beauty benefit of living in Aldershot has taken a long time to become apparent, but finally it has shown its worth by kindly hosting a smattering of under-21s and women’s games over the winter months. This is to keep the SCL pitch in tip-top condition for all those home wins that we’ll undoubtedly see, right? Right? It’s a tidy little arrangement nonetheless.
The Rec (or the The EBB Stadium as it's now known) is a mere 15-minute stroll through Manor Park and out the other side from where I live. On a bad day I can hear the celebrations of goals being scored (usually when Reading are being tonked away from the SCL). Even more annoyingly, Aldershot are doing fairly well this season, while we are most certainly not. But I digress.
I, along with my mate Craig, have been to the previous under-21 games played at the SCL, so this wasn’t my first sojourn in watching the even more youthful youth this season, therefore, of course, I was going to make the short schlep to this. Absolute no brainer. Furthermore, we’d not seen Reading LOSE in the league either. Ironically, the only game we did lose was to Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League Cup.
Craig couldn’t make it as he was struck down with the lurg, so I valiantly went solo. What a trooper. That said, I did feel a bit off myself, but with 18 layers on I’d be fine. It wasn’t long along my route before I saw the lit floodlights of joy. Football is way, way better under the lights - everyone will say the same; even though it was Aldershot, I was happy to see floodlights again. A sure sign that the clocks had gone back, too.
Entering the old ground it reminded me of Elm Park: simpler days of getting into a ground, with open terraces and the ability to stroll almost anywhere you wanted to. I couldn’t be bothered to sight-see all that, I just wanted a seat. I found a suitable spot and plonked myself down in front of the journalists and media representatives of both clubs. Ji-Min Lee from Reading Today was present, so I introduced myself. Lovely guy, he shall be very much missed when he leaves for The Telegraph. Clever boy, Ji-Min.
Anyway, shall we talk about football now? The teams took to the field and I half expected Aldershot to run out but it was us that was at home. Home but away but home.
The Reading XI looked pretty familiar from previous under-21 games this season. Tom Holmes has been a fixture in the side for a while when he was on the naughty step, but this time he was returning from injury. In midfield, Tivonge Rushesha seems to play exclusively at this level. As do Jayden Wareham and Charlie Wellens up front.
What is also the same is the 4-2-2-2 formation that Noel Hunt has inherited from Ruben Selles. I did wonder if the formation that has failed so spectacularly at League One level would still be the weapon of choice for the younger levels, and so it proved to be.
But they don’t half do it... better. If I wrote a proper match report we’d be here all day and we’ve got places to go to and people to see. Needless to say, we won this game at an absolute canter. 7-2 wasn’t a fluke, either. Blackburn Rovers aren’t a terrible side either: they have some tidy players at their disposal.
The difference, aside from the obvious finishing, was that the formation actually works for them at this level where the first touch is even less precise than in League One and the youthful exuberance of closing a man down hasn’t been sucked out of them, as we see with the first team. They will hunt down in literal packs, often with three players pressuring a defender or midfielder into a mistake.
Then, when a chance creates itself, we have those same players in positions to take the ball upfield. But it’s not just that: you can tell that the mental pressure is so much different at this level. The players still feel free to try raking passes and don’t feel tentative when it comes to challenging the opposition or moving into space.
There’s a whole slew of reasons and actions that I could relay to highlight the differences, but mainly the opposition isn’t as experienced or as physical as it is in League One and the mental shackles that the first team exhibit just aren’t present at this level, in a nutshell.
At times there are signs that this system can work to great effect. When the midfield and forwards press like they should, the amount of turnovers that occur is crazy. But it doesn’t feel random or just like small kids chasing a ball about; it feels coordinated and the rewards can be reaped when it's implemented well.
Of course, the inexperience of these players does come into play. When faced with this kind of pressure they don’t have the experience to do things differently to counter it or the physicality to muscle their way out of tight situations. As such, the numbers game wins out and we often come out with the ball, unlike in League One where we’re now frightened to press because it’s so easily bypassed.
That’s how we won this game. Highlighted performances were from the two strikers: Wareham and Wellens. Both chased down everything and were good value for their goals. (Although Leyton Orient manager Richie Wellens, who was watching on from just behind me, said son Charlie had “dropped off in the last 30, he needs to read the game better”. Scathing from his dad despite him scoring a brace! Note to self: Don’t tell a dad that his boy has had a good game!).
Tivonge Rushesha had a cracking game in central midfield (and right-back later on), even though he was without his usual partner, Michael Craig. Tiv seems to be in that hinterland between being too good for this level, which he clearly is, and not quite being there for the first team. Hopefully his time will come as he’s blossomed from the trialist that I’d totally written off to being one of my favourites of the crop that came in during the summer.
Tom Holmes, too, even though he was only involved for the first half, looked happier and like he was a part of something. In previous under-21 matches that Craig and I saw, Holmes was quiet, sullen and disconnected. Not so on this showing, barking out orders and with outbursts like “good decision!” to his central defensive partner (and goalscorer) Jeriel Dorsett.
It's safe to say Holmes will probably be involved on Saturday as he was withdrawn at half-time, a likely tactical decision. Oh and Caylan Vickers was just Caylan Vickers. It took him a little while to get into things, but the little guy is a wizard. He took a tidy finish for his goal, too.
All in all, a pretty decent evening under the floodlights. Oh, and a nice man who sat next to me gave me some of his chips. Bloody good chips they were, too. But I woke up the following morning with a very snotty nose. Super!
(Apologies to Ji-Min and the Chip Man if they get a cold in the upcoming days!)