On the way up to Shropshire today, I messaged TTE Podcast co-host (and fellow Star Trek fan) Ben Thomas the image at the top of this article, accompanied by the text: "364 days Ben". It's the title card from a Star Trek Voyager two-parter in which the main characters endure 365 days of chaos, torment and suffering, taking a battering as they trudge forlornly through a particularly bleak period.
I meant it as a slightly tongue-in-cheek reference ahead of, hopefully, Reading ending their own Year of Hell at Shrewsbury Town today. The last 364 days of following this club on the road in the league have been a miserable, fruitless experience that tests your psychological fortitude and ability to not swear in a match report.
Not only have the Royals failed to win a league away game in that period, but they've only managed two points at all: via a 1-1 at Norwich City and another at Bristol City. Reading have however had the grace to not even score first away from home in a league game in that period (not since October 2022 at Burnley), so as to not get your hopes up before they're shattered.
Until today that is.
Yet another league away defeat means that winless streak will tick past the 365-day mark tomorrow, and it just had to happen like this, in the grimmest, bitterest of fashions. An injury-time collapse from 1-2 to 3-2 left a beleaguered away end in a full-time sstate that was part fury, part shellshock.
We were so close. So damn close. Reading leapt into an early two-goal lead through Sam Smith and Dom Ballard, and you know what, we were good value for it. The Royals looked energised, positive, focused and tenacious both in and out of possession for the first half an hour, and increasingly familiar with the new(ish) 4-1-4-1 formation. Really we could have won the game 3-0 or 4-0 if we didn't somehow balls it up.
Smith looked every inch the mature, well rounded, goalscoring centre-forward. Behind him, the midfield four got upfield in support much better than they'd done previously. The back four weren't troubled all that much.
Reading (4-1-4-1): Button; Yiadom, Bindon, Abbey, Dorsett; Hutchinson; Azeez, Wing, Knibbs, Ballard; Smith
Cue an abrupt shift just over half an hour in. Harvey Knibbs dallied with the ball in his own area when trying to shepherd it out for a goal kick, was tackled, and Shrewsbury pounced for 1-2.
Reading reacted pretty well in the remainder of the half, settling the game down effectively before the break and re-establishing some control, but you just knew the second half had its own story to tell. The Royals have looked rattled by conceding goals on many occasions before, and regardless of the halftime scoreline, Knibbs' error had instilled a cagey, nervy and foreboding undercurrent to a game that should have been chalked up as a comfortable away win.
That undercurrent took its time to reach a resolution, but it could have happened a lot earlier. The second half was too open, too uncontrolled and too wasteful from Reading's point of view.
Reading had their spells of pressure in the second half, two by my count: one about midway through the second half, one late on. That wasn't good enough for a side needing to put this game to bed, but chances were there and chances were missed, as they had been in the first half.
The preeminent theme came from the hosts though. A buoyed Shrewsbury side, full of belief and roared on by the home crowd, smelled blood and kept hunting away after the interval.
The clock ticked down and my heart rate kept rising. I thought the hosts had scored when David Button flew acrobatically to his left to deny them, I thought it again when they had the ball in the net (foul awarded), but they finally managed it in extra-time.
It’s typical Reading, typical Year of Hell stuff, that we concede twice in extra-time to surrender the lead entirely and hand it to a team previously barely able to score goals in the league this season - just seven before today. To quote Shrews Analysis on Twitter, it’s a team that “couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo”.
Maybe a cow’s arse can defend corners better than Reading did today. Shrewsbury Town have now scored 10 league goals this season and 20% of them came in extra-time from corners in this match to turn the game on its head.
The full-time scene was bleak, depressing. The vast majority of those in the away end stayed put after the referee blew his whistle, seemingly waiting to - ahem - give the players a piece of their mind when they came over, anticipating a repeat of previous games when squad and staff have stood for a while in front of the away end in an attempted display of solidarity.
This time the travelling support felt relatively muted in their anger, perhaps still speechless from what they'd just seen. Those on the pitch did come over to thank the fans but they didn't stay for long before heading down the tunnel.
Reading have a chance to restore some pride (stress on the 'some') when Arsenal's youngsters come to town in midweek. The Papa Pizza McI'm Loving It Trophy Cup has yielded the most joy of any competition for the Royals this season, and Tuesday's dead rubber (we're already through to the next round) will hopefully continue that trend.
If only league away games could start yielding some joy too. This is one year I'd like to forget.