Passion! What a difference a manager makes. In the week that Reading finally ended the fractious tenure of Paul Ince, a result against record-chasing Burnley seemed like a pipe-dream. This was a free hit of sorts; nobody expected Reading to turn up, nobody expected miracles, nobody expected anything like what we ultimately witnessed.
What was achieved was nothing short of outstanding. In a game where we didn’t get a shot on target, this was still an incredible performance. The context has to be understood; yes, it was a defensive performance. We were sloppy in possession at times and lacked a bit of confidence going forwards. We offered little up top but it was never about taking the game to Burnley. The expectation was never to fight fire with fire but fight was certainly present in spades.
Interim boss Noel Hunt set his team out with two strikers, width and a back four! Such a refreshing change to an Ince side that would have undoubtedly been set up with three at the back and two wing-backs that weren’t allowed to move.
It was a brave set-up, one designed to counter the Burnley attacks, and there were plenty of them. By rights, if the previous results were anything to go by, we should and would have been slaughtered. But Hunt is a part of the fabric and DNA of the club; he trusts the players to perform where Ince, clearly, could not.
In just a few days, what Hunt managed to instil in his players was quite remarkable. In part, it could be suggested that the mere removal of Ince had lifted the dark atmosphere around the club, but Hunt has to take a lot of credit for changing that mood, for setting out a bold formation, and for giving the players belief that the previous manager steadfastly refused to give.
From the first minute, the players looked energised and hungry. With the long-standing 106 record on the line, it was the perfect added incentive to throw into the mix. Hunt can be immensely proud that his charges took to that task wholeheartedly. The protection of the record is important to the fans and he would have understood this more than anyone. The players in turn put in a shift that was likely unmatched this season.
Reading showed a rare unity that belied our position. We moved up intelligently, individual responsibility was improved but equally no man was left behind. We never looked to be overpowered, tired or isolated. The tactical evolution was a mini-revolution.
Defenders that couldn’t previously defend (apparently) had the best games of their season. Naby Sarr had his best performance in a Reading shirt and Nesta Guinness-Walker showed his progression at left-back against a winger who tested him time and time again. Andy Yiadom also put in his most pleasing performance in a long, long time. The energy in his game seemed to return, the errors were minimised, the forward runs had more purpose.
Lucas Joao also played more than a bit part in doing a lot more defensive work that he is used to, but he never moaned or complained; he needed to help the team in more ways than just scoring goals. Again, Hunt must take a lot of credit here for giving players instructions that they may not be comfortable with, but he had faith in them nonetheless.
All over the park, Reading looked united and strong. The units were solid and the overall shape was very sound. Burnley found it very difficult to carve out any clear chances. The testimony of that was that the champions elect only had one shot on target - a stat that nobody would have expected or believed, but such was Reading’s tactical solidity that Joe Lumley had a relatively quiet afternoon. This was our first clean sheet in 20 games.
What was also very pleasing was the use of youth and the substitutions. Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan - rewarded for his late goal against Preston North End - and Femi Azeez were granted starts. Kelvin Abrefa and Mamadi Camara were also introduced as trusted substitutions. Again, these were changes that Hunt made which Ince would have avoided completely.
All of them did well, nobody looked out of place or out of their depth. The substitutions all made sense, too. In the wide areas where Burnley looked strong, Hunt freshened our resolve. No bringing-on of Scott Dann was required to create a disaster that never needed to happen.
It’s clear already that Hunt has a lot more faith in the abilities of the players than the previous incumbent. The improvement in bravery, commitment, willingness and countless other adjectives was clear. There was a lack of composure at times and a bit more patience required but that’s nit-picking. These players are still mentally scarred, after all. In the greater context, this was a very mature performance from the youngsters up to the seasoned professionals. We really could not have expected or asked for more.
Considering the mental strain and tension that the squad has been under lately, this result has provided so much relief. In one game, Hunt can bookmark the result and say: “Look, this is what you’re capable of.” This can only bode well for the remaining games ahead.
The result was celebrated more than many wins. The scenes at the end of the game bore the hallmarks of immense pride, not just for the result but also in saving the 106 record from being broken. Hunt applauded the fans, something Ince stopped doing, and he made sure that the players thanked the fans for their contribution also. It’s small things like this that Hunt understands; the link between the fans and the players is a crucial one - one that Ince ruefully ignored to his detriment.
The fans understood and congratulated the team for their meticulous application and pride in wearing the shirt - pride that we had rarely witnessed this season. For once, the support and the players were on the same page, writing history in a positive sense. This was the perfect tonic in a game that previously we would have had zero hope of getting anything out of. It may have only been a goalless draw but it felt like an important victory.
And so we move onto an equally difficult task against Luton Town, another side that is high in the form table. We seem to be perpetually playing against sides that are in cracking form. It’s a big ask, but if this one performance is anything to go by, we won’t be overawed and will enjoy the pressure instead.
The picture will be a little clearer by the time our fixture comes around. Blackpool, Huddersfield Town, Rotherham United and Wigan Athletic all play a day earlier than us. None of their fixtures look like an easy task, thankfully.
Importantly for Reading, the hope is now renewed. Everyone is fighting for the cause. We finally seem to be up for the challenge. The other teams at the bottom will have seen our result and wondered how we could have pulled off a result where so many others have failed before.
The importance of this unexpected uptick in every department could be monumental. For a squad that had been written off by Ince, they decisively proved him wrong in 90 minutes. Noel Hunt proved him wrong. Everyone is on board the Hunt Train. Irish eyes are smiling.