It’s not often in the past few years that fans have left the SCL Stadium grinning from ear to ear - and that wasn’t just the clowns with painted faces or anyone else with Dai Yongge masks, but everyone else that witnessed the comfortable 2-0 win over a rather toothless Charlton Pathetic.
This game had all the warm and fuzzy feelings of what it must be like to support a normal football club again. The multi-coloured aspect gave the atmosphere a comedic tone but with a very serious message and backstory. This felt like a home game that did not have any associated pressure or that had many question marks surrounding it. This felt like routine again. Just turn up, score some goals, don’t concede any and job done. Time to bask and the weekend is golden.
It’s not often that we have been able to watch a game relaxed and content with what we see before us. But that’s what we saw: a measured, controlled, bog-standard home win with a new (not so) secret weapon that has been revealed and a couple of mighty fine finishes too.
A few times this season we’ve seen “redemption arcs” in players and even the manager. David Button for one, Femi Azeez, Charlie Savage, Clinton Mola and now our very own Royale with Cheese, Amadou Mbengue.
Pinning down Mbengue to a position has always been a tricky task; just what is his best position? Was it right-back? No, far too erratic and undisciplined. How about in a back three? Maybe, but that option has rarely been deployed. Or what about in a centre-back pairing with a 19-year-old rookie alongside? Yeah, why not, that sounds like a recipe for absolute disaster! Wrong!
If anyone saw the version of Mbengue at Eastleigh in the FA Cup, it was a sloppy, basic, error-strewn dismissive performance. It seemed too cocky, too ambivalent, too immature. Fast forward a few months and a few hairstyles and colours later, we have a completely different Cheeseburger.
In the past there has always been a nervousness watching him; he always has a mistake or a yellow card just waiting to happen. That erratic yet energetic nature, where it was either heroic or horrific, followed him around like a bad smell. Suddenly, we find Mbengue to have extra responsibility and purpose and he’s thriving on it in a position where we always wanted him to be but dared not trust him with it. The errors have been minimised, he’s more economic with his wild forays forward, he’s more disciplined and calmer.
In a way, he’s had to mature quickly to blend with Tyler Bindon, who is also raw and inexperienced, but rather weirdly and magnificently it just seems to work! It’s a partnership that nobody in their right mind would think to be a functioning central defensive partnership, but here we are, and the results are undeniable. Also, one can’t discount the re-emerging form of Andy Yiadom and Mola. It’s the oddest of defensive combinations to come up with, but it’s working and that’s all that really matters.
Not only is Mbengue finding his true worth but Selles has unlocked a new secret weapon at his disposal: a killer long throw. Well, it’s not as if he’s never thrown a ball in his life, but it’s something they have clearly worked on in training and extra yards have been added to his throws.
It’s noticeable how different his throws are now. Before, if memory serves me well (and it’s probably incorrect!) Mbengue’s feet were always parallel to the white line. Now, his gait is wider apart, so there’s more velocity to the delivery. It’s also noticeable that his right foot barely touches the ground upon delivery, otherwise it would be a foul throw.
This new-found aerial arsenal has been the architect for our last three goals. The winner at Stevenage bamboozled the defence for our good friend O. Goal to score yet again for us, and in this game, for Azeez to unleash all sorts of fury upon the Charlton goal. You just love to see it!
The usefulness of having such a weapon to deploy can’t be underestimated. The opposition have something else to think about now. They can’t just concede a throw-in in a dangerous area because this might happen. If they try not to concede a throw-in then we can attempt to steal the ball high up the field instead, as is our wont. It’s a delicious win-win.
As a result, the result was put to bed with two fine strikes from the left boot of another redeemer in Azeez. The first was an amuse bouche for the succulent second, a glorious bit of tekkers that would be seen over and over if it were televised and delivered by the boot of Mo Salah. It was a strike worthy of winning any game, truth be told. Up there as a contender of goal of the season, without doubt.
Up until then, Azeez was guilty of not pulling the trigger. He had a good opportunity in the first half to unleash but he chose not to. With his two goals he didn’t have the time to think and acted purely on instinct. In fact, most of his goals appear to come this way - when he’s got less time to think about it. “Just bang it, Femi” would seem to be the advice from here on in.
With this win we moved further up the league table into 18th position. Over the last 10 games we are fifth in the form table, above Stevenage, Derby County and Peterborough United. With one loss in 12, we’re on a quite remarkable roll. With a goal difference now of just -4, that’s far superior than most can muster in the bottom half of the table. That alone could be valuable come the end of the season.
There’s no sign that the feel-good feeling is going to subside any time soon: we just seem to be exactly where we want to be in terms of squad harmony and togetherness. There’s so much to love with this group of players. Brian Carey said “no d*ckheads” way, way back last April with regards to the squad, and by and large, that’s what we’ve got now. There are a few outliers but they’re not even on the bench, let alone getting regular game time.
The unwavering determination and desire to get out of the mire has been palpable and the performances as well as the results prove this in spades. Make no mistake, we’re no longer a laughing stock and the doors aren’t falling off either. Reading FC are definitely no longer clowning about.