I thought I’d try something a little different for today’s game. Instead of getting the shuttle bus from Reading Station to the SCL, I tried out the train route out to Green Park for the first time (the decision was helped by it being cheaper and quicker, as well as the fact that I just love trains). Bar the train and station themselves being pretty cramped (that’ll only get worse when we’re in the Champions League in a few years at this rate), the walk from station to stadium was pleasant, stress-free and enjoyable, especially on a sunny day like today.
That proved to be a nice little precursor to what was to come on the pitch: a pleasant, (mostly) stress-free and (certainly) enjoyable afternoon of football at the SCL. I’d have taken another gritty 1-0 win to build on Tuesday’s, but in the end Reading went home with a healthier 2-0 victory and, in truth, could have grabbed a few more goals on top.
The result seemed to become a foregone conclusion when Nathan Thompson was sent off for a second yellow card in the 22nd minute. Doubts were further reduced when Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan opened the scoring four minutes into the whopping nine added onto the first half, and then eliminated entirely when he completed his brace shortly before the hour mark.
As for the final 15-20 minutes, with Reading two goals and one player ahead, it was a stroll in the park. Fast forward to full time and it was remarkable just how unremarkable this win felt. These three points felt routine and assured in a way that three points have rarely done in recent years at this club.
Sure, the red card helped a lot, but we’ve all seen Reading struggle against 10-man teams before. Getting this result over the line still took creativity and positivity to break the opposition down, as well as focus at the back to ensure we didn’t cock it up.
After a meh start against Peterborough United and horrid second half at Port Vale, Reading now have two wins on the bounce to act as building blocks for the coming weeks and months.
The afternoon started off with Ruben Selles making just one change to the team that beat Cheltenham Town in midweek. An injury to Lewis Wing, which’ll keep him out for the next couple of games, meant a return for Sam Hutchinson in the middle of the park. Otherwise this was the same youthful, energetic, determined and immensely likeable team that’s now picking up quite the run of form.
Reading (4-2-2-2): Button; Mbengue, Bindon, Abbey, Carson; Hutchinson, Savage; Camara, Knibbs; Vickers, Ehibhatiomhan
Somewhat uncharacteristically by the standards of this season (in the league at least), Reading started the game slowly but grew into it. That was with the exception of a golden early opportunity for Ehibhatiomhan, who played Mamadi Camara in on the right, got the ball back via a low cross and fired it just wide of the post - so close in fact that it took those around me a second or two to stop celebrating.
Otherwise, Stevenage looked stubborn and happy to slow the game down whenever they got the opportunity. For a time it looked like the story of the afternoon would be the visitors frustrating Reading and maintaining their impressive start to the season (they’d won every league match coming into this one).
The key moment came in the 22nd minute though. Thompson, already on a yellow card, caught Harvey Knibbs on Reading’s left wing, with the wide man threatening to burst forward into space in a dangerous-looking break. It looked harsh to some, but for me the referee had no other choice but to send Thompson for an early shower.
The rest of the first half wasn’t as one-sided as we’d have liked. Reading had their chances through Ehibhatiomhan, Camara (two in quick succession for him) and substitute Femi Azeez, who’d replaced Knibbs, but the visitors were commendably productive for a 10-man team. David Button was called into action with a good save from a header, parrying the ball onto the post with the score at 0-0.
It was Reading that found the breakthrough though. There are few sights in football quite as satisfying as a towering, powerful header, and Ehibhatiomhan delivered one of those when he met Charlie Savage’s inswinging corner in the 49th minute.
Side note: it’s really encouraging just how much better Reading’s balls into the box look this season, particularly from left-footers. Whether from open play or set pieces, the Royals have been able to count on some dangerous deliveries from not only Savage, but also Matty Carson.
In the second half I did wonder if Reading would fade as they’d previously done on a few occasions this season. For a time it looked like that would be the case, with the Royals failing to properly come out of the blocks strongly and put the game to bed soon after the break.
But it always helps to have a reliable poacher, and Ehibhatiomhan gobbled up another chance (similar to how he completed his brace at The Den) in the 57th minute. Tyler Bindon sprayed the ball over the top for an onrushing Amadou Mbengue, whose first touch was perfect, allowing him to burst forward into the area. Although his shot was kept out by ‘keeper Krisztian Hegyi, Ehibhatiomhan was on hand to bury the rebound.
From then on it was relaxing but entertaining viewing. While you could tell that Reading wanted a third goal, the tempo was often slower as the Royals opted for a bit of a breather after exerting themselves extensively in this game and in midweek against Cheltenham. With a technically accomplished set of players and a man advantage, it wasn’t too difficult to keep the ball and Reading ended this contest with 71% of possession.
As in other games, Selles used his bench proactively, introducing four fresh faces by the 73rd minute (in addition to Azeez replacing Knibbs before the break). Debutant Paul Mukairu came on for Camara on the hour mark before a triple sub 13 minutes later meant Mbengue, Carson and Caylan Vickers being taken off for Andy Yiadom, Tom McIntyre and fellow debutant Ben Elliott respectively. Refreshing a hard-working team, particularly the full-backs, is a clear Selles trait.
New boys Mukairu and Elliott had bright introductions to life in Berkshire, particularly the latter. You can tell when a player finds a game that bit easier than those around him, and that was true of Elliott, who spent this game on the right flank, although he can also play deeper. A ball through for a marauding Yiadom and an audacious dribble straight at Stevenage’s box were both highlights, and I’m sure there’ll be plenty more to come.
Reading could have made it 3-0 or 4-0. Azeez had a shot from close range kept out and set up Mukairu with a low cross that wasn’t quite turned in, while Ehibathiomhan did manage to put the ball in the net, but not without the linesman’s flag being raised. This time he’d tucked the ball in after a shot from Elliott, not Mbengue, had been saved.
Still, a 2-0 win was a good afternoon’s work from Reading. In fact, it was the first time the Royals have won with a clean sheet and more than one goal in the league since October 22, a much cagier 2-0 home win against Bristol City. Before that, you’d have to go back a year and two days for a truly convincing, comfortable clean-sheet league win: the 3-0 against Blackburn Rovers.
Before we work out what these two home wins say about the bigger picture, we need a bit of a caveat. Reading have beaten a poor Cheltenham team 1-0 and then a 10-man Stevenage side 2-0, showing promise but certainly not the finished product each time. Both were good performances and deserved wins, yes, but there’ll be sterner tests later this season.
That being said... there sure is a lot of promise to this side. Selles has responded to the Port Vale debacle perfectly, quickly resetting Reading into a younger, fresher, more energetic and hungrier outfit than it had previously looked. Some things have carried over from the first two league games (the formation, system and some of the personnel are the same), but Reading nonetheless look revitalised.
This side is also chalk and cheese from the one that dropped out of the Championship with a whimper: it knows what it wants to do tactically, it believes in itself and it’s going places too. Reading are impressive both individually and collectively, to the degree that the absence of someone who originally looked like a key summer signing (Lewis Wing) wasn’t a problem.
Most exciting of all is the fact that this side has a lot of development to go through. Remember: Reading didn’t have much of a pre-season to fine-tune the system, some players are unavailable (Sam Smith and Ovie Ejaria) and others are still to come in (hopefully a left back, as well as cover in midfield and another first-team option up top). We’ll hopefully see this team evolve extensively over the course of the coming weeks and months, not only getting the aggressive pressing up to a really high standard, but also working on how we break teams down too.
For now though, Reading are starting to get points on the board. All things being well, that’ll continue next week. See you at Exeter.