Reading 1 City 1
To the Madejski, dull and unimaginative, the most colourless of the stadiums newly built round the country these last twenty years. Outside they sit in the September sunshine on friendly wooden benches, laughing and joking, shoving down burgers on the concourse, gulping chemical lager, tasteless and bland as the out of town concrete landscape. Inside they blare out Sweet Caroline over the tannoy – Sweet Caroline, what in God’s name has that to do with the football? What has any of this to do with football? A day out for the kids, ice cream and chocolate biscuits, and fixed glassy grins whether the team wins, loses or draws.
Passion and emotion are strangers on the pitch too. This is a dull game, a game full of players of limited ability and contested by two teams frequently cancelling each other out. The only excitement of the afternoon features our stubborn attempt to hold on to a lead that would have delivered the relief of a first away win in the league for fully thirteen months. But Reading equalised late, as they (as a minimum) deserved to on the overall balance of possession.
Casting a humdrum shadow over a bright blue day in Berkshire:
Aina Tomori Dawson Hector Kingsley
Bowen Meyler Irvine Larsson
A 5-4-1, then, with a sturdy looking pairing in the centre of midfield, and Campbell preferred to Dicko for the thankless task of running around hopefully up front on his own. No place for Kamiel Grosicki, who’s not on the bench either, and rumoured explanations for his absence ranged from ‘tweaked a muscle playing subbuteo’, through ‘interviewing for a new agent’ to ‘poring over Mrs May’s Florence speech to see if it gives him an excuse to flee the country’. Meanwhile the hooped home side carded the indomitable Paul McShane, the reliable and well-liked Vito Mannone, and the resurgent Sone Aluko, plus another eight folk ranging from the gnarled (Chris Gunter, Gareth McCleary) to the tyro (Tyler Blackett and a diminutive midfielder name of Liam Kelly – sounds Irish, may be so, born in Basingstoke – whose demeanour and stature immediately put the drooling away fans in mind of the sublime Paul Wharton). Football time! And off we go!
Crikey this is poor fare.
The game is congested, with no space at all in the cramped midfield, and the quality is low low low.
It would be unfair to say nothing happened during the opening 27 minutes of the match, because a lot of passes were misplaced, a lot of touch was found, Stephen Kingsley wasted possession several times (on this evidence we’d be better off with Charles Kingsley) and quite a few people went to the toilet. What was not on show was any hint of footballing creativity. Until, all of a sudden, what’s this? It’s Seb Larsson playing a delicate and exquisitely beautiful through ball which splits their defence, allowing Fraizer Campbell, making an intelligent run, to hare into the created space. He doesn’t even need to break stride before sliding a confident shot past Mannone for the game’s first goal.
I’m going to confess here that, in the ground, with this moment of sorcery taking place at the far end of the pitch from the watching City support, I convinced myself it must be Jarrod Bowen who had delivered the killer pass, because I simply didn’t think Larsson capable of such joy and magnificence. But Larsson it was, and more of that skill and dash will have him firmly in our good books.
On 33, Reading advance, a slick move down our right, their left, opens us up calamitously, the ball is transferred inside and crossed to the back post, where Aluko must score.
But doesn’t. He shovels it wide of the post from close range, and turns away ruefully.
Thanks Sone. I’d like to think he did that specially for us. Except he did, when he played for us, from time to time do that sort of thing specially for us. Admirable player. No predator.
The first half has offered little, but we lead 1-0, and a dour Reading side look unlikely to hurt us. In fact the most alarming aspect of the play has been a profoundly erratic linesman, who appears to be attending his first ever football match. At one point he signalled that the ball had gone out of play (which it certainly had) and indicated that it was a Reading throw (it was ours, in fact), but, after a couple of seconds during which the ref failed to notice the raised flag, the lino simply lowered it and carried on scooting up his touchline. I’d’ve been quite cross had Reading scored after this moment of bizarre behaviour.
And it begins with a fizz.
Aina, marauding with intent (he’s no Harry Maguire, but I like this lad carrying the ball forward a lot, and much more than I like his defensive positioning), draws a foul just outside the box, in the inside left position. Tempting. Larsson hovers over the ball, and so, peculiarly, does Stephen Kingsley (on this evidence we’d be better off with Ben Kingsley), but Larsson it is that takes it. Up and over the wall, and WHUMP the ball crashes off the angle of bar and post, and bounces back into play.
Do it again. A couple of minutes later Bowen surges forward thrillingly, plays in Campbell, who can’t get a shot away and is tackled, the ball spills to Meyler who is fouled on the edge of the box, this time in the inside right position. Larsson again. A scuffed low shot which takes a wicked deflection which, for a moment, seems likely to squirt it past Mannone’s left hand as he is moving to his right. But Mannone’s footwork is swift and agile and he adjusts to stop the ball just before it crosses the line.
Did we fear that our chances to seal the deal had come and gone? O yes, we did. We are, after all, Hull City supporters and we know despair like a pair of comfortable old shoes. It fits.
The game unfolds now with Reading in possession most of the time, yet unable to show any spark of creativity in midfield and incapable of creating space up front. The defensive shape fashioned by Mr Slutsky is strong and it is sturdy. Five across the back, four suffocating midfield. Dawson is commanding, Irvine committed, Meyler tireless. Come on, Reading, show us what you’ve got. Not much, it seems.
But you can’t help thinking we’re being too submissive. It only takes one error, and the win is squandered.
Campbell is replaced on solo patrol up front by Dicko, while Larsson gives way for Toral. Toral, again, offers nothing at all. Stephen Kingsley, meanwhile, is getting his head down and working hard and effectively, which is fortunate because I have run out of people with the surname Kingsley with which to berate him. The lithe and pacy Tomori produces a brilliant crossfield run on 84, culminating in a left foot shot that slips just beyond the far post. Deal not sealed, again. But the clock is ticking, as referee Michel Barnier notes, and we’re gonna hang on here, yes?
As above, only takes one error. It’s Dicko’s, and it arrives on 87.
He receives the ball inside the Reading half. His job is clear. Hold possession. Wait for team mates to arrive in support. Pass to one of them. Retain possession in the Reading half, and squeeze the life out of their thinning hopes.
Dicko loiters and lingers, dawdles and dangles. Team-mates are arriving in faithful support, but he doesn’t feed them. He clumsily coughs up possession. Reading break, our defensive shape has been stretched, and all of a sudden the home side find a bit of space that has previously been ruthlessly denied them. Sub Bodvarsson races through the inside right channel and flays a low shot across McGregor and just inside the far post.
Two more minutes are left and then an added three, but a stalemate descends. A melee in our box is the final moment of action, and the referee blows the whistle on a draw that had its quirky and lively moments but was largely forgettable. The clubs on show were, remember, in one case, in the Premier League last season and, in the other, just a penalty shoot-out away from reaching it. Neither looks likely to trouble the upper reaches of the Championship table this season.