Reading earned a hard-fought 1-0 victory with a second-half winner (and first league goal) from substitute Madison Perry, against a tough and dogged Sunderland team, reduced to 10 players in the first half - with Louise Griffiths shown the red card for violent conduct in the 36th minute.
Manager Liam Gilbert must be delighted to see the back of January after what has been a really difficult start to the new year for the Royals. The opening month saw two defeats in the league and FA Cup, player food-poisoning (meaning the Birmingham City match was postponed), the loss of five players during the transfer window (from what is already a very small squad of players) and, to top it off, illness for Gilbert too, meaning he missed the Lewes match last weekend in a match which saw Tia Primmer pick up a red card (so not available for this afternoon’s contest).
With the club as a whole in turmoil, it feels like every week is a long one and you just wait for the next surprise to happen. This last week was no different, with the surprise news of Reading captain Lily Woodham becoming the fifth player to leave in the transfer window, joining US side Seattle Reign (as usual, ‘in exchange for an undisclosed fee’).
Gilbert did manage to bring in another new on-loan addition, with Keira Flannery joining from West Ham United (the third on-loan signing from the Hammers, alongside Jessie Stapleton and Halle Houssein).
There were three changes to the starting line-up with Emily Orman back between the posts (Eve Annets not having her best performance last Sunday), Bethan Roberts (who grabbed one of the comeback goals in last weekend’s match) in the right-wing-back position and a debut for new midweek loan signing, Keira Flannery. It also meant first home SCL Stadium starts for Stapleton and Jesse Woolley.
There was a change in formation too (3-4-1-2) with Woolley and Charlie Wellings leading a rare two-pronged attack and Lauren Wade in the left-wing-back position, following the departure of Woodham.
Team (3-4-1-2): Orman (GK), Mayi Kith, Hendrix (Captain), Stapleton, Roberts (Dugdale, 56), Wade, Houssein (Smith, 90+1), Estcourt, Flannery (Elwood, 68), Wellings, Woolley (Perry, 68)
Unused subs: Annets (GK), Wilson, Hunt, Longhurst
Yellow cards: Stapleton, 51, Wade, 85
In the last few matches Reading have certainly been guilty of not getting off to a good start. So it was important that this didn’t happen once more, against a very strong, physical and big Sunderland team who started the match in second place in the Championship.
Although the visitors tried to impose themselves on the match, the Royals’ formation, work rate, chasing and closing down of the Sunderland players - particularly in midfield - meant the opposition had little time on the ball and were limited to only few chances: long-range shots and nothing really clear-cut.
With four in midfield, the Royals looked much more confident and settled, with Houssein and Flannery particularly enjoying terrific first-half performances, looking to release the ball quickly to Wellings and Woolley in attack. The movement and crisp, direct and quick passing was unrecognisable from recent matches and Orman - in punching and commanding form - was a delight to watch, even though the first half finished goalless.
Sunderland did look particularly dangerous from corners and free-kicks, with Natasha Fenton delivering some great set pieces. The Reading defence were just not tight enough and, arguably, fortunate to see a few headed attempts from Mollie Rouse and Brianna Westrup fall wide of the goal.
On 35 minutes, Reading had a player advantage after Sunderland defender Griffiths saw red for violent conduct. She stopped Bethan Roberts from running past her, deep inside the Reading half, pulling her back by grabbing hold of her ponytail.
As half-time was approaching, both teams had good chances to score. Orman was quickest to react, stopping a near-post Sunderland effort after the ball was hooked back into the danger zone by the impressive midfielder Fenton. Charlie Estcourt was also unable to get enough power on her shot to finish from close range after a double save from Claudia Moan in the Sunderland goal, after two near-post angled shots from Wade, cutting in from the Reading left.
Following the sending-off, and with the visitors unable to carve out any clear-cut chances, it was Sunderland manager Melanie Reay who made a clear statement by changing three players at half time.
Sunderland reacted well, and it was difficult to remember they had one player fewer. They enjoyed the majority of second-half possession, play and set pieces, but were unable to break down a resolute and well organised Reading team who continued to work hard for each other.
Sunderland threatened and came closest early in the second half, Fenton’s outside-of-the-right-boot shot saved by the impressive Orman, diving to her right to turn the ball past the post for a corner.
Rachel Dugdale was introduced after 55 minutes, in a straight swap for Roberts, who went off injured. Hopefully this isn’t a reoccurrence of the recent injury which kept her out for the past few months.
Whereas Sunderland looked dangerous from set pieces, Reading were the opposite and were guilty of wasting good free-kick positions both in the first and second half.
In the 68th minute, Reading made two more positive changes with Gilbert introducing Perry and Amelia Elwood for Flannery and Woolley. The fresh legs and boldness of the substitutions paid off when Perry scored her first league goal, pouncing on the loose ball to slot her shot into the bottom corner, giving the Sunderland goalkeeper no chance.
It was a good finish, after some great build-up play down the Royals’ left-hand side, with Wade finding Wellings, whose cross was met by Dugdale, but her shot was blocked by the Sunderland defence and Perry was quickest to react and turn the ball in for the decisive goal of the afternoon. 1-0.
With the clock ticking down, Orman again was the busier of the goalkeepers, but remained resolute to deny another Westrup header, at full stretch to reach a looping effort which Reading eventually cleared.
Although Reading aren’t exactly prolific, the performance, movement, effort and decisive passing were much improved. They’re testament to the continued development of a young, new and ever-changing squad, which has had to face many challenges (including those outside of the playing arena) this season.
The bottom half of the table is tight and with Watford pulling off a surprise victory against Birmingham City this afternoon, it makes the three points even more important, with Reading in ninth place on 15 points, but still only three points from the relegation zone - with London City Lionesses and Watford both on 12 points.
The recent FA Cup exit means there’s no football for Reading next weekend, but perhaps some well earned recovery time and time on the training ground (to work on some set-piece routines…).
The next match is on Sunday February 18, 2pm kick-off, with another difficult match (aren’t they all?) away to top-of-the-table Charlton Athletic. See you there!