At half time today, things were looking rosy for Reading: 1-0 up at home to Cardiff City and with relegation rivals losing, the Royals were a whopping 11 points clear of the bottom three. It’s the kind of healthy gap we couldn’t have dreamed of not all that long ago, but has recently become possible. 45 minutes later though, that gap was cut back down to eight.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too downhearted. After all, at the end of the day, Reading remain eight points clear of the bottom three having played one more game than Barnsley - exactly where we were at 2.59pm. Strictly speaking we haven’t lost anything we already had. But I’m still left with a real sense of frustration and irritation that Reading surrendered a real chance to move forwards, and in such meek fashion too.
For the first 45 minutes, the Royals played like a side that sincerely believed that they could win - a trait that had largely defined this team in the previous four games. Sure, we were far from perfect, but the performance had that extra zip on and off the ball, providing an extra edge.
That was particularly true in the opening stages, with Reading again starting quickly - as had been the case in midweek. And the extra zip oozed out of the first goal: Reading attacked through Tom Ince, who played in the overlapping Andy Yiadom on the right, and he dinked a cross to the back post for Lucas Joao to nod home. A refreshingly simple, direct bit of build-up rewarded with a lead.
Also as had been the case in midweek, Reading would fade after the goal, albeit not as immediately. Cardiff had a few openings on the counter, but without really troubling the Royals.
Pleasingly though, Reading themselves then grew back into the contest. Although the hosts didn’t hit top gear, that bit more momentum started to be created, and it really should have been capped off with a second. John Swift had a glorious chance - probably the best of the game - when played through on goal. He had all the time in the world to find a finish, but dallied and wasted the opportunity - uncharacteristically indecisive from someone who’s found his shooting boots this season.
Still, at the break, it was a case of ‘so far, so good’. Reading had, unlike on Tuesday, held onto the one-goal lead all the way to the interval.
For the final 45 minutes, Reading looked like they were waiting to lose. You can understand a slow start to the half, but not the kind of limp, passive performance that the Royals put on for pretty much the entire period. The Royals’ fight and intensity were conspicuous by their absence.
Cardiff didn’t lack either though, and didn’t have much trouble in keeping Reading at arm’s length and building attacks. We certainly had plenty of warning ahead of the 59th-minute equaliser, when a ball was dinked over the top by Joe Ralls for Alfie Doughty to run onto and slot home.
Paul Ince acted decisively by making an immediate change - in contrast to previous games when it’s taken him too long to use his bench. He went for what’s now a common tactic of him, swapping Tom Dele-Bashiru on for Junior Hoilett, thereby pushing Josh Laurent into the 10 role and Swift out wide. Ince has tried it various times before and, given that it allows Laurent to press higher while retaining Swift’s creativity, you can see the logic behind the idea.
It didn’t work though. Reading were just as flat as they had been before the equaliser, and would remain that way for the rest of the game. There was little reaction to losing the lead, and the less said about the 85th-minute winner, the better. Cardiff found it far too easy to cut through the middle of the Royals’ defence, allowing Will Vaulks the freedom of Reading to make it 2-1.
Not even then could Reading really rouse themselves to look for an equaliser of their own. The loss of Swift to injury (replaced by Femi Azeez in the 77th minute) didn’t help, but there was still enough quality on the pitch to create a concerted, convincing effort at clawing it back to 2-2. Michael Morrison shanking the ball well wide from range in the dying seconds summed the second-half performance up for its lack of quality.
I really thought we'd left games like this behind us. Reading have been far from perfect in recent matches, looking below par in the first half at Bournemouth and Barnsley for example, but still had that doggedness in them that made you think a lead could be maintained or an equaliser could be found.
Not today though. The game drifted away from Reading in the second half - frustratingly, because we allowed it. Joao’s performance was particularly frustrating: despite opening the scoring with a powerful header, his hold-up play was sloppy and muddled, a far cry from the talismanic centre forward of last season who could make things happen in the final third by himself.
Otherwise, the drop-off from first to second half felt like a collective failing. While some players (Andy Yiadom, Danny Drinkwater) were better than others (Joao, Swift), the issue after the break appeared to be more of a general lack of proactivity from everyone rather than something which could be put down to specific individuals falling short.
It’s a reminder that, for all the optimism in recent weeks, this is still a group that’s badly under-performed this season and dragging it over the line won’t be easy. Getting the job done can’t be taken for granted.