If you’d offered me a 1-1 draw against Oxford United before kickoff, I’d have gladly taken it. Local derbies can conjure up anything between euphoria and horror, so Reading going home with a hard-earned point - very much one gained, not two dropped - has to count as a positive.
And really, a 1-1 draw - points shared, no dramatic twist - was an appropriate resolution for a match that never quite broke out into what a local derby should be. Although there was no shortage of passion in the stands from two sets of fans who’d clearly been eagerly looking forward to this fixture, that wasn’t reflected on the pitch.
Well, except for one moment. I’d have gladly taken a 1-1 draw, but a goal from Reading academy graduate and former Oxford United striker Sam Smith in front of the away end? I’d have snapped your hand off.
And that’s exactly how Reading made it 1-1, cancelling out yet another goal conceded from a wide area, in this case Ciaron Brown’s header from Stanley Mills’ inswinging cross from the right. Four minutes after that 39th-minute opener, Lewis Wing played the ball over the top to (a probably offside) Smith, who duly slotted past the ‘keeper before immediately goading the few thousand Oxford supporters to the right of the goal.
Reading have been on the wrong end of more than their fair share of goals from former players in years gone by, so serving that medicine up for our local rivals tasted so, so good. Seeing Smith milk his celebration for all it was worth by rubbing Oxford fans’ noses in it? Priceless. Hearing Club 1871 twist the knife with a rendition of “Your defence is terrified, Sam Smith’s on fire”? Beautiful.
Apart from that, a bad game? No, but far from a classic. The two sides were often pretty well matched, particularly in a first half when both of the game’s goals were scored, but even when one was on top - particularly in the second half, which Oxford mostly controlled - the quality wasn’t there for a decisive breakthrough.
Quality was particularly lacking from Reading in the second half. This was largely a repeat of Saturday, with the Royals looking painfully passive, short of energy and ideas, as the visitors took charge of the flow of the game.
Ruben Selles tried various things in response. He’d already switched Reading from the first half’s 4-1-4-1 into more of a 4-2-3-1, probably the right call to solidify things, while a later shift to 4-2-2-2/4-4-2 (presumably to add intensity in and out of possession) helped a tad but wasn’t the required game-changer.
As for his subs, Selles was bold. Nelson Abbey and Jeriel Dorsett had both looked uncharacteristically vulnerable, so were removed before the hour mark for Tyler Bindon and Amadou Mbengue. Swapping half your back four is a huge risk, but then again so is keeping faith in two underperforming defenders, and going by the result it’s a gamble that paid off.
Later alterations - Charlie Savage for the booked Michael Craig, Ben Elliott for the quiet Caylan Vickers - made sense but had limited impact. Reading were crying out for experienced options on the bench to come on and wrestle back control of the game, but none were available.
Reading fluffed their lines on Saturday by conceding two late goals to Barnsley, but there was no repeat today. Bindon was much more assured in his half-hour appearance than at the weekend, helping a defensive display that probably also benefited from Tom Holmes’ experience, and although the visitors had plenty of the ball, they didn’t have a good enough idea on what to do with it.
I wrote earlier in the day that this was a game in which Reading had “the opportunity to set a better tone for the rest of the season”. A standout result or performance would have yielded that, so the failure to get either means this game technically goes down as a missed opportunity.
Still, a point against a good side is certainly a step in the right direction. Reading have the chance for another on Saturday with the trip to Lincoln City, another tough game in which I’d gladly take a draw. Then again, in our last league away game we pulled off that most unlikely of feats - a win! - so why not again?