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Blackburn Rovers U21s 4-2 Reading U21s: Match Report

Adrian Akande and Charlie Wellens gave the Royals a 2-0 lead at the break, only for Reading to collapse in the second half.

New year, different age group, new ground, same old Reading. We fell to a 4-2 loss to Blackburn Rovers after being 2-0 up at half-time at the Lancashire County Ground in Leyland, a small town a few miles south of Preston, on a freezing Wednesday night up north.

I’m beginning to question my own sanity continuing to attend matches, especially when the attendance is 149, had one stand and a bus shelter, and I was probably the only away fan. Well, the only one who clapped when we scored anyway.

Still, as I duly handed over my £2 entry fee at the turnstiles, I was very hopeful. I don’t know why, since this match was in the Premier League Cup, in which we were currently bottom of our group with a point from four games, but optimistic nevertheless.

Before the game I managed to get a word with under-21s boss Noel Hunt as he went in for his team talk, as well as from a few of the players, and that’s the special thing about football at small non-league grounds really: the fan-team relationship.

Anyway, the first half kicked off in absolutely baltic conditions, and it was Reading who had an ideal start. In the fifth minute, a marauding run down the right wing was cut back to Adrian Akande in the middle and he made no mistake, slotting the ball past Aynsley Pears in the Rovers net. The Royals continued to attack, with a great cross from left-back John Ryan onto the free head of Basil Tuma, but the striker could only loop it over the bar.

What struck me most in the first half was our communication: captain Michael Stickland never stopped shouting at his team, while Hunt and his assistant were incredibly vocal and involved too. We had a clear pattern of play, always looking to get down the wings and deliver crosses, which was effective, with Ryan playing advanced on the left and Akande on the right putting in some brilliant crosses too.

Blackburn seemed disjointed and confused in the first period, possibly caused by the constant switching of Tuma and Jeremiah Okine-Peters between the left wing and striker, and the home side’s misery was piled on in the 27th minute when yet another cutback came in from the right and Charlie Wellens was on hand to slide it into the far corner from the edge of the 18-yard box.

Okine-Peters continued to be a bright spark in Reading’s attack too, feeding Wellens in again, but he could only hit the post, and he himself barely missed a shot after cutting inside near the end of the half.

It was a frantic end to the first period for us though, with a late scare in the form of a goalmouth scramble, but we held on to give us an impressive 2-0 scoreline at the break.

Interestingly, just as the half ended, Hunt was coaching Okine-Peters for a few minutes while the rest of the team went in, and he seemed to be focussing on positioning and helping out his full-back when defending. Throughout the match Hunt seemed very hands-on, always instructing players - never a quiet moment with him on the touchline.

After a short chat at half-time with a nearby Everton fan featuring some points-deduction-related bonding, before you knew it the second half was underway. Blackburn Rovers had the kick-off, and to be honest, there was barely a moment from that point on that they didn’t have the ball at their feet.

In the 49th minute Reading made a straight swap in midfield which was Hamid Abdel Salam for Jacob Borgnis, and this temporarily injected a bit more energy into the game for us, with Wellens looping a ball over the top for Okine-Peters, but he could only put it wide, and from that point on, we were wholly dominated.

Dilan Markanday and Niall Ennis both had great chances from close range for Blackburn, and Harvey Collins in the Royals goal denied a certain goal with a fantastic save, but it wasn’t enough. Jake Batty swung in a cross from the left-hand side which bypassed everyone in the box and nestled in the bottom right corner to pull one back, and the writing was on the wall at this point. Reading could hardly string two passes together, allowing Rovers endless opportunities.

John Clarke came on for Benjamin Purcell on the 70-minute mark, but to little effect, as another Batty cross was delivered in from the left, but this time it was tapped in by Markanday at the far post to level the game.

Tuma, who had shown his pace but had been a bit of a passenger for much of the game, was taken off for Ajani Giscombe. However, the latter hardly managed a touch as Blackburn continued to push for a winner, which they found when Charlie Weston set Batty free down the left flank before poking it past Collin’s near post to lead the game with 12 minutes to play.

It went from bad to worse for Reading when Ennis was brought down in the box and converted the penalty, making it 4-2 to the Rovers.

Reading pushed hard for the remaining few minutes, with Giscombe and Akande having chances, and Louie Holzman with a great run down the right-hand side to win a corner, but Clarke’s resulting header was superbly saved by Pears. We hit the bar in a late frenzy in the box, but it wasn’t enough, so the Royals exit the Premier League Cup in the group stage.

Reading just seemed to lose every bit of ability they had at half-time, and in the second period breaking us down was like a hot knife through butter. Hell, even a lukewarm spoon would do it. The only player who looked anywhere near capable of playing for the first team was attacking midfielder Wellens, but really that’s if I was pushed to choose somebody, because none of the players came away with a huge amount of credit on Wednesday night.

Next up for Noel Hunt’s side is Premier League 2 action against 21st-placed Leicester City on Monday night, in a competition we are actually doing very well in, sitting eighth place on 17 points.

Up the young Royals!