Before we get started, a quick note on a potentially decisive lucky charm for Reading this afternoon. I went to this one with my mum - it was her first match of the season and first since the Coppell/McDermott game. We both agreed on the walk back to the car that it was only fair to point out to The Tilehurst End’s readership that Reading’s fortunes improving coincided exactly with her return.
It's amazing what an injection of good old-fashioned positivity can do in football. Reading left Deepdale in glum, defeatist spirits on Easter Monday after a late 2-1 loss, but five days and one potentially huge result later, this feels like a club with a starkly different outlook on the rest of the season.
That’s overwhelmingly down to Noel Hunt, who moved into the dugout on an interim basis on Tuesday morning. Making any managerial change was always bound to be well received, especially one that involved the promotion of a fan-favourite title-winner, but Hunt’s impact in the last few days has been about more than mere symbolism.
Instead he went about building hope and optimism for a group of players and fanbase which have felt drained and downtrodden in the last few months. That, in conjunction with the expectation of a bumper home crowd, meant there was a palpable feeling of belief going into today’s game - not an expectation that Reading would get a result, but stubborn faith that we could. In the wider context of how this season has gone, it seemed almost absurd for there to be such positivity ahead of the toughest home match of the season, but it sure was welcome nonetheless.
Reading needed the fans’ faith to carry over into the game and it did indeed. The support was outstanding - supporters from all around the game wholeheartedly backing the boys throughout the game, roaring them on at key moments and never letting frustrations show.
The players repaid that in kind with a performance full of belief in its own right. This match required the Royals to constantly sit in, staying disciplined, patient and focused, largely denied opportunities to knock the ball around or get it forward. But Reading had the spirit and determination to get the job done - because they believed they could.
There was belief of another kind in who Hunt selected. Managing young players at under-21 level is one thing, but showing faith to throw them into a fixture this difficult and this consequential is another matter entirely. And yet, Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan, Femi Azeez, Kelvin Abrefa and Mamadi Camara all got either starts or substantial run-outs off the bench. They were included to make an impact, not to make up the numbers.
And the bottom line is that this result and performance have given us real belief that this season can yet be salvaged. Sure, a great deal of that comes from a very kind set of results elsewhere on Saturday afternoon, but Tim Dellor got it spot on in his column for the BBC when he wrote about the need for Hunt to be a lucky general.
A great deal of that belief doesn’t come from elsewhere though. Hunt talked before and after the game about turning Reading from the hunted to the hunters, and this does indeed now feel like a team capable of determining its own destiny - not of sleepwalking into League One.
The afternoon started with Hunt putting out a bold setup and XI for his first match in charge. Reading returned to the lopsided 4-4-2 that Paul Ince had used against Birmingham City, albeit with a few tweaks - some enforced, some not.
Lumley; Yiadom, Holmes, Sarr, Guinness-Walker; Azeez, Hendrick, Casadei, Fornah; Ehibhatiomhan, João
Hunt could have played it safer and gone for a back three, but no, it was a back four with two up top.
He also showed faith in younger, riskier options: Guinness-Walker started as a left-back in a four for the first time this season, while Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan got the nod with Andy Carroll rested. Femi Azeez was deployed on the right wing in the continued absence of Yakou Meite. It was a similar story on the bench. Mamadi Camara got his first matchday squad involvement in a long time, surprisingly included when he'd so often been overlooked by Hunt's predecessor.
As for the game itself, from a defensive point of view it was pleasingly uneventful throughout. Burnley had a few quality sights of goal but ultimately managed just one shot on target: an effort from Manuel Benson quarter of an hour into the contest. They were otherwise really well restricted by an organised, pretty deep Reading that didn’t have to rely on any heroics from Joe Lumley.
Certainly, a lot of that was due to Reading’s qualities. The Royals were focused, disciplined, tracked runners well and did a good job on Burnley individually too; I was worried before the game about Guinness-Walker being asked to fill in as a left-back (as opposed to a left-wing-back with the extra centre half as cover), but nope, he performed admirably.
There were some attempts from Reading to press higher up the pitch in unison, but not a lot. Going gung ho with constant high pressing would have been a bad idea even with more time on the training ground, and anyway, Burnley were able to play through any attempts from the Royals to win the ball back in the Clarets’ third.
Still, you got the feeling that the visitors had more gears to go into. While you could certainly tell they’re a technically excellent, well organised team that Reading didn’t get a lot of spare change out of going forwards, they were lacking in attacking momentum themselves. Whether it was down to their changes (six), underestimating Reading or anything else, they weren’t at their best. I felt sure they’d take their game up a few gears after the break, but no, thankfully.
Down the other end of the pitch, this wasn’t a game for Reading’s attackers to strut their stuff; Lucas Joao, Ehibhatiomhan and others had more responsibility out of possession than in it. Ultimately the Royals didn’t look all that threatening and, in fact, finished with no shots on target.
But there were still encouraging signs going forward. While Reading have so often looked aimless offensively this season, making it up as they go along, today there was a refreshing level of clarity and purpose. You could actually identify a plan: be direct, play on the counter. It goes back to that bigger theme again: even if the execution wasn’t quite there, Reading actually believed they could hurt Burnley.
I’m pleased with how Hunt used his bench too. He was proactive with his subs, making them on 62 minutes (Andy Carroll for Ehibhatiomhan), 67 minutes (Kelvin Abrefa for Tyrese Fornah) and 73 minutes (Amadou Mbengue for Guinness-Walker, Camara for Azeez). In those alterations you can see Hunt opting to freshen his existing setup rather than make it more negative - Reading doggedly stuck to 4-4-2 throughout the 90 minutes.
Accordingly, the subs paid Hunt back. Carroll made a good impact as a target man, holding the ball up; Abrefa gave it a good go out of position on the left wing and then right wing; Mbengue found it tough at left-back, but still put in a commendable shift given that he was in yet another new position; and Camara looked positive too - he’ll likely be involved further in the games to come.
The long and the short of it is that Reading now seem reenergised on and off the pitch. I for one feel an awful lot more optimistic going into the final five matches of the season, no longer full of dread that we’re doomed to drop into League One.
Keep the faith.