I wouldn’t quite call this game a damp squib, but it wasn’t quite what we were hoping for from our long-awaited trip to Oxford United. Our first since August 2004. As I said to some friendly Yellows supporters after the game on the way back to the station, this was a match that really needed a spark to ignite it, but none came.
We had a late(ish) goal in front of the away end to celebrate, but that didn’t quite count as a properly transformative moment. Ciaron Brown’s own goal, forced by impressive left-wing substitute Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan, restored parity to the scoreline - a fair reflection of an overall even game - but did little to really fire up the visitors and prompt a late winner.
It did give us the opportunity to rub home fans’ noses in it though. There’s nothing quite like erasing a one-goal lead to wipe smiles off faces, quiet the taunts and let yourself indulge in some good old-fashioned gloating.
Reading didn’t get a win, but at least we got that. Small wins and all that, but I’ll gladly take it.
Limbs when that equaliser went in pic.twitter.com/Y6NtlTpJ0B— The Tilehurst End (@TheTilehurstEnd) February 3, 2024
The afternoon started with Ruben Selles making two changes to the side that drew 1-1 against Leyton Orient. Out went Charlie Savage and the injured Tom Holmes, in came Michael Craig and Amadou Mbengue, with Tyler Bindon shunting leftwards in the centre-back pairing.
Reading also went a little bolder than expected in their setup, perhaps facilitated by Craig in a holding role and Mbengue’s covering pace at centre-back. This time it was 4-1-4-1, not the slightly more conservative 4-2-3-1, meaning Lewis Wing took a higher position.
Reading (4-1-4-1): Button; Yiadom, Mbengue, Bindon, Dorsett; Craig; Azeez, Wing, Knibbs, Mukairu; Smith
Subs: Pereira, Abrefa, Mola, Savage, Rushesha, Elliott, Ehibhatiomhan
Those alterations didn’t pay off in a first half that was underwhelming albeit not disastrously bad. The Royals restricted Oxford well, bar the opener, but struggled to really hurt the hosts going forwards or get their pressing game going in the opposing half.
That opener was a frustrating one to concede. In the only real example of the hosts stretching and getting in behind Reading in the first half, a cross from the right found its way over to the back post, was put back in as a low cross, and converted from point-blank range by Mark Harris.
Down the other end, the only real chance of quality and note was a Wing effort with the score 0-0. Paul Mukairu ran into the area on the left flank and fed the ball to Wing, who played a sharp one-two with Harvey Knibbs to open up a shooting opportunity on the edge of the area... but went just wide.
It was a rare example in the first half of incisive attacking play from Reading. Lone striker Sam Smith looked too isolated, Knibbs was ineffective and Femi Azeez struggled to make an impact on the right wing. Oxford knew how to nullify him, but even with that in mind he lacked the spark we’ve come to associate him with in the last few months.
Reading started the second period pretty well, looking more purposeful than in the first half, but faded as the game went on. Swapping Mukairu to the right wing and Azeez to the left was an interesting idea, but not one that had much impact.
With a quarter of an hour to go, Ruben Selles turned to his bench to make a triple substitution. Off went Craig, Jeriel Dorsett and Mukairu; on came Savage, Clinton Mola and Ehibhatiomhan in straight swaps at holding midfield, left-back and left wing respectively. It’s interesting that Ehibhatiomhan has been used in this role recently: an unorthodox tactic, but one that makes use of his dribbling ability while letting him arrive into the box as an extra striker.
It was the former of those qualities that paid off a matter of minutes after his introduction. Ehibhatiomhan seized the ball in midfield by the left touchline, burst downfield and all the way into the box with a confident, purposeful run, and his low cross was turned in by Brown.
That’s two goals in the Reading/Oxford derby this season from Brown, one for each club. Maybe he’s seen the light and is switching allegiance?
Selles tried one more swap, bringing Ben Elliott on for Azeez on the right wing, but he couldn’t conjure much in his few minutes on the pitch. It was the right change to make at least, as were the previous three, but you have to wonder if Selles should have been bolder with his changes, intervening earlier than the 74th minute. Reading needed fresh legs and new ideas well before that point.
This game is the latest example of Reading now being very good at drawing games they previously would have lost. Before today it was the Leyton Orient game last weekend, also a 1-1 draw, which similarly demonstrated that the Royals are raising the lower bar of their performances.
Drawing a lot of games inevitably makes you frustrated that we’re not seeing more wins, but they’re often still good results - as this one was. A point on the road when we were fearing none is a point gained, not two dropped.
And now for a different kind of ‘limbs’
I thought I knew just how good Reading’s travelling support was this season. We consistently take a large number of fans and pretty often sell out, particularly for big games such as this trip to Oxford. The upcoming game at Portsmouth is another example.
It turns out that Reading fans are even more committed than I thought! Not only did a small number of Loyal Royals without tickets try to watch the game from a mound in the car park, but one scaled a small tree to get a better view.
And then another in the same tree (which surprisingly held two people’s weight)...
Before TWO people tried their luck with the taller trees (I have no idea how they managed to either get up or get down, but fair play chaps).
I’ve seen some people try to downplay this fixture as being an actual derby, but seriously, when you’ve got people so desperate to watch the game in person that they turn into Tarzan for a couple of hours in a car park where Oxford’s fourth stand would have been, it’s a derby.
And, accordingly, it was a cracking atmosphere in the actual away end too. Great noise throughout the game and boy what a roar when that equaliser went in.
Oxford United, we should do this again. We’ll see you next season.