For some reason I felt that Reading away was a big game for us. On the back of two thumping home wins and an impressive away performance at Derby, this presented us with an opportunity to rubber-stamp the statement that we seemed to have been laying down to the rest of the Championship.
Furthermore, we owed them one. They’d come to Carrow Road and “done a job” on us; a result that in their recent form shines like a lonely buoy in a vast sea of mediocrity. They’d thrown away a two goal lead as recently as Boxing Day and with that as well as our own demolition of Millwall fresh in the memory, it felt like they were there for the taking.
Unfortunately, football rarely works out quite that predictably and just as Celtic couldn’t beat the Dog and Duck in Scotland, Man City couldn’t beat Burnley at the Etihad and Chelsea couldn’t finish the job at Southampton; the form book went out the window at the Madejski too. Of course the key difference between us and the aforementioned teams is that a) none of the others lost and b) it’s unlikely to prevent any of them achieving their end of season goals. We succumbed to the Royals for the second time in a few weeks and with 7 defeats by halfway in the season, our aim of automatic promotion now looks as though it will need a huge second half of the season. That isn’t to say that it can’t be achieved but our apparent inability to maintain a satisfactory level of consistency gives the impression that it is becoming increasingly less likely.
Perhaps there were some mitigating factors behind the result; the officials were poor, the pitch looked a dog and the enforced change at the back to name three. That, however, shouldn’t detract from the point that the performance fell a long way short of those we saw in the previous three games. As has become the norm this season, we enjoyed more possession than our opponents but there was no snap to our passing and our movement looked laboured and deliberate. In complete contrast to the Derby game the lack of wingers seemed to leave us devoid of options as Reading pushed players on to restrict the forward movement of our full backs. We’d still been the better side, although Reading had started to exert some pressure, when the penalty was given. Corner is swung in, misses everybody, ref blows whistle and points to the spot – to say I was mystified wouldn’t be far wrong. I watched it back a number of times on Twitter shortly afterwards and still for the life of me couldn’t see what the offence was but it’s what the bloke with the whistle sees that counts and predictably the resultant spot kick was buried without Ruddy ever entering the same postcode.
It was a soft decision but I suppose if you give the referee the opportunity to make that decision then you’ve taken an unnecessary risk and all the talk of “..if he gives that then he’ll be giving 20 a game..” counts for little because, well, he just won’t. I lamented at the time that while the referee was poor for both sides, if you gift one team the lead then it does take some levelling up, what it was imperative that we didn’t do was go to pieces. On the back of that decision, that’s exactly what we did. We were literally all over the place, visibly knocked by falling behind and, no disrespect to Reading but, Judy Murray could’ve waltzed through us to set up their second such was our disorganisation.
Ryan Bennett has seen his stock rise immeasurably through our recent poor spell, mainly because his injury prevented him being involved in it. Much like Becchio became Messi and Fox became Pirlo last season, Bennett has been spoken of in such glowing terms that you might think he’d become Ryan Bennettbauer. That’s not his fault but the reverence looks every bit as wide of the mark as it was for Becchio or Fox; perhaps it’s unfair to judge him on his first game back but it’s no more ridiculous than judging him on NOT playing and this display was anything but Kaiseresque. What would be unfair would be to single him out because across the park we were abject at best.
Russell Martin played some horror passes, Tettey was way short of his industrious best, O’Neil didn’t have the snap of recent weeks, Howson was anonymous and Olsson struggled in both directions. In fact, whereas it would have been a struggle to pick out one individual against Millwall or Derby as the top performer such was the team effort; against Reading you’d be hard pressed to identify anyone who did play well. Even the double substitution at half time failed to make much of an impact, Redmond didn’t really offer any additional width and was largely ineffective in the inside-forward positions that he was taking up and when Wes gave the ball away with his first two touches and then turned into blind alleys, you knew it wasn’t a “going” day. Even then, one audacious flick put Lewis Grabban clear in the inside-right position but his cut-back failed to pick out the forward thrusted Ryan Bennett.
By that stage we were chasing the game hard, leaving vast expanses of space at the back as we looked to build on yet another Bradley Johnson goal. That thumping 20-yarder gave us some hope and in truth, we were never out of the game even at 2-0 but it was a huge climbdown from Boxing Day.
In a previous entry I alluded to the “hiding to nothing” situation I felt Adams was in following the appointment of Phelan and this was in evidence at the Madejski as frustrations grew. One chap exclaimed that Neil should “..sit down and let Phelan take charge!!” as he offered instructions from the technical area. At other points I heard that Adams should have let Phelan name the team because he wouldn’t change a winning line-up (despite the enforced change) and following a misplaced pass, Bradley Johnson should piss off because he’s as clueless as Adams. The same Bradley Johnson that thundered in our consolation, the same one that has 5 goals in 4 games and of course the same Neil Adams that the same fans were imploring to “..give us a wave..” at Carrow Road on Boxing Day.
I do understand the frustration, we’ve outplayed one of the best teams in the league in Derby and completely taken apart two bang average sides in Huddersfield and Millwall, yet we’ve taken no points from a third poor side in Reading. We’ve inflicted the Scum’s only home defeat, we’ve hammered Watford, Blackburn and Brentford, halted the Bournemouth juggernaut (that’s starting to look a decent result, isn’t it?) but failed to beat Brighton, Birmingham, Leeds and Charlton at home and lost to Reading twice. In fact, only Middlesbrough have really given us a going over but we’ve dropped a lot of unnecessary points in games that we could have and should have won but didn’t.
And so it becomes increasingly difficult. We’re at the crest of the hill now, halfway through the season and we’re undoubtedly short of where we’d like to be, where we should be and where we NEED to be. Without wanting to over-egg our pudding, we’ve been clearly better than many teams, Reading included, that we’ve dropped points against but football matches are not scored like boxing contests.
Perhaps we should be encouraged that we’re doing the right things in so much that we ARE the better team in almost every game we play and trust that class will prevail. On the other hand, while we show such peaks and troughs in performance, questions will be asked about the tactics, motivation and selections.
As we move forward now, we have to hope that Reading was a blip and that the corner remains turned. The concern is that we’ve reverted to type and that the Huddersfield/Derby/Millwall hiatus WAS the blip.
It’s a big ask from here for sure but we could still do it….couldn’t we..?