leaving. There’s the hard-working older element that have their best days behind them, and a few youngsters that pop up now and then; we’ve no idea how good they can be.
All of the above has led to Reading barely surviving another year in the gruelling, cut-throat and hectic Championship for another season. As a microcosm of the last two games, what have we learned from it? Maybe not learned, as such, but reinforced.
We know the squad numbers and quality are not sufficient for a 46-game competition. The Championship is possibly the most gruelling division in European football. That can’t be taken lightly; this league is brutal. The most mitigating factor of the entire season has been the injuries - coupled with the lack of depth in many positions.
An example of that is Lucas Joao. Before his return in the winter, we struggled by with the talismanic Andy Carroll, before that we mixed and fiddled with false nines to varying degrees of success. Latterly, poor Lucas has had no backup whatsoever. If he has been substituted, it has not been a like-for-like swap. That said, there’s nobody really like Joao but still we don’t have another bona fide centre-forward, the closest being Yakou Meite who is more of a wide forward and Femi Azeez who is more like Meite than he is Joao.
Due to having to prune the squad of deadwood, like Sam Baldock and Marc McNulty, we were always short on strikers. However, we had seen signs that Jahmari Clarke could offer something. He single-handedly won us three points at St Andrews which were vital in the great scheme of things. Still, interim manager Paul Ince chose not to deploy him or hardly any youngsters during his tenure to date.
Arguably, this has been a deliberate action from the manager not to expose players who are too young to cope with such an important situation as staving off relegation. That does make sense, but when bodies are very thin on the ground to begin with, it does beg the question still, where is Clarke when Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan has been warming the bench instead?
The situation of the strikers could be replicated for many other outfield positions, too. No alternate right back for Andy Yiadom. No real alternate for left back in Baba Rahman (who we don’t even own), but saviour Tom McIntyre can do a job there. In central defence, there’s only Terrell Thomas. He’s possibly destined never to kick a ball in anger in a Reading shirt and almost certainly will be released in the summer.
In midfield, without John Swift and Andy Rinomhota, we’ve got by with Josh Laurent, a Premier League-winning loanee in Danny Drinkwater and a faltering loanee, Tom Dele-Bashiru. Again, no real options available to replace any of those. Dejan Tetek has been injured for months and, beyond the injured duo, there’s little to draw upon.
That’s the physical aspect, but we’re also mentally capable of both Himalayan highs and Mariana Trench-like lows. It was almost predictable that we’d succumb badly after such a monumental high of an equaliser at the death in a 4-4 fixture. It’s so Ding-sy.
In hindsight, the result against Swansea put the seal on our Championship survival and maybe the players felt that also. Maybe the relief of that result emptied the emotional and physical tanks for the fixture against Hull City? Coupled with the lack of numbers to mix the starting XI up, maybe it was inevitable that tired legs and minds could not replicate such a performance again or even close to it.
When all is said and done, what physical remnants remain, we must acknowledge that this team has been patchwork for large parts of the season, at absolute best. When looking at other sides which have shown such obvious structure, shape and movement, we’re way, way behind teams like that. Reading have not controlled a single game of football for as long as I can remember. Of course, this is all our own doing. That can’t be denied.
Going forward, now we know what level we’re pitching ourselves at, we can only hope that solid plans (and one of many plans) are ahead to make Reading competitive at very least next season. If “competitive” means we’re capable of winning 15 games next season, then that’s good enough. It may have to be.