That’s a tough one to take. What should have been a huge step towards safety - witnessed by an expectant sell-out crowd, faultless in their support - actually ended up as something that felt like a farewell ceremony for Reading’s Championship status.
First the gradual ebbing-away of confidence as the game dragged on without a breakthrough. Then the sucker-punch shock of Wigan Athletic taking the lead late on, via the sort of poorly defended set-piece goal that this team so typically concedes when it really mustn’t. Then the tantalising taste of hope when parity was scrappily restored by substitute Yakou Meite. And finally, that gutting feeling when the full-time was blown.
Reading aren’t done yet - not mathematically at least - but it’ll take one huge slice of luck if we’re to even take this relegation fight to the final day at Huddersfield Town. That’s been the theme of the Royals’ last few weeks - having to rely on ever-increasing dollops of fortune because we haven’t got the job done ourselves.
And it feels particularly unforgivable that we couldn’t manage that today. Even when roared on by the biggest crowd of the season, against objectively the worst team in the division, and with more attacking options available than we’ve had in weeks, Reading didn’t quite have enough.
The effort was there, for sure. Indeed, Reading huffed and puffed throughout the 90 minutes, but huff and puff doesn’t keep you in the Championship. Goals do. Meite managed one of them when he turned the ball in from a set piece - in the kind of scrappy poacher way that Meite does best - but really we needed to find a way through far, far earlier than we did.
On the one hand, Reading fell short simply because the players didn’t deliver. While there are deeper reasons behind the Royals’ failure today, in matches like this, “you need to die to get three points” - to quote a long-running nemesis of this club who looks set to keep his Huddersfield Town team in the division.
As for those deeper problems, first and foremost, Noel Hunt got his line-up wrong. He switched from a 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1, using Shane Long as a right-winger and Tom McIntyre as the deepest central midfielder, behind Cesare Casadei and Jeff Hendrick. Junior Hoilett was restored to the left wing after injury.
Lumley; Yiadom, Holmes, Sarr, Guinness-Walker; Hendrick, McIntyre; Long, Casadei, Hoilett; Joao
Long being pushed out to the right flank simply didn’t work. I suspect that Hunt opted for that due to Femi Azeez’ lack of end product in recent games, which actually led to Long replacing Azeez as a right winger at Coventry City last week. But Long lacked the pace, directness and willingness to take on a defender that Azeez possesses - qualities that would have helped break down a defence that needed to be properly stretched.
Accordingly, the story of (most of) the game was of Reading doing well for possession and territory, as well as managing a decent number of shots, but not causing the Wigan defence serious problems or really working the ‘keeper. Too many attempts were taken from range, some being particularly selfish and/or wayward - the sure sign of a team that knew how to get into the final third but didn’t really know what to do when it got there.
As for that other deeper problem? The lack of proper coaching and tactical development this side has had all season. It’s one thing for an interim to come in, change some broader tactical ideas and inject some confidence, but another thing entirely for months of neglect to be remedied. This group hasn’t known what to do offensively all season and that really, painfully showed today.
To be fair, Reading tried different things tactically. In the first half, Long would sometimes move infield from the right wing to act as a second striker, with either Andy Yiadom moving up as a right-winger while Jeff Hendrick tucked in to cover, or Hendrick going out to the flank himself.
In the second, Hunt rolled the dice with some substitutions. First Azeez came on for Long (the right call), and then Meite replaced Hoilett. There wasn’t much more available in the way of attacking options, although Amadou Mbengue and Tyrese Fornah were brought on for Nesta Guinness-Walker and McIntyre just after Wigan scored. Freshening things up at left-back and in the middle of the park was about all we could do.
Very probably, that Wigan goal has relegated us. Although we mended some of the damage by scoring late on, it wasn’t enough, and I really can’t blame anyone who headed for exit at 0-1.
Equally, I can’t blame anyone who’s now fully resigned to relegation and taken it as an absolute certainty. We all need to process this in our own ways - after all, it’s a pretty traumatic experience to see our club’s Championship status be pissed away after more than two decades of work to maintain or improve it. Accepting the probably inevitable can’t be faulted.
Personally, until relegation is mathematically ratified, I need the hope that Reading can turn things around. All being well, and with all fingers crossed, Huddersfield will fluff their lines in their next two games, setting up a last-gasp chance of redemption on May 8 in West Yorkshire.
In the meantime, come on URZ, and for the next week, come on Cardiff City and Sheffield United.