As Reading’s season whimpered out at Kenilworth Road, the club’s under-23 side had their eyes on silverware. Truthfully, their campaign has been just as poor as the first team’s. The injury crisis all Reading fans will be familiar with has not spared them – many under-23s have spent much of their season on the first-team bench, and many of the rest have been seeing the physio with injuries of their own.
The club’s financial situation also meant that players in the 19-20 age bracket who would otherwise have been kept on, such as Wycombe Wanderers’ Oliver Pendlebury, did not have their contracts renewed. The result has been a patchwork squad that has limped their way to the bottom place of Premier League 2 Division 2, spared the ignominy of relegation only because there is nowhere for them to be relegated to.
But the Berks & Bucks Cup has been a shimmer of hope this season. While Reading are comfortably the biggest club in the counties, the under-23s are by no means entitled to the trophy. The club has only won the trophy once since 1892. The last cup final, in 2019, saw the Royals lose 3-1 to Slough Town, with goalscorer Thierry Nevers poached by West Ham United last summer. That being said, this year the Royals breezed past MK Dons under-23s in the semi-finals with a comfortable 4-0 victory, so there was some reason for optimism.
The Reading side was diminished – Kelvin Abrefa, Nelson Abbey, Rashawn Scott and Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan were in Luton, while Michael Stickland, Benjamin Purcell, Jahmari Clarke and Claudio Osorio were also missing. Throw in Dejan Tekek and Femi Azeez, and loaned-out goalkeeper Coniah Boyce-Clark, and you have an entire XI.
In his programme notes, Noel Hunt said he expected Ascot to be physical, and so it proved. In the opening moments, Ascot won two quick headers, beating Louie Holzman, only for Tyrell Ashcroft to nip in and make a vital clearance. Moments later, an Ascot player gave striker Nahum Melvin-Lambert a push in the small of his back after the ball was gone. Ascot’s right back, George Lock, was particularly energetic, storming up his flank and into the Reading area with determination. It seemed Ascot had set out to take the game to Reading and make them uncomfortable.
To Reading’s credit, they were not unsettled. Ashcroft does not have the stature of a centre-back, but he was vocal in organising the back line and very comfortable in possession. After his early scare, Holzman looked assured, and there was a touch of Antonio Rudiger in his drives into the opposition half. But it was the midfield trio of Michael Craig, Kian Leavy and Mamadi Camara who allowed Reading to dominate.
Craig – apparently still a triallist, but surely not for much longer – sat in front of the defence and kept things ticking over, dropping into the back line when needed and playing the right pass without showing off. You suspect Spurs will soon regret releasing him. It may be premature to say this, but I would not be at all opposed to Craig following Tetek into the first-team squad for next season.
Leavy and Camara, similarly, moved intelligently into space and advanced the ball effectively. The pair are versatile footballers who played as wingers against Swansea City in the League Cup, but today showed their value as central midfielders. With Lynford Sackey and Imari Samuels pushing on aggressively from full back, Leavy often dropped into the space they had vacated to receive possession.
Camara, contrastingly, stayed somewhat higher to link with the forward players, and showed his ability to play with his back to goal and turn sharply as well as a knack for finding pockets of space to exploit. It was soon obvious that Camara, a full international, was playing well below his level. You suspect he has learned all he can from under-23 football.
Reading were playing with a great deal of width to try and stretch the play. This resulted in a few sloppy moments when a wide player failed to keep the ball on the pitch, resulting in ironic cheers from the Ascot fans. Their loudest cheer of the match came when Melvin-Lambert slipped backwards when attempting a shot.
Reading did need a goal to truly banish the nerves. When it did arrive, it was overshadowed by a bizarre incident. An Ascot midfielder overcommitted to a challenge and slid off the side of Slough’s artificial pitch. In doing so, he got his foot stuck under the metal fence that ran around the perimeter. By the time a fan helped him get unstuck, Ajani Giscombe had struck home for the Royals. Giscombe only turned 17 in April but has a real eye for goal.
Reading’s confidence only grew from there. Melvin-Lambert was a useful target man who occupied defenders. While Clarke and Ehibhatiomhan tend to drop deep and wide to see more of the ball, Melvin-Lambert largely held his position on the shoulder of the centre-backs. Ascot continued to struggle with Reading’s fluid movement and width. Sackey showed an incredible burst of pace, rampaging forward from the right and skinning multiple Ascot defenders to win a corner. A second goal felt inevitable, and good link-up between Samuels and Ethan Bristow down the left led to a headed chance for Melvin-Lambert, who celebrated wildly. The young striker has endured a difficult season out on loan in Ireland, and was clearly delighted with his goal.
Around the 30-minute mark, the Ascot goalkeeper went down injured, apparently suffering cramp. This was a convenient opportunity for both sides to rehydrate – the sun had been out for much of the first half. If the goalkeeper “getting cramp” was a ploy by Ascot, it was unsuccessful, with Samuels scoring a thumping goal from the edge of the area that hit both posts before going in.
Three additional subs arrived at the ground late in the first half – Abbey, Scott, and Ehibhatiomhan had been driven down from Luton by Michael Gilkes. All three came on early in the second half, replacing Ashcroft, Samuels and finally Sackey. Bristow and Leavy dropped back to full-back, and the shape shifted to more of a 4-4-1-1 with Ehibhatiomhan playing just off Melvin-Lambert.
Scott, making his second substitute appearance of the day, was Reading’s bright spark in this period. He drew a number of tactical fouls, including two from the same player, who was dismissed. Truthfully the second was rather fortunate, as Scott had arguably fouled his marker with a shirt pull shortly before the trip.
While the no-nonsense approach of referee Daniel Todd deserves praise, a few decisions did cause confusion on the terraces, including when Reading received a free-kick after a handball from Ehibhationmhan (my interpretation was that the referee had seen a foul on the Reading player shortly before the handball and correctly penalised the first offence). A collision between Melvin-Lambert and an Ascot centre-half was judged to be a foul by the striker; Melvin-Lambert rather petulantly refused to retreat 10 yards from the free kick and was booked.
The main event of the second half was a brawl that occurred in front of the Ascot terraces. Nelson Abbey was fouled while defending, and squared up to the offender. Almost every player on the pitch decided to get involved, and Noel Hunt and Peter Scott raced out of the Reading technical area but were deterred from entering the pitch (a la Mourinho and Wenger at the 2007 League Cup final) by the fourth official. Fortunately no further red cards were issued, with Abbey and two Ascot players being cautioned after the referee consulted with the nearest assistant. A secondary outbreak of handbags on the halfway line was broken up by the opposing assistant referee.
Reading were still the dominant side, but had less of a cutting edge, and something of a gap between their defensive and attacking units. Leavy, now playing at right back, did his best Joel Cancelo impression and set off on a run that ended with him linking up with Scott in the left corner. The ball was worked to Melvin-Lambert on a few occasions, but he was never able to beat the goalkeeper. Finally, well into the seven minutes of injury time, a shot blocked by a diving Ascot defender ricocheted to a Reading foot, and was cut back for Melvin-Lambert to slot home his second and Reading’s fourth.
After the full-time whistle, the players were joined by the other members of the squad for Hunt-led celebrations on the pitch, with stand-in captain Leavy lifting the trophy in place of Claudio Osorio.
Man of the match
Mamadi Camara. His poise, incision, and intelligent movement in the first half were crucial to Reading’s domination. He was slightly undercut by the change in formation in the second half, but still combined well with Scott in particular to give the Ascot defence a lot of trouble.