1,800 North End fans made the long trip south on Saturday to visit the Madjeski, a place where we’d lost the last 2 games without scoring a goal. We visited the Berkshire side at a similar time last season and succumbed to a 1-0 defeat, a result that started the end of our season. I must admit, I went into this game with similar trepidation, with Alex Neil’s sides generally struggling after an international break, winning 1 of 8 games over his spells with both Norwich and Preston. That could be something to do with the intensity that his teams play at, needing a couple of games to find their rhythm.
North End headed into the game without Browne, Barkhuizen, Potts and Hughes, as well as long term absentees Harrop and Bodin. The first 3, in particular, are key to the way that we play away from home, all 3 with the legs to press and stretch the opposition. In their absence, it’s very difficult to set a tempo and press the opposition man to man, especially given the way that Reading aim to play.
North End made 3 changes, with Josh Earl coming in for Andrew Hughes, who we won’t see again this season. Callum Robinson made his first start since returning from injury and Paul Gallagher came back into the side after his injury layoff for Brad Potts and Jayden Stockley. Tom Barkhuizen was still absent, and with the club being coy on his injury, he’s another I suspect we won’t see again this season. Robinson started up front but was drifting about everywhere, with Sean Maguire and Lukas Nmecha wide, but with Maguire liking to take up similar positions to Robinson, we looked unbalanced. The midfield trio of DJ, Pearson and Gallagher struggled to get into their usual rhythm, not helped by both centre backs being harried relentlessly by Reading’s forwards, not allowing them to contribute in the build-up.
Reading set up in a 4-2-3-1 system with lots of emphasis on rotation and movement in the final third, and to be fair they controlled the ball well in the opening stages without looking too threatening. Ejaria, on loan from Liverpool, was a constant threat and drifted all over the pitch, with North End struggling to pick him up.
Reading’s first goal came after a good bit of play, with Darnell Fisher being dragged into the middle third following his man, John Swift played a lovely ball into the vacated channel, with Mo Barrow beating Jordan Storey for pace and squaring the ball to the onrushing Meite, who had got on the wrong side of Josh Earl, to tap in from a few yards. A well-worked goal from a Reading point of view, but PNE will be disappointed that Darnell Fisher, Jordan Storey, Declan Rudd and Josh Earl all could’ve prevented the goal.
The second goal came within a matter of minutes, and it summed up the day’s events. Another ball in behind the full back, this time Earl’s side, wasn’t dealt with, and Ben Davies sold Declan Rudd short with an under-hit back pass. A mix up between Storey and Rudd left Meite with an open goal from 6 yards and it suddenly looked like an impossible task for North End to claw their way back into the contest. Both centre backs had their worst games of the season, they couldn’t deal with the intensity of Readings forward play and struggled all afternoon. A steep learning curve.
Alex Neil, as he so often does, responded boldly at half time, hooking off Lukas Nmecha and Callum Robinson, who understandably looks nowhere near sharp enough – I was surprised to see him start to be honest. On came Brandon Barker and Jayden Stockley as we looked to go more direct. Barker’s afternoon lasted 11 minutes, a promising cameo with him beating his full back a couple of times, but his fitness just can’t be relied upon, with yet another hamstring issue.
Moult replaced him and we went to a sort of 4-4-2, with Moult partnering Stockley, with Maguire and Gallagher wider. That didn’t work either, and we just couldn’t get any sort of momentum going – not helped by numerous injury stoppages. Ben Pearson went down on around 60 minutes, looking to be in severe pain with his hamstring, but with all 3 subs used he soldiered on. He was practically on one leg, but was still by far the best player on the pitch. His vision and reading of the game is absolutely outstanding. Gallagher tired badly towards the end, and DJ had been somewhat of a passenger all afternoon, so Louis Moult had to drop into a deeper midfield role to help out. It had become a bit of a shambles. Pearson ended up walking off with around 10 minutes to go, after a 60-yard limping run where he amazingly regained the ball for North End and won a foul. What a warrior.
In the final 10 minutes PNE put a bit more pressure on, with the goal coming in the 92nd minute, good work from Sean Maguire resulting in Stockley with a poachers finish from 6 yards. There was another nervy 90 seconds for the Royals, and North End had one last moment with Josh Earl heading wide after we loaded the box with about 6 players. A draw would’ve been totally unfair on Reading, and it was just one of those afternoons for PNE.
Oh well, we go again now into 3 huge games, Sheffield United, Leeds and West Brom, in a week that will define our season. The injury troubles continue with Pearson struggling through the game and Barker’s season looking to have ended. Add that to Barkhuizen and Hughes, Bodin and Harrop, and Browne and Potts, and you wonder how North End have managed to pull themselves into the top 10 of an incredibly competitive division. This side has character though, and we will go again into what will be an incredibly intense game against the Blades who will be backed by over 5,000 fans.
North End need another week of recovery on the training ground and must get back to their ways of a month ago, hopefully, aided by the return of a couple of players. It’s not over yet, so, keep the faith.