It’s a tad unwise to attach too much significance to matches this early in the season, but it’s still hard not to be heartily encouraged by today’s 2-1 win over Cardiff City. Developments on the injury and transfer fronts in recent days have been worrying, meaning plenty of us went into this game fearing the worst, so sealing three points at home at the first time of asking is a massive shot in the arm when it was badly needed.
And this was no lucky win - by all accounts Reading were good value for the victory. Bar the period before Shane Long’s emotional equaliser the Royals were the better side, won the contest with one heck of a finish from Tom Ince, and didn’t look all that stressed in holding onto the lead.
It’s certainly more than I was expecting. Going into today, with so many players unavailable for various reasons, I was hoping for Reading to put up a hearty fight in an anticipated defeat. After all, while Paul Ince is facing short-term selection dilemmas due to a lack of options, he still needs to be building the kind of mentality that will be able to drive this team forwards over the course of the campaign.
Reassuringly, we saw it today. To be fair we also saw it in a gutsy but fruitless second-half fightback at Blackpool last week, but the character on show was top-level against Cardiff. Too many times in recent years, a patched-up Reading side would have wilted after conceded early on, perhaps going on to lose comfortably.
What we got instead though was resilience and commitment. Reading slowly but surely improved after the opener, got the equaliser, and carried that through the second half as well, managing the lead expertly late on. Coming from behind and then holding firm amid Cardiff pressure took spirit, focus and togetherness.
Clearly, this group of players has that winning mentality inside it. We won’t collectively outclass opposition teams often this season and have less individual ability to rely on in key moments, but repeat this kind of character consistently and we’ll be just fine.
The afternoon started with Paul Ince making one change to the side that lost at Blackpool. While Ovie Ejaria managed to hold off a hamstring issue to start, Yakou Meite will be out for the next few weeks so was replaced up top by Long. Otherwise Reading maintained the 3-4-3 from a week ago:
Lumley; Yiadom, Holmes, McIntyre; Hoilett, Hendrick, Fornah, Guiness-Walker; Ince, Long, Ejaria
It doesn’t much matter what formation you pick though if you can’t defend set pieces, and that’s where Reading fell short early on. Barely four minutes were on the clock when Callum O’Dowda nodded in a free kick from the right wing, beating Jeff Hendrick too easily in the process. Cue flashbacks to this time last season when Reading gave up goals from such scenarios seemingly every few minutes.
For the next 20 minutes or so, Reading were second best. While the visitors certainly didn’t dominate, they certainly looked more dangerous than the Royals, who seemed shaky at the back in the absence of a properly commanding middle centre back. For a big chunk of the first half at least, the authority of a Sam Hutchinson/Scott Dann was conspicuous by its absence. And Cardiff could well have had a second around 10 minutes after the opener, only for Joe Lumley to keep out an effort at the end of a counter attack.
But it only takes a moment for the flow of a game to change. A hoof downfield was flicked on well by lone striker Long (who put in a stand-out shift holding the ball up and making a nuisance of himself), with Ince running through and rounding the ‘keeper before being taken out inside the area. Red card, surely? No, the referee bizarrely only gave Curtis Nelson a yellow, later apparently telling Paul Ince he didn’t think Tom Ince - who was ready to knock the ball into an empty net - was going to shoot.
Justice denied, Long did the honours and knocked home the penalty.
That goal breathed new life into the Royals. Although Reading didn’t dominate the rest of the half we certainly had the better of it, causing Cardiff problems down the right wing through Ince, Andy Yiadom and Junior Hoilett. One such problem led to probably the best chance of the game - Yiadom sending the ball low across the face of goal to Guinness-Walker at the back post... only for the left wing-back to sky his effort. While he had some work to do to get over the ball and guide it home, he still should have scored.
Reading weren’t quite at that level in the first 20 minutes or so after the break, although we did go close a couple of times. Long was just about denied a tap-in at the back post early on in the second half, and the ball really could have ended anywhere when a free kick from the left wing pinballed around the Bluebirds’ area.
But it was Tom Ince who sealed the points in the 63rd minute. Things opened up for him in the middle, allowing him to charge forward at Cardiff’s area, and he absolutely slammed the ball into the top corner from a good distance out. It was excellent technique, but after his stunning equaliser at Bournemouth last season, certainly not something we didn’t know was in his locker.
Focus then turned to how well Reading would be able to see the lead out. It’s something we struggled with badly last season; even when the Royals did hold on, such as in the one-goal wins over Preston North End and Middlesbrough, it still seemed to come with a hefty dollop of fortune.
This time though, Reading commendably didn’t drop too deep too early. Doing that is a bad habit and one that’s hard to break when it’s set in during the latter stages of a high-pressure contest, and I’m glad we avoided it for the most part. In truth, Cardiff didn’t really look all that dangerous in the closing period. Going by the unscientific metric of how rapidly my heart was beating in the last 5-10 minutes, the Royals’ game management was impressively stress-free.
Reading will need to repeat today’s practices for winning games plenty of times this season: being able to come from behind and see out narrow leads. It certainly helps when there’s a boisterous home crowd to help, and the fans more than played their part in the second half.
With no disrespect intended, hopefully it’ll be a noticeably different group taking to the field in the weeks and months to come. Reading need extra quality at centre half, in the middle of the park and at left wing-back, not to mention the return of Lucas Joao. But fresh faces in the team will do well to take after the spirit shown by those in the side today.