There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one way to win a football match. While Reading showed their aggressive, proactive defensive prowess in Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Blackburn Rovers, Saturday’s 1-0 against Middlesbrough was less adventurous but just as impressive.
This was, in large part at least, a rearguard action. Probably down to a mixture of fatigue from midweek and the quality of the opposition, Reading opted for a safety-first approach. Pressing higher up the pitch and winning the ball back in the opposition’s half was in short supply, instead replaced by a well-disciplined, deeper defensive shape.
And it worked a treat. For all the visitors’ possession and territory, they struggled to find a way through a rock-solid Reading structure. Bar a few nervy moments (a header that dropped agonisingly wide of the post, a penalty shout and a close-range shot impressively blocked by John Clarke), it didn’t feel as if the Royals were ever really on the ropes.
‘Boro were certainly poor in their own right - lacking sharpness and intensity going forwards - but you’d have been foolish to rule out a comeback. Although they’ve had a poor start to the season and are still awaiting their first win, this is still a team with an excellent manager in Chris Wilder, quality players at this level (such as left-wing-back Ryan Giles) and recent memories of a 2-1 comeback win against us.
January’s match, when a late Matt Crooks double cancelled out Andy Carroll’s opener at the Riverside, was indeed fresh in the memory in the closing stages of this contest. We’re all too familiar with watching Reading crumble under late pressure, lacking that extra edge of concentration and paying the price, not least in last season’s home games too.
But not today. Even when drained of energy in the second half, Reading held firm. Even when Sam Hutchinson was forced off with an injury, Reading held firm. This team is made of sterner stuff.
Boro may not have been able to find a way through, but Tyrese Fornah could. His 28th-minute winner was as sweetly struck as it was venomous, hit expertly into the bottom corner (the ‘bottom cornah’ to pinch a neat turn of phrase from @American_Royals). Amid all the excitement surrounding fellow midfielder Mamadou Loum, don’t forget that Fornah - who had an excellent game in midweek - is a top prospect too.
It ended up being one of the relatively few significant moments in the final third for Reading on the day. The Royals didn’t manage extended periods of danger as they have done previously, instead being able to come up with some decent but fairly brief spells, and none of prominence beyond the hour mark.
With a deeper squad, Paul Ince would surely have taken the opportunity to get plenty of fresh legs on and push Reading up the pitch. After all, being in the middle of a second demanding performance in under three days, it was understandable to see a tired Royals side drop deeper. Instead, the only unenforced switch was Lucas Joao replacing Shane Long on the hour mark, but Joao was so isolated that he couldn’t get into the game.
Whisper it quietly, but the SCL is starting to look like a fortress this season (in the Championship at least). Reading have played three and won three at home - deservedly in each case - and conceded just once. Considering that those three matches have included visits from sides tipped for success this season (Cardiff City and ‘Boro), as well as one that had been on a 100% winning run (Blackburn Rovers), Reading’s home form is extra impressive.
The atmosphere certainly helps. It’s a night-and-day difference from a few years ago when the Mad Stad was consistently flat. Now, the backing is consistently raucous. Club 1871, which has gone from strength to strength since joining up with the Sir John Madejski Stand, drives much of the noise but gets plenty of support from others around the ground. The collective effort comes across particularly well where I sit - halfway down the SJM.
The fans drive the players with their backing... the players drive the fans with their effort levels... it’s a lovely cycle to be in, isn’t it? Keep that going and our home form will be a huge boost in our efforts to stay up this season - an ambition which feels irrelevant for a side currently ranked third, but one that’s still more important than anything else.