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Cheltenham Town 2-2 Reading: Turning A Corner

The Royals didn’t play well in their final game of 2023, but had the resolve to pick up a valuable point.

To misquote one of the most familiar clichés in football, the sign of an alright team is that they can draw away from home when playing poorly.

Much of Reading's 2023 has been defined by a stubbornly consistent ability to lose on the road. In fact, we end the year having picked up just one win and four draws in it away from home. The last of those stalemates, tonight's 2-2 at Cheltenham Town, was more evidence that Reading are turning a corner, albeit a very different kind of evidence to previous games.

Reading played well in victory against Wycombe Wanderers, so too in draws at Lincoln City and Peterborough United. Reading did not play well against Cheltenham. This was actually our worst away league display all round in months, particularly due to a godawful first half, but the crucial element is that we still managed to get ourselves over the line despite that underperformance.

Simply put, this is absolutely the kind of game Reading would have lost earlier in the season. Think back to Exeter City, Cambridge United, Leyton Orient or Shrewsbury Town away - all matches when Reading were on the edge of a point but couldn't quite get there, so went home empty-handed.

There was no repeat this time. Reading look increasingly like they know what they're doing in the closing stages of a game, helped both by the return of Tom Holmes at centre-back and a broader improvement in composure and game management.

There were encouraging signs of resolve earlier in the game too. David Button stood tall to make some vital first-half saves, Reading fought their way back into the match just before the break with a Lewis Wing-led turnaround, and the Royals built on that with a much more confident and assertive second-half display.

There are still some big problems with this team, with the first half in particular exposing them for all to see (more on that later). But having the inner strength to claim a point in a match like this will be vital if Reading are to push up the table. This side is turning a corner.

None of that should fully mask a first half that, bar a late twist, was absolutely horrendous. Reading weren't just bad in the first 45 minutes, they were barely competitive.

Cheltenham knew exactly how to restrict and hurt this Reading side: launch balls into the box to test a defence that doesn't particularly like defending aerially, while pressing high to prevent us from playing out and building attacks. The Royals could barely get out of their own half, let alone cause the hosts problems, instead constantly having to defend their own box. When Reading did have the opportunity to launch an attack, all too often a long ball went aimlessly into touch or straight through to Cheltenham ‘keeper Luke Southwood.

Button was called on various times to make some important, top saves, while Tom Holmes added otherwise-lacking composure and aerial strength in the back four. Reading's midfielders and attacking players may as well not have played, with none of them able to get on the ball in any significant way.

Cheltenham had a two-goal lead on 37 minutes. Liam Sercombe opened the scoring from a cross after half an hour, before a rash Amadou Mbengue clearance from close range hit Button and flew into the net. A horrendous error, but one that gave the hosts a lead more suiting their domination to that point.

Lewis Wing had other ideas though. In the closing minutes of the half he first set up Jeriel Dorsett to score from a corner, then did the same with a cross for Paul Mukairu. In an instant, Reading had got it back to 2-2, completely against the flow of the half, and they had their playmaker-in-chief to thank.

Reading were better after the break without being that great overall. The Royals did a noticeably better job at keeping the ball and building attacks, even enjoying some spells of real pressure, while also disrupting the hosts higher up the pitch more effectively. Femi Azeez, Wing and Harvey Knibbs were among those to force big stops out of Cheltenham in the second half at various stages.

There's never anything particularly glamorous about a draw when you’ve not played all that well, but this is still a valuable result. It extends Reading's unbeaten away streak to four games, a run that's chalk and cheese from what we'd grown used to, and sets the Royals up to hopefully climb out of the relegation places with victory over Exeter City on January 1.

From me and everyone else at TTE, Happy New Year!