I love the randomness of the Berks and Bucks Cup.
From a Reading point of view, it's when a youth side is very suddenly and very jarringly thrown in at the deep end. But unlike when we see a few academy players appear here and there for the first team, they don't have senior pros around them to guide them through the 90 minutes. In the Berks and Bucks Cup, it's an entirely under-21 XI going up against an entirely senior, non-league XI. That naturally leaves you with distinct clashes: youth vs experience, technical vs rugged.
Tuesday night's semi-final trip to Isthmian League South Central Division side Marlow was a classic example of the formula. And though it ended in a frustrating penalty shootout defeat (5-4, after a 2-2 draw in normal time), the evening was still more than worth it on a number of fronts.
For me, it was a good chance to see the under-21s in person - something I'd not done in a while. That’s an exciting prospect with a number of talented players currently progressing through the ranks, not to mention them being under the management of Noel Hunt. And there was also the added bonus of ticking off a ground I wouldn't have otherwise had reason to visit: the Alfred Davis Memorial Ground.
Of course, for Reading, silverware was on offer. The Royals actually had the opportunity to - for the first time in the club's history - retain a trophy. This was no glorified friendly, far from it. You could tell that in how the game panned out. This was a well contested, entertaining affair that ebbed and flowed, had its highs and lows, and even featured some feisty outbursts from players, coaches and supporters.
The evening started with Hunt setting his side up in a 4-2-3-1 that looked like this:
Kelvin Abrefa, Louie Holzman, Nelson Abbey, Matthew Carson;
Josh Green, Jay Senga;
Adrian Akande, Rashawn Scott, Jeremiah Okine-Peters;
A few minutes in, everything was going swimmingly for the Royals. Ehibhatiomhan was found by a pass in behind down the left channel, was taken down by the ‘keeper, and then stepped up to convert the resulting spot-kick. 1-0 to Reading.
However, although Reading had the odd other sight of goal in the first half, that was the best of it before the break. The Royals generally looked nervous and sloppy in build-up, unable to develop any real periods of possession or proper attacks.
Marlow on the other hand came out well from the scrappier, stop-start nature of the contest and accordingly threatened more, winning a number of dangerous set pieces in and around the Reading box. Their equaliser however came from open play, just over half an hour in, when former Royal Khalid Simmo reacted quickest to convert after a long-range shot had hit the post.
If you thought the second half would carry on as the first had played out, you’d have been wrong. Less than 10 minutes after the restart, a mighty scrap broke out after a seemingly innocuous coming-together. What caused it I couldn’t tell, but the result was one red card for each side: left-back Carson in our case.
Bar another stoppage shortly after when a drone was spotted over the ground, the second half swung into the Royals’ favour. Reading looked far more comfortable with the new ‘10 vs 10’ contest; one fewer player on the pitch meant that bit more space, therefore more opportunity to knock the ball around. Hunt’s tactical adjustment was a simple one: left-winger Okine-Peters operated essentially as a wing-back: left-back out of possession and left-winger in possession.
The breakthrough eventually came, and it was via the same man who opened the scoring. Reading won the ball high (a rarity on the night), Senga played a one-two with Scott and fed Ehibhatiomhan, who slotted home for 2-1.
From then on in, Reading looked like they'd see the game out. That process included a few substitutions, with Caylan Vickers replacing Green (who’d been shoved into an advertising board), a triallist coming on for Okine-Peters and Melvin-Lambert replacing Scott.
Marlow had faded in the second half, generally unable to cause the Royals problems like they had done in the first - bar the odd moment. But the Berks and Bucks Cup gods had other ideas. All it took was one occasion at the death for the ball to drop kindly, and it was slammed past Boyce-Clarke for 2-2.
At which point: confusion on my part. Neither I nor anyone else in the vicinity knew what happened after a draw. It soon turned out however that the game went straight to penalties. Then there was the small matter of picking an end for those spot-kicks to be taken. Unfortunately for the crowd of boisterous Marlow fans who’d been vocally supporting their team and heckling Boyce-Clarke all game - as well as throwing a smoke canister onto the pitch at 1-1 - it was the other end to the one they were at in the second half.
Cue a comically panicked, mad dash as scores of Marlow fans legged it around the pitch to get behind the other goal in time for the penalties.
Mad dash for the Marlow home support to get behind the right goal in time for the shootout pic.twitter.com/9WyygqzdPS— The Tilehurst End (@TheTilehurstEnd) March 21, 2023
The result of this of course was that the penalties would be taken in front of a particularly rowdy group of home supporters with no equivalent Reading group as a counter-balance. Poor Boyce-Clarke had the unenviable task of trying to ignore them, as did the Royals’ six takers. The shootout went like so:
Holzman: saved (0-0)
Marlow: scored (1-0)
Ehibhatiomhan: scored (1-1)
Marlow: hit the bar (1-1)
Vickers: scored (1-2)
Marlow: scored (2-2)
Akande: scored (2-3)
Marlow: scored (3-3)
Melvin-Lambert: scored, although his penalty should have been saved but squeezed under the ‘keeper (3-4)
Marlow: scored (4-4)
Senga: saved (4-4)
Marlow: scored (5-4)
I can’t bring myself to feel that critical towards anyone who didn’t score a penalty (or took a bad one that should have been saved). This was a particularly high-pressure scenario anyway, even before you factor in the passionate Marlow support behind the goal. In the end, they were the cliched 12th man who helped get their team over the line. They celebrated accordingly after the win by taking to the pitch:
Of course, I’m frustrated by the result. I’m sure everyone in the Reading dressing room is too. After all, a spot in the final was up for grabs, it was in the palm of our hand and it slipped away. I hope the players who went through this experience remember it, learn from it and channel it well in the future.
There were some positive notes to come out from the match though. Ehibhatiomhan took his two goals well and kinda sorta scored a hat-trick (but not really) if you include his shoot-out strike. He looks like a real talent and is certainly someone I’m looking forward to seeing more of in the future.
Otherwise, although his red card was of course a sour note, Carson has something to him. He pushed forward well from left-back in both halves and caused danger with some really nice deliveries - mostly from set pieces but also one in open play.
The next stage for a lot of these players should be for an experience like this to be normalised. They need loan spells away from Reading, getting first-team action down in the lower leagues. Add that and I’m sure we’ll see a few of the lads from tonight in the Royals’ first team at some stage in the next few years.