It’s another defeat, another loss on the road and another match that saw the Royals on the wrong end of a 3-2 scoreline – making this the seventh time (out of 11 WSL matches) that Reading have conceded three or more goals this season.
Although Kelly Chambers celebrated her birthday earlier this week, there’s otherwise not been much joy and cheer for the Royals manager in preparation for the first match of 2023. This was a week that started with Chambers having to defend (up to a point) the vocal comments, observations and concerns of captain Emma Mukandi, outlining her experience and treatment of maternity leave, and becoming a mother, as a player in the WSL. They’re comments and experiences that the WSL must listen to, learn from and improve quickly – as pregnancy and maternity leave can’t have come as a surprise to any professional governing body and football club.
Although the transfer window is well and truly open for business – with many clubs in the league already strengthening their squads with new (on loan or permanent) signings – it’s been pin-drop silent from Reading Football Club, which can only be of concern to everyone, including Kelly Chambers and the management team.
The Royals’ squad is marginal, to say the least, and today again evidenced this with only six substitutes: four outfield players and two reserve goalkeepers. Chambers was also missing important and experienced players, including Lily Woodham, Rachel Rowe and Tia Primmer, as well as long-term injuries for Beth Roberts and Deanne Rose.
Team: Burns, Mukandi (captain), Evans, Cooper, Bryson, Vanhaevermaet, Troelsgaard, Wade, Eikeland, Dowie, Harries
There was no sign either of an early gift from the home team who, within the first 10 minutes, scored the opener. It came after some good work down the Everton left-hand side by Jess Park to Gabrielle George, who crossed the ball for Katja Snoeijs to finish from close range at the near post. 1-0.
Sanne Troelsgaard had a couple of long-range efforts early to no avail and, with nearly half an hour on the clock, the best chance of the first 45 fell to Natasha Dowie. The Royals’ striker outpowered the last Everton defender and, seeing Everton goalkeeper Emily Ramsey off her line, Dowie tried to lob the on-loan Manchester United ‘keeper, but her execution was poor and easily caught.
As the clouds gathered and the rain poured down, it was another loanee that scored the second goal for the Toffees, just five minutes later. Jess Parker, on loan from Manchester City and a threat all afternoon to the Royals’ defence, exchanged a quick one-two pass, just inside the Reading penalty area, to finish confidently past Jacqueline Burns into the corner of the goal. 2-0.
We are now exactly halfway through the season and, similar to too many matches in 2022/23, the Reading team gave themselves another mountain to climb in the second half. Although there was another good second-half effort and fightback, it was one that saw them come close but ultimately still fell short.
The Royals did what was required and put some early second-half pressure on the home team. As the sun reappeared and with blue and white sky visible, Reading got their reward and scored the first of two headers in their attempted comeback. A corner, won by Emma Mukandi, was swung into the near post by Faye Bryson and the tall Justine Vanhaevermaet rose to head home what must have been a good sight to see from a well-rehearsed training ground move. 2-1.
The celebrations of the Reading team and travelling fans (and any thoughts of ‘game on’) were short-lived with Everton regaining their two-goal lead, just a minute later, with a great finish from Gabrielle George. The Everton left back and captain was given far too much time and space, centrally on the ‘D’ of the penalty area to strike the ball past a diving Jacqueline Burns. 3-1.
Reading’s only change of the match came on 65 minutes with Lauren Wade making way for Charlie Wellings, in what was presumably a forced substitution and decision (by injury) for Kelly Chambers.
The Reading team still hadn’t given up and with set pieces and aerial threats looking their best chance of getting something out of the match, they continued to put in crosses at every opportunity. It was a free kick, from Mukandi, that gave the Royals some hope with their second headed goal of the half. Gemma Evans’ attempted header rebounded nicely for Deanna Cooper who, in the right place and from close range, only had to redirect and nod the ball into the Everton goal. 3-2 and still 22 minutes remaining.
As the match drew to an end and the players’ shadows extended across the pitch, both teams enjoyed further chances. Everton were unable to get on the end of a couple of dangerous crosses into the Reading penalty area. For the visitors, Wellings - similar to Dowie in the first half - was unable to dink a shot over the Everton keeper who, rushing out of her goal, did just enough to distract the Reading striker.
Dowie had a header comfortably saved and, with five minutes of time added on, had a goal disallowed with the referee judging the Everton goalkeeper to have control with two hands on the ball when Dowie headed home.
It’s nearly a year since Reading’s last away victory, ironically here at Walton Hall Park, against Everton back in February 2022. It was the last of a five-match WSL unbeaten run in 2021/2022 and the last time Reading won a match in that season. It is perhaps therefore not surprising that this trend has continued for Chambers and the Reading team. With a thin squad and no news of further investment or new faces on the horizon, it looks like this will continue to be a difficult run-in for the Royals and fans alike.
Next up is Manchester United, at the SCL Stadium, and an expected record crowd. Let’s hope that the no doubt many travelling fans go back home (wherever home may be) disappointed and empty-handed - with the Royals picking up some much-needed points. As I type, I can see that Leicester are currently leading 3-0 at home to Brighton (and Manchester United 6-0!). If results stay that way, Reading will also only have a four-point cushion to the dreaded relegation position. Yikes! See you there.