Well, happy New Year to us! That was a very decent start to 2024. It was a win that was fine rather than a fine win, but, as is ever, this season is all about getting points on the board versus trying to achieve anything with style and aplomb.
With the win, Reading bounced out of the relegation zone in either division for the first time in something like nine months, give or take. Sporting a record of one defeat in nine in the league and now being one of the highest-scoring teams in the division since November, there’s a lot to like and lots to feel confident about.
Given that we were 10 points adrift of safety at one point, to turn it around and now be out of the drop zone with roughly half the fixtures left remaining (which is a good and bad thing), is quite remarkable. Not just for reducing the arrears, but with a squad that’s clearly not as polished or has all the right parts that fit into the right holes.
None more so than Clinton Mola, who now unsurprisingly turned up at right-back, and was a big part in Harvey Knibbs’ deftly finished opener. Playing very advanced seemed to pay off well for Mola. He still caused a few heart-in-mouth moments, but he’s slowly developing into the strangest type of defender that we have on our books: one that plays better than in any position than the ones we thought he would be most adept at!
That said, when he was replaced by Amadou Mbengue late in the second half, we looked stronger for it and were able to see out the game with minimal fuss, which was nice.
Caylan Vickers also returned into the fold and, while he also didn’t see out the game, he did win the ball back high up before Knibbs delivered a tidy cross for Agent Hartridge to head into his own net. The same player, Hartridge, missed an absolute sitter by anyone’s standards too to keep our hopes afloat. Many thanks, Alex, sterling work, sir!
And that’s the ugly beauty about this squad: we don’t have the prettiest or fanciest footballers, we don’t have the short-range flow of passing that (surprisingly) a lot of League One clubs have, but we do have a togetherness and will to win that gets us over the line.
Exeter were better with the ball at their feet than we were, but they don’t have the firepower that we have. Aside from the two goals that we pretty much gifted them, they have only scored 14 other goals this season, while we have scored 21 goals in our last 10. That can only bode well for us going further into 2024.
While our method of play at times is rather rudimentary and raw, it’s still highly effective. Getting balls into channels turns many a defence, City’s included, and then we press high and conjure up ways to make the defence do daft things which lead to goals. It’s not the carpet football and playing-out-from-the-back that many sides even at this level try to deploy, but it is so effective.
We also don’t have the bodies or a long-standing platform that we can base our play on; after all we all know that this team was born from next to nothing with no pre-season behind them. This, plus all the other off-field distractors, makes our recent run quite something to be proud of.
What also keeps our heads above water is the Fab Four talents of Lewis Wing, Harvey Knibbs, Sam Smith and Femi Azeez. The output of these players is nothing short of phenomenal in the circumstances. With Knibbs now into double figures for goals in all competitions, he’s fast becoming a fan favourite.
Wing is now a constant threat with his long-passing capability that stretches the defence time after time. Smith is just a terror for central defenders and is tireless and so selfless in his approach. A fit Smith plays, 99 times out of a 100, no questions asked.
Azeez has had the biggest turnaround of all, with much-improved positioning and location of where he takes his shots from. His confidence has gone from rock-bottom to sky-high in a matter of a couple of months. He’s now a double threat with his assists and has added goals to his game. The turnaround from Femi has been nothing short of remarkable.
In short, the longer we keep these four fit and firing, the better our chances are going forwards. Everything we do well typically arrives via these players - either directly or they have a part in the build-up play at some point. If we lost any one of these four due to injury or suspension, we don’t have a like-for-like replacement that could do equally as well.
Charlie Savage could possibly do the same kind of role that Wing does, but he doesn’t have his experience. Otherwise, it’s difficult to spot the replacements that would just slot right in and be as effective or as powerful. We just don’t have that luxury.
With all of that in mind it’s a godsend that the players now have the best part of two weeks to rest and recover before our next must-win game against Port Vale. With no distracting FA Cup run to consider (although there’s an EFL Trophy game at Brighton & Hove Albion next Tuesday), they can have the belated Christmas break that most of us normal folk had.
With the exception of Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan starting against Peterborough United, all of the Fab Four plus David Button, Michael Craig, Nelson Abbey and Jeriel Dorsett started in each of the games over the festive period, so they’ll all need a well deserved recharge, too.
It’s something that Ruben Selles will be very mindful of as we progress into the second half of the season. He has taken calculated risks with his squad rotation, or lack of, and so far it has paid off. He knows who he trusts and they are rewarding his faith with effective performances and results.
2024 has got off to a very decent start indeed, let’s hope we can continue how we have started.