Sigh. In a game where a win was absolutely imperative, Reading gave a performance that perfectly encapsulated what we’re truly capable of. A defensive lack of concentration for Wigan’s late almost-winner and a distinct lack of quality throughout the team in general defined why we couldn’t put the Latics away.
Despite all the pre-match build-up, the sellout crowd and the huge ramifications if we didn’t win, all we could manage was a huffy-puffy performance that wouldn’t change anybody’s mind about any single facet of our survival hopes.
Bluntly put, we were and are just not good enough. If you can’t put away the team that’s at the bottom of the division and don’t look scarcely much better, then you’re well suited to be in the relegation zone with them.
However, we started brightly. Junior Hoilett returned to the starting XI and looked spritely and sharp. A lot of good movements initially came via him. He was always going to tail off in the second half after not playing for several weeks, but his performance and influence kinda summed up the team as a whole: fine at the outset, loads of energy, but by the end we looked short of influential figures.
Shane Long, too, was bright in the beginning in a position that wasn’t suited to his strengths. We had all thought that Noel Hunt would avoid using square pegs in round holes, but that shows the desperation of a manager who’ll try anything to get a win. Long’s experience is something Hunt would have wanted to utilise to the maximum, one would suppose. Maybe Femi Azeez was showing signs of tiredness or injury? We don’t know.
Yakou Meite was brought on for one final hurrah at the SCL in what is sure to be his fin de siecle. Sure enough, as he has done against Wigan before, he poked home to give us a sliver of a chance of survival. As the game came to its denouement, he applauded the fans, tapped the badge constantly and looked pretty distraught: all the hallmarks of a player saying “au revoir”. It’s been emotional. With Yakou, it has always been emotional.
But for all that emotion, the desire, the essentiality, the desperate need to win, we didn’t have the quality. We had chances but only wild, snatched moments. Nothing clear-cut or many actions that raised fans out of their seats as if something magical was about to happen. It just didn’t feel like one of those days when everything would click into place, just one time. All a bit more tragic than magic.
We lacked composure, especially in the final third. Tom Holmes and Naby Sarr would have the ball at their feet, but with nobody to pass to. We’d get the ball in wide positions but couldn’t beat the full-back to put in a cross. Too many times we launched balls into the box without a clear target man there to receive. Set pieces were scattered when we needed laser precision, hitting the first man more times than you’d ideally like. Considering that most of our goal actions come from set-plays, we needed this aspect to be on point, but in truth, they were poor.
Still, this was an improvement. It was much better than any Paul Ince-type performance. It had energy, it had intention and it looked more organised, but the confidence of not winning in the 11 games prior to this had taken its toll.
The anti-football, antiquated management of Ince had no antidote. This group needed a huge collective group hug to make them believe that they could be better players than they actually are, but Ince kept on with the message that they couldn’t play football. This, among many reasons, is why the interim appointment of Hunt has come too late to save the day.
A lot more time was required to massage the mindset of a squad that had the belief sucked out of them by Ince. His negativity swept through the group like a nuclear blast. It’s no surprise that they looked beaten before a ball was even kicked, away from home especially. Yet, now, if other results go our way, as impossible as they are, then they have to perform and win away from home - where we have been beyond dreadful. All pretty hopeless, in honesty.
So now, we have to rely on miracles, several miracles. Huddersfield Town and Rotherham United have to lose collectively to give us any chance. The latter play Wigan in the last game of the season. With the Latics now relegated, they have nothing but pride left to play for. Prior to that the Millers play Middlesbrough, who should be too good for them.
Huddersfield Town, with two games in hand over us, need only one win to likely be enough to see us off… but, if they only get a point or worse and their goal difference takes a beating, then it’s still all to play for.
It’s all still mathematically possible but very improbable. It’s easy to say we wouldn’t be in this situation without the six-point deduction, but the stark truth is that we deserve to be where we are. If we couldn’t beat the worst that the division has to offer, then it’s hard to believe that anything other than relegation will be the outcome.