Reading’s unbeaten and promising start to the season came to a crashing halt this afternoon at the SCL Stadium, as the Royals lost 1-4 to a dominant and strong Southampton team. Goals from Molly Pike, Katie Wilkinson (penalty), Atlanta Primus and Jemma Purfield secured the win for the visitors before Charlie Estcourt grabbed a late consolation goal in time added on at the end of the match.
Pre-match, Royals fans would have been buoyant and expectant after a good showing last weekend (away to London City Lionesses) and three new signings on Thursday's transfer deadline day to bolster the squad. That made 11 signings in total over the summer transfer window.
Midfielder Lulu Jarvis joined on a season-long loan from Brighton & Hove Albion, defender Caitlin Smith on a permanent deal from Clemson Tigers in the USA, and midfielder Freya Gregory was another season-long loan, this time from Aston Villa. The Reading manager will also have been pleased to name Charlie Wellings in the squad for the first time, after she returned from injury.
Team: Orman (GK), Dugdale (Gregory, 61), Cooper (Jarvis, 45), Houssein (Elwood, 81), Wade, Hendrix, Mayi Kith (Smith, 45), Estcourt, Woodham (Captain), Roberts, Longhurst (Wellings, 61)
Unused subs: Kite (GK), Meadows Tuson, Cox
Although Reading started with the first corner of the match, there was an early warning. In the eighth minute, a good move from Southampton found striker Pike in between the Reading centre-backs, but she put her shot just wide of the diving Reading goalkeeper, Emily Orman, and luckily just wide of the post too.
However, the early lesson wasn’t heeded and, in an almost identical position, Pike didn’t need to be asked twice and, this time, slotted the ball into the bottom corner with a very composed finish. 0-1.
Reading, in an attempt for a quick reply, got on the front foot and came close to scoring in the 19th minute with a Josie Longhurst effort, from a tight angle. The Reading striker’s close-range shot was blocked at the near post by Southampton goalkeeper Kayla Randell, after a good run and cross from Royals right-back Bethan Roberts.
Shortly after, Deanna Cooper fancied her chances with a speculative and ambitious effort to try and lob the Southampton goalkeeper from midway in the Saints half, forcing a scrambling save for a Royals corner.
Pike was a constant threat for the Reading defence and called Orman into action to tip the ball over the crossbar, after a shot from the edge of the penalty area.
Just one minute later, it was Pike again rampaging, with ease, into the Reading box, knocking the ball past the Reading goalkeeper, with Orman bringing down the Saints striker for a penalty. Southampton number nine Katie Wilkinson struck an unstoppable spot-kick, right-footed, into the top-left corner of the goal. 0-2 to the visitors, 28 minutes in, and, to add insult to the suffering Royals fans, it started to rain too!
It was clear that changes would have to be made at the break, as Reading were being pulled out of shape time and again. The Royals will have been pleased to get to half-time without further damage as the visitors could have easily scored more, with Katie Wilkinson pulling her shot just wide of the goal (she should have done better). Saints midfielder Lucia Kendall was allowed to run from the halfway line and unleash a shot which Orman tipped over the crossbar.
When the Royals came out for the second half Liam Gilbert had made the first of his five tactical changes, bringing on new signing Jarvis for Cooper and fellow new signing Smith for Mayi Kith - the centre-back scapegoated/sacrificed for failing to control Pike in the first half and to try and sure up the Reading defence.
The changes unfortunately didn’t change the flow of the match and the visitors were still very much in control in the opening 15 minutes after the break. Gilbert was forced to roll the dice again, making two further changes. Wellings made her first start of the season, replacing Josie Longhurst in the centre-forward role, and new signing Freya Gregory came on for Rachel Dugdale.
It was Lily Woodham, now in a familiar left-back position, who forced a diving save from Southampton goalkeeper Kayla Randall after a left-foot shot from the angle of the penalty area.
Wellings also found herself in a good position after a long ball over the top saw her close in on the Southampton goal, but a great, well-timed, last-ditch tackle put the ball out for a corner kick.
Reading were guilty of wasting dead-ball chances (something to work on for this season) and a Woodham set-piece looked to be well delivered into the danger zone but there was no Royals attacker gambling for the chance to get on the end of it.
In the 73rd minute, Southampton put the game beyond reach after a good move down the right-hand side with Primus’ shot deflecting and wrong-footing the Royals goalkeeper to trickle over the line. 0-3.
The last Reading change, on 80 minutes, saw Halle Houssein replaced by Amelia Elwood (with her third appearance from the bench). Within a minute though, the visitors sealed an impressive performance when Purfield was quickest to react, heading the ball into an empty goal, after the Saints’ first attempt hit the crossbar. 0-4.
After Cooper’s departure, it was Gregory who took over the role of taking the corners and, in time added on (90+3), it was her left-foot outswinger which found Estcourt in space to coolly volley home a right-foot finish and late consolation goal.
This disappointing home performance certainly added a new perspective and thought to the matches ahead - as the Reading fans zipped up their waterproofs and exited out to the downpour that awaited their journey home.
It’s still early days (right?) but, as the league starts to shape up, maybe an early warning of the work and improvement still required by the players and Reading management team alike.
It’s an international break now with the next match not until Sunday October 1, with a long away trip to Durham and, I believe, an early travelling start for another midday kick-off! See you there.