Should the saying be renamed “Can they do it on a cold rainy night in Stevenage?” Well, if it should, then the answer for Ruben’s Royals is certainly yes. Reading collected their second three points on the road this season, fighting back a very good Stevenage team, in an affair that just about managed to swing our way.
Jake Forster-Caskey stood over an early free-kick which nervously pinballed around the box until David Button managed to collect, and some less dangerous set pieces and chances followed in the opening period, including a rather audaciously attempted dribble out from the back line by Amadou Mbengue, resulting in a Stevenage effort from the edge of the area, but we held firm.
Prior to the game, the impression I got of opposition manager Steve Evans from various sources is that he plays Paul Ince-style anti-football, but what I found tonight was that his team merely made the most of every chance to get forward they had. In the first 10 minutes or so, the home side created a few good opportunities from corners, free-kicks and long throws, where they always had skilful players to win those set pieces and skilful players to take them.
That’s not to say we didn’t either though. Reading woke up around the 15th minute and got forward with a good run down the right from Femi Azeez, as well as a couple of progressive carries (dribbles for any more traditional TTE podcast hosts out there) from Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan.
The momentum swung back Stevenage’s way though, as more threatening crosses came into Button’s box and Charlie Savage picked up a yellow for a bizarre sliding challenge. Barrages of Boro chances matched by desperate Reading blocks in the box kept us in the game midway into the first half, but you have to credit our strong aerial presence to keep all them out.
Savage then fed Azeez out to the right, who struck a speculative long shot into the side netting, which could well have been a tactic worth persevering with, given the opposition ‘keeper struggled to get his resulting goal-kicks past the halfway line playing against the wind.
Reading could hardly string three passes together playing out, with even Steady Eddie Tyler Bindon getting caught in possession to award Stevenage another chance to get at our defence. Jamie Reid knocked down another Forster-Caskey cross and spun and struck to force Button into a great stop, but the linesman’s flag saved us on that occasion.
Clinton Mola at left-back picked up a yellow card too with a poor decision from the referee, however this is simply the standard of officiating we unfortunately have to get used to in League One.
Kelvin Ehibhatiomhan managed to connect with a Lewis Wing forwards header putting him through on goal, but MacGillivray smothered the ball well. The rebound to Azeez was looped over both the retreating goalkeeper and the bar in between another spell of heavy Stevenage pressure.
The Royals’ pressure late into the first half was rewarded as Mbengue’s long throw was flicked on by Ehibhatiomhan for Vadaine Oliver to toe poke into the far post of his own net to put Reading 1-0 up. Against the run of play sure, but I doubt the players will care, taking the Royals into half-time in front.
To show the level of domination that we were subjected to in the opening period, we had a mere 35% final-third pass accuracy and two shots at the break, compared to our opposition’s 71% pass accuracy and 11 shots. Smash and grab from us, but could we carry it through to the final whistle?
Stevenage came out firing in the second half but Reading hit back on the counter as Ehibhatiomhan found himself three on two with the Stevenage defenders and fed in Smith, but his traction engine of a left foot thumped it high and wide of the near post.
Reading retained a high tempo into the 50th minute, as Azeez nicked the ball high and was penalised when two Boro players collided with one another. Neither went off for their 30-second touchline procedure though, mind.
We looked more comfortable this half, managing a few calm passes in the attacking half, but were yet to threaten the opposition goal, now in front of the near 900-strong away end. Azeez played a ball down the line for Knibbs to chase and the resulting cross went wide as the midfielder couldn’t quite wrap his foot around the ball.
Jordan Roberts put a very good cross into the far post and Mola barely shepherded the ball out for a corner, and the aerial bombardment that came next made a well worked chance from a Forster-Caskey short corner flash just wide of Button’s goal.
Reading were massively let off after a long goal-kick was flicked on and Reid missed a golden chance to level the game, spooning his shot well over the bar, but the cracks in our defence were beginning to show with the Stevenage pressure.
Uncharacteristically, we relieved the pressure like a leaky aerosol can and went back forward with Ehibhatiomhan again working his magic down the left wing and delivering into the six-yard box, only being half cleared by a nervous Stevenage defence.
Wing pumped the ball over the whole defence to Smith’s chest, who went around the keeper and had the whole goal gaping. The forward could get it on target but only into the foot of the backtracking Dan Sweeney on the line. Continuing to push forward with 20 minutes remaining was positive of course, but in game management terms very risky with the scoreline still just 1-0.
We kept the Boro penned in for a while, with Reading’s link-up play helped by Lake Stevenage forming by our opposition’s 18-yard box due to the sheer level of rain, which helped slow down any overhit through balls down the right flank. With around 77 minutes on the clock, an anxious moment in our box was a bit of head volleyball, but eventually dealt with by Button, just before Ehibhatiomhan dragged a long shot well wide of the post.
The clock ticked over the 80-minute mark and squeaky bum time commenced. Reading had not yet made a single substitution as Stevenage made their fourth, which seemed to inject a bit more energy into them as they enjoyed a few minutes of possession high in our defensive half.
Ben Thompson skipped through three Reading players in the box and went down to many a penalty call from the home side heading into the dying embers of normal time, and it was all Stevenage at this point. Sliding challenges on the soaking surface of the Lamex were coming in left, right and centre, earning Harvey Knibbs a yellow, as rain and crosses continued to lash down on our box.
Five minutes said the fourth official’s board. Our players struggled to press given all but one had been playing from the off, and the game became like a tennis rally with both sides hooking long balls back and forth to each other’s goalkeepers.
“The Great Escape” echoed around the jubilant away end as the referee blew the whistle, giving Reading their first midweek win infront of fans for nearly six years.
Mr and Mrs Goal will be very proud of their son Own netting his sixth of the season for the Royals too, but that defensive performance, from everyone in the back line, was the real star of the show.
In our last 11 games, we’ve won 18 points from a possible 33, an incredible turnaround given the conditions. We’re also now lifted out of the relegation zone, one point above our friends over at Port Vale.
Enjoy your Tuesday night Royals.