What a holly jolly Christmas Eve Eve win that was as Reading shut out a bang-average Wigan Athletic that was as warm and fuzzy as a bit of Mulled Wine. We spluttered to begin with and struggled to contain Wigan’s high press, notably on our left side, targeting the inexperience of Jeriel Dorsett, but we rode the wave, got a bit tighter to them on the ball and we gradually gained control.
And it’s that last word - control - that we’re beginning to find in games. Not just control of games, but in a mental sense, too. As many of us will have suspected, this group of players needed to find their feet, to grow into the season and simply settle down.
Initially, they all felt like strangers that were giving off plenty of ‘first days of school’ vibes. Nobody knew what the team was, or could be. They barely seemed to know each other’s names for months. To hit the ground running, to bear the load of everything else at the club that could, and did, weigh them down without cost was just an impossible task.
To think otherwise is unfair and unreasonable. There still are a slew of reasons off the pitch that can affect things on the pitch. There’s no end in sight for those elements, unfortunately, and the recent redundancies is another sign of a club still very much in trouble.
Thankfully, on-the-pitch recent events have taken a turn for the better.
In the current form table, we are currently sixth! Comfortably better than any team in the lower third of the division bar Cheltenham Town, who are also having a bit of a mini-revival. Naturally, quite a few of the teams down at the bottom can’t buy a win. Exeter City and Burton Albion are two of those teams that are well within our sights of overtaking.
That said, we are up against a team very much in form next in Peterborough United. Taking anything from this game will be very much hard earned.
But now we go into games with hope and not so much fear. We found, as we did with Wigan, that we can ride out tough moments and collectively we look much more solid now. In the two previous games, we had only faced one shot on target in total. Wigan could only muster two shots on target. So that makes just three shots in three games. That’s impressive in any language.
The mystery as to why this has happened isn’t that hard to unravel. It’s a settled side that understands each other and understands what they are capable of. The dreaded C word that seemed to avoid us like moving mistletoe finally has returned: confidence.
It’s a word that isn’t retrievable by a flick of a switch, it takes time and patience to grow. It’s hard to think of a time when we’ve exhibited confidence in recent history. Slowly but surely it is coming back. It’s not a cure all, it won’t win us every game, but it’s something that’s most desperately been needed recently.
That confidence is typified by Femi Azeez. At the start of the season, and well into the opening months, he struggled hugely with his own performances and lack of end product. The fans would collectively sigh after each of his wildly wayward attempts at goal. Fast forward to now and the way he took his goal was as clean of a strike of a football that you’re likely to see.
The thought of process, or more accurately, the lack of thinking about it too much was the defining factor. If the self-doubt isn’t there, lurking and looming to drag him down, then strikes like this become easier. The outstretched arms of Sam Tickle in the Wigan goal were never going to save it, nor would many goalkeepers to be honest. It was that good a hit.
That goal in itself sums up our recent resurgence: we’re unafraid to take chances now, we’re not chasing shadows around the pitch, we’re able to be solid yet still creative. We’re growing as a collective, too, which is the most pleasing thing of all.
Another player that deserves a huge slab of credit is Michael Craig, who delivered a Rolls-Royce of a showing. At only 20 years of age, he has had to learn on the job and quickly too, in a lonely position with a ton of responsibility.
Being the sole defensive midfielder, his job is a crucial one in breaking up plays and playing simply and calmly. It’s a role that he’s beginning to understand and grow into game on game. Certain aspects clicked for him well after a bunch of recent rash bookings that had tempered his performances.
He wasn’t launching himself into challenges but instead taking his time and being more measured in his approach. His positioning has always been good, but his ability to read the game is improving massively also. It’s rare now to feel worried about his physicality or that he’ll be bullied on the ball. He’s got a lovely knack of being able to steal possession and do the right thing in the next action. He does the simple things simply, which is everything that that role demands.
He’s clearly a fast learner that isn’t fazed by the responsibility. He’s made the position his own and the thought of Sam Hutchinson vying for his position isn’t up for debate now. His performance is another by-product of that C word, again, confidence. He exuded it throughout.
That confidence is now seen all over the park, too. Defensively, despite a change at right-back with Amadou Mbengue coming in for the knee-knacked Andy Yiadom, that didn’t cause any panic.
Mbengue, seemingly playing with a pair of very high adapted shorts, had a much, much improved game than in recent times. Much like Craig, he was a bit more controlled and slightly less gung-ho. He still was very much himself, though, still all-action and impulsive. We wouldn’t want him any other way.
He also delivered a high-quality cross for Sam Smith to poke home to put the game beyond the reach of the visitors. He too is learning how to defend and when to attack. He’s a very different defender to Yiadom, but he has now shown that he can deliver high up the field, too. We’ll have more of that, please!
The feeling of warm festive fuzziness leaving the stadium was palpable all around at the finish. Not just for the three points, but there’s a belief now that we can get ourselves out of the relegation zone and get into relative safety. This wasn’t a scrappy steal of a win, it was defined by adapting to a slightly iffy start and then doing the right things at the right times to wrestle the impetus from the opposition, as we should do at home games.
It looked like a team that was finally becoming one. Players returning - like Tom Holmes - now don’t look like outsiders, they’re a part of the family again. Whatever growing pains we had are now maturing. We’re slowly taking shape into a team that we can be proud of again.
Of course, there will be better, more established teams that will have better threats ahead, none more so than our next away trip. Our flaws could still be exposed; we’re not the finished product by far, but how could we since all of our players are either academy players or players that had purchased for free?
There are still many limitations on our expectations for many reasons, but at least now it feels as if we’re in with a fighting chance of avoiding relegation. But for now, it’s a very Merry Christmas to savour for once.