For what seemed the longest time, Reading looked for all the world like a side that couldn’t buy a goal. We had a few openings that didn’t quite develop into something meaningful, but it seemed destined that this would be another scrappy affair that wasn’t quite going to go our way.
Enter Stage Left Wing, Kelvin Ehibatiomhan! Special K did everything you’d want from a substitute: he gave us energy, territory, desire and, of course, a goal. Not quite his goal, but close enough. The fine fellow Own Goal popped up for his fifth league strike of the season.
After yet another turbulent week where the players would have paid their last well wishes to some former colleagues that have now left the parish, it was back to the task at hand for the first February match of seven. A game in which no fan would expect anything less than 100% effort. And, truth be told, for a lot of it, that’s all we saw: effort, and a lot of it.
But what we have all learned about this group, even with its diminishing numbers, is an outstanding will to win, togetherness and resilience. Despite everything thrown at them this season - points deductions, further threats of them and the staff not being paid on time, rumours about their own futures at the club and even the existence of the club itself that are still very much ongoing - they still defy the odds.
It’s worth remembering that not all clubs are equal in this division. Even the poorest of sides have had a lot more development and stability behind them than us. A lot more have the capability to sign players for cold hard cash than we do. A lot more, like our big mates in Oxfordshire, have a play-off position to cling onto. We have none of these things, yet still we show up, week in, week out and are now rarely turned over.
We managed to hold onto all bar one of our genuine first XI starters during the transfer window, which now seems like a benevolent yet conscious effort to minimise our chances of a second relegation on the spin. Oh, what a kind and generous decision, Mr Dai and Mr Pang, you are really spoiling us! It’s for small mercies such as this that we’re still in with a fighting chance of staying in the division, but it’s still won’t be a cake walk.
We do still need to see more of Sam Smith bearing down on goal but that’s not through any fault of his own. We have to find ways of getting him into goalscoring positions to give him a chance to score. It’s not like he’s missing hat loads of chances: there are no chances to be had!
This was certainly the case in this game, but it’s safe to say that as long as someone is scoring the goals, he’s happy to just contribute and there’s no shortage of that. He’s still a nuisance no matter what, but we do need to find a way of serving him better, especially on the road.
The same applies for our leading scorer, Harvey Knibbs, who did not have the busiest of afternoons at the Kassam. The industry was there, as it always is, but bar one or two forays in the first half particularly, he wasn’t able to find the pockets of space to exploit that he usually does.
It’s harsh to pin this on the pair as they have delivered so much this season. It’s not even a criticism, it’s more that often it’s just a pass or two that, if played differently, would provide them with the results that we desperately require.
Another that had an off-day was Femi Azeez but maybe he has had other things on his mind this week that could have affected his preparation. It certainly wasn’t a game for him to remember that fondly.
But, of course, all of the above isn’t a slight on the players. We all know the situations that have led them to this point and why it has been such a difficult time. We are no ordinary football club. As the off-field issues remain unresolved, with no obvious end in sight either, we can either galvanise or dismantle. So far, Ruben Selles and his men have shown no signs of doing the latter.
How long we can stay strong and without sustaining injuries or suffer with fatigue remains to be seen. But the worries are there. At some point Smith and Knibbs must require a break; the same applies for Azeez especially and Paul Mukairu also, to a lesser extent. Maybe some of those changes will come against Stevenage in a few days’ time to leave them relatively fresh for the home games where we have the much better form?
These are decisions that Ruben will have to make. Some games ahead might involve several changes because needs must. If a loss is the result then so be it, but the horse cannot be flogged too often for fear it will collapse completely.
While wholesale changes are not likely against Stevenage, it would not be surprising to see Smith rested. Ehibhatiomhan deserves a start and his confidence will be high. Stevenage have a very good home record, so it might be a case of damage limitation for this and the Portsmouth fixtures. After that we have four very winnable games, three of which are at home.
Squad management has always been key and never more so than in this month. Mentally, we know they all have togetherness and resiliency in spades. With now even further depleted numbers, it’s now that the rotation has to be key and deployed sensibly.
But, as we learn game on game, there’s so much to be proud of. The fight and determination are still very much apparent. The great escape is still very much on!