The ball leaves Reece Cole’s boot, it seems to hang in the air for an eternity on its way past David Button, there’s a split second of silence around the ground... and then comes that stark divide in emotion that only football can deliver. While thousands of home fans deliriously celebrate, it’s the polar-opposite reaction in the away end. The gut-punch of a late opposition winner has seemingly left everyone in blue and white speechless, but all thinking the exact same thing:
Oh for f**k’s sake.
That 93rd-minute winner was a gutting end to a well contested match from Reading’s point of view, but certainly not undeserved from Exeter’s. The difference in quality wasn’t so big as to suggest a home win was inevitable (a draw would have been pretty fitting and, on another day, Reading come away with a win if a few bits of finishing were edited), but the Grecians had the better of it today.
But ifs are irrelevant when Reading are heading home with the bitter taste of late defeat still lingering. It’s a feeling that certainly won’t be new for some players in today’s team, but it will be an unfamiliar emotion for many of those in this young, newly assembled team who took part.
Reading had gone through two kinds of defeat under Ruben Selles before today. On the opening day came an underwhelming 1-0 loss to Peterborough United: nothing awful but with plenty of room for improvement. A week later came a pretty dire defeat at Port Vale: 1-0 again, but this time it could have been a few more.
Now we’ve got a third kind, the one that pisses everyone in a Reading shirt off for a different reason. It’s a grim, dejecting feeling to watch the opposition go wild with delight, all the while thinking it should have been us. If only we’d defended that chance a bit better. If only we’d put away that opportunity that went begging.
Teams never grow solely in a straight line, relentlessly improving without setbacks. All newly assembled sides face adversity and frustration - the really important bit is what comes next. We know this has been a hard-working, stubborn group that believes in itself, but will any of that change after today? The next two games - at home to Ipswich Town in the cup and away to Cambridge United in the league - should tell us plenty.
The afternoon started with Selles making two changes to the side that beat Stevenage 2-0. With Mamadi Camara and Tyler Bindon both unavailable due to injury, in came Femi Azeez and Harlee Dean respectively. While the latter was getting his first start for the club after a summer arrival, the former has played plenty this season but without things really clicking for him in front of goal. Today was an opportunity for him to take a step in the right direction.
Reading (4-2-2-2): Button; Mbengue, Dean, Abbey, Carson; Hutchinson, Savage; Azeez, Knibbs; Ehibhatiomhan, Vickers
The first half had its share of good moments but, overall, was a poor one from Reading. The Royals failed to properly impose themselves on the contest, disrupt the hosts and cause them real problems. Down our end, Exeter all too often found space to work in and get at our defence, particularly down the flanks.
After a Charlie Savage free-kick that went over and another chance for the same player, this time a low cross that was tamely put straight at the ‘keeper, the hosts increasingly exerted their influence on the game. A few long shots caused concern, either not missing by much, being well saved by David Button or in one case striking the woodwork, with the rebound just about gathered by Reading’s ‘keeper.
However, Exeter had a deserved breakthrough in the 34th minute when Will Aimson nodded a cross inside the far post. It had been coming, with Reading struggling to convincingly repel the hosts, and it didn’t provoke a response either...
...until the third minute added onto the first half. Azeez got in down the right, put a low cross in for Knibbs, who showed great composure in his control and finish to put Reading into the break at 1-1. That’s two attacking players now up and running for goal involvements in 2023/24.
The equaliser shouldn’t have prompted Reading to rest on their laurels though, given how poor they’d been at 0-0 and 1-0, and pleasingly the Royals had a much stronger second half in terms of overall performance. Before I get into how the game played out after the break, the general point of Reading’s display being better later on today is an encouraging change from when the team tended to start well but fade badly in the first few games. Reading seem to be getting better at re-establishing themselves on a game.
Some half-time changes helped: Andy Yiadom replaced a booked Amadou Mbengue who’d had one of his weaker games at right-back, while Ben Elliott was introduced as a right-sided midfielder in Reading’s 4-2-2-2 for Caylan Vickers, meaning Azeez went up top. Vickers had shown some bright moments in the first half, but getting someone strong in possession (Elliott) onto the pitch while sacrificing some pace was the right call for helping Reading establish more control on the game.
The first standout moment of the second half though was one that had been widely built up in the days before the game. In the 48th minute, as graciously and classily encouraged by the host club, everyone in attendance rose to celebrate the great Eamonn Dolan with a minute’s applause. It was a touching sight and a fitting reminder of just how widely respected and dearly missed Dolan is. Thank you, Exeter City.
Reading were growing into the game at that point - and, as it happens, could have been celebrating a goal from an academy graduate in the 48th minute, with Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan putting a header straight at the ‘keeper in the 47th. Ehibhatiomhan almost turned provider shortly afterwards, capping off a strong run down the left with an accurate low cross in for Azeez... who hit the post from close range. Azeez then had another go at goal when played in by the marauding Elliott, but his right foot isn’t as good as his left and it wasn’t that much of a surprise when he dragged the ball past the far post.
On another day, one of those chances goes in and I’m sat here writing a much more upbeat match report. Today though, Reading gradually faded as the half went on, not helped by substitute Paul Mukairu (he’d replaced a flagging Knibbs) having to be withdrawn for Basil Tuma.
The hosts knocked on the door ever more loudly but it seemed Reading would repel them. Admittedly I was already starting to workshop match-report angles on this being the Royals’ first draw under Selles. A few minutes into time added on though, Exeter had their goal.
The bottom line is that this game doesn’t really need over-analysing or a grand overreaction. Reading had some good moments and showed potential today, much more so in the second half than in the first, but also made mistakes at the back, weren’t ruthless enough in front of goal and are still getting used to making this system fire on all cylinders.
A young side that’s still a work in progress will lose games like this. It happens. This is however also an exciting side with potential, and it’ll undoubtedly win games in exactly the same fashion too.