After two home wins in a row without conceding a goal, we found ourselves in a pretty comfortable situation at the end of August. Nine points out of five games – every Royal must have been quite happy with the start so far, especially bearing in mind all financial difficulties regarding the signing of new players.
But also on that front, there was positive news. Naby Sarr, 29-year-old French centre-back and former Olympique Lyon, Sporting Lisbon, Charlton and Huddersfield player, finally received permission to sign a four-year contract. This became possible thanks to the departure of out-of-favour striker George Puscas, who moved on loan to Italian Serie B club Genoa 93.
Even though results went well before, manager Paul Ince showed how important Sarr was to him by giving him directly a start from the beginning. The French took the left spot in a defence of three, with Sam Hutchinson in the centre and Tom Holmes on the right. Captain Andy Yiadom played right-wing-back while Tom McIntyre occupied the same position on the opposite side.
The midfield trio consisted of Jeff Hendrick, Mamadou Loum and Tyrese Fornah. Tom Ince supported lone striker Lucas Joao. It was a first start for the big Portuguese this season. In goal Joe Lumley made his expected return. Junior Hoilett, Nesta Guinness-Walker and Shane Long all went to the bench.
Millwall started powerfully and put the Royals under early pressure. Tom Bradshaw had his header saved by Joe Lumley in the third minute. But the longer the game went on the more Paul Ince’s men were able to get it under control.
After a quarter of an hour a free-kick then brought even more joy to the nearly 1,400 Royals supporters at The Den. Tom Ince played a precise inswinging ball that Sam Hutchinson flicked on perfectly to new signing Naby Sarr on the back post, who made no mistake with a flying header from short range. 1-0 to the Royals! And what a debut for the number 24!
The goal gave Reading even more confidence. Although offensively Lucas Joao and co didn’t create a lot, they always looked dangerous on their quick counterattacks. Defensively the Royals were just rock-solid and didn’t give the Lions a lot of space. With Holmes, Hutchinson and Sarr all taller than 6ft, they dominated all aerial battles.
There were two penalty shouts by the home side, first after a tackle from Tom Holmes, then due to a push from Sam Hutchinson. Both times referee Kavanagh rightfully signalled “play on”. As a consequence, with no clear chances following, the 1-0 lead for the visitors was also the half-time result. A not-spectacular but convincing display in the first 45 minutes.
The game continued in the same manner after the break. The Royals showed the right and necessary fighting spirit to get that win over the line. Seven minutes into the second half it could or honestly must have been 2-0. After a great play by Andy Yiadom and Lucas Joao, Tom Ince sent Jeff Hendrick one on one against the ‘keeper. But the powerless shot from Reading’s number eight was easily parried away by Bialkowski. Reading looked for some minutes on the front foot. Overall, the game was a bit scrappy with neither side creating clear goal occasions.
Somewhat surprisingly a set-piece that involved two former Royals nearly brought the equaliser in the 66th minute. After a Millwall free-kick from the right, Jake Cooper jumped the highest and headed the ball goalwards. In front of Joe Lumley there was Benik Afobe though, who got a slight touch on it from an offside position. The assistant seemed to need some seconds to make his decision but finally waved his flag.
The Lions became stronger then and gave Reading nearly no time to breathe. In addition to that, any opportunity for a counter-attack ended early as the Royals lacked accuracy in their passing play. Paul Ince decided it was time to bring on some fresh legs. Shane Long replaced Lucas Joao (79th minute). Although the Portuguese battled hard it was one of his quieter performances.
And four minutes later Shane Long had directly the golden chance to kill the game. Jeff Hendrick won the ball in midfield and sent Long alone on goal. Inside the box the Irish striker had two options: pass the ball to the right to the on-running Tom Ince who would have had a clear shot on the empty goal or convert it himself. The 35-year-old opted for the latter. His strike went wide, the second 100% opportunity blasted away.
In the past that might have cost us the three points. But Paul Ince’s men kept concentration high. A deflected cross from McNamara that hit the post in the 88th minute was the only real chance Millwall had. Seconds later Tom Ince then made space for Junior Hoilett (90th minute). Another energetic display by the manager’s son.
After seven, still tense and nervy minutes of stoppage time, the referee finally blew the whistle. Full-time and celebrations in the away end. Three valuable points! Three wins in a row, all of them without conceding a goal!
It was a fantastic all-around team performance. Everyone worked and battled for the others. It’s difficult to point a single one out and pick a man-of-the-match. Thanks to his winner and the circumstances of his debut it would probably have to be Naby Sarr. He gave the defence even more stability - something that will be needed as well at Sheffield United on Tuesday.
Now a quick glimpse to the table was also allowed… WE ARE TOP OF THE LEAGUE!!! What an incredible achievement. All credit to this team, to Paul Ince, to Mark Bowen, to the Reading fans that had to suffer and be patient for such a long time, but never stopped supporting.
Of course, the season is still young. Many games have to be played. We will lose some of them and most probably finish the season in a lower league position. But for now this number-one spot in the Championship just feels fantastic! It feels that we are on the right track for the first time in years. Everyone has every right to fully enjoy that. Come on Urzzzzzz!