Making a Point
By Matt Rowson
In some ways, this is so familiar. In others, it's not familiar at all. We seem to have been coming to the Madejski forever, which the stadium's eight-year history suggests can't be the case. We also seem to have been losing there forever, albeit in a succession of new and creative ways ranging from Kevin Watson's spawny deflected shot three years ago to last season's humiliation. We are well atuned to the bunfight for parking spaces, even in the absence of a sellout crowd. We are also familiar with the cack catering and the insufficient "facilities" in the away end. Vicarage Road could rightly have the same accusations levelled at it, of course, but you'd kinda hope that a newer construction would have sorted these issues out.
This was never going to be just another game at Reading though. For one thing, our hosts are in the process of winning the division by some margin, had not lost here since the opening day of the season, hadn't dropped any points here since the end of October, and hadn't failed to score here in almost twelve months. For another, we're not doing too badly ourselves...
A couple of surprises as the teams run out. Firstly, Marlon relegated to the bench with the no-longer-suspended Big Doris taking his place up front alongside Ashley with Macca making a rare away start on the left. "Slight knock" came an explanatory text message from someone listening in back in Watford. One of the many who hadn't gotten a ticket for this much-anticipated and long sold-out encounter, which rendered the blocks of several dozen empty seats behind us at the front of the away end somewhat difficult to explain. Ian's suggestion, that a bus had broken down somewhere, seemed as plausible as any other justification. Our only other change was the re-introduction of Jay Demerit, Clarke Carlisle paying the penalty for his wobbly showing against Derby.
We had a reasonable vantage point - certainly better than had been feared, being low down but slightly to the side of the goal rather than directly behind it. From this position we had a splendid view of events within the half close to us, and a sketchier perspective of what was going on in the half that the Hornets were to defend in the first period. This being the case, we were able to enjoy Chris Eagles' early surge down the right flank, Hahnemann claiming his cross as Henderson and Sonko had the first of many heavyweight collisions. The game then disappeared up the other end for around fifteen minutes.
It has to be said that, much as we have come through two League encounters with Reading undefeated (and without conceding), they look like thoroughly worthy league leaders and have quite comfortably been thus far our sternest opponents in the division over the two games. During this one, much as they built up occasional heads of steam, their pressure and attacking intent was pretty relentless as was their very deliberate movement of the ball to stretch the game and ask questions of our organisation at every opportunity. This being the case, that we came through this opening spell not only unbreached, but without having offered much of a clear sight on goal to our visitors does our growing defensive assuredness great credit. Only a slack pass from Matthew Spring, who didn't have his best afternoon, threatened to let the home side in during this early spell, Oster embarking on a run that was eventually blanketed and clubbed by Demerit.
Shortly afterwards, Doyle galloped clear of Malky Mackay whose attentions despite being outpaced saw the charge falter under strong penalty appeals. Unable to judge from our vantage point, TV replays again leave us somewhat grateful for Malky's ability to not stray too far from "the line" on the occasions when he does cross it...
Gradually, we began to suggest a threat on the break. Doris was always going to be a central figure in this game... his own affiliations and Marlon's absence aside, we were going to need our target man on his mettle against an attacking side with a physical defence. And he stepped up to the mark, his ongoing battle with Sonko one of the most engaging of the half... his first victory in this tussle saw him win space to clout a pass through to Young, who set a tone by shooting early but screwing the shot well wide. Shortly afterwards Doris out-muscled Sonko on the left flank - and not many will do that - but miscued his cross into touch.
The threat from Reading never abated - Convey sounded an alarm call when a rare misjudgment by his countryman Demerit left him with the space to waste an opportunity by shooting over. But now we were asking questions too. Another Henderson pass released Eagles, Hahnemann parried his cross invitingly but Spring lashed the chance high and wide from the edge of the area. Shortly afterwards, after Mahon's raking crossfield ball to Young had forced a throw, Spring received the ball from Doyley's missile in a similar position, but again cleared the bar. One had to wonder whether we would pay the price for spurning these half-chances... and whether a more dependably lethal right foot on the bench might have dispatched one of them.
As Reading looked a little rattled, for perhaps the only time in the game, Mahon seized on a loose ball on our left, played a one-two with Henderson near the halfway line and sent another fine pass out to Young. The youngster again chose to shoot early, again off target but much closer this time. We were getting there. Henderson, McNamee and Stewart combined to fashion a crossing opportunity from the left, Spring headed over under challenge.
We had some momentum now, but Reading were fashioning clearer openings suddenly with our own play focused more on attack. Hearts in mouths as Dave Kitson roared across diagonally from left to right before clobbering over, the jeers that resulted more of relief than scorn. But we were to go closer still, Henderson penalised by a largely tolerant referee for another aerial duel with Sonko, rendering Young's sharp finish through Hahnemann's legs academic.
Reading won a free kick on the edge of our area, another nervous moment but Foster plucked Nicky Shorey's decent effort out of the air - this is what I presume the official site recorded as the home side's only on-target effort of the game, although as so often there's detail hidden behind the statistic. Not least the development a couple of minutes later... a quite excellent dinked cross from the left from Convey avoiding three Reading foreheads, Sonko's painfully narrowly, before being hooked off the line by Mackay. From our position the bodies in the way made judging the passage of events impossible, and all the more nervous for it ("What happened?" - "I think it might have been the best save ever, I dunno..."). Eventually the video screen behind us to our right brought some clarity, but by then we'd broken quickly, McNamee had skinned Murty and found Young in the centre, whose on-target shot was deflected over.
In a breathless end to the half, Kitson almost took advantage of a Foster mistake, prodding the ball past him but Lloyd Doyley was on the line to clear from Doyle.
Lucky half-time chocolate: Giant Yorkie bar, beloved of stadium catering the country over.
Reason: My brother's selection, having stoutly braved the queues before the game.
Level of success: Solid. Jay Demerit is surely a Giant Yorkie amongst centre halves.
Much hilarity at half time with the confirmation of the "Sheffield United are two down at Coventry" rumours that had swept the stand. "They could be five down," according to Dave listening on the radio somewhere in The North. Marlon's appearance on the touchline at the resumption did nothing to quell the growing sense of anticipation, and five minutes into the half the two sets of fans briefly united in a chorus of "Let's all laugh at Warnock", and related refrain.
The start to the half was no less frantic, but slightly more ragged than what had gone before and it was a while before the suggestion of a goalscoring opportunity materialised; Ben Foster's handling needed to be assured as Kitson attacked Mahon's weak back-header. For the most part though it was the defending that was to be admired... and nowhere more so than on Watford's right flank. There aren't many tougher charges for a full-back in the division that Bobby Convey, but Doyley did a fine job of limiting the American's involvement, eventually forcing him elsewhere in search of more productive avenues.
Twenty minutes or so into the half, Convey appeared to be double-marked on the left flank but some fine footwork saw him slip between Eagles and Doyley. Doyley, rumoured to have been a Royals target last year, doesn't tend to get beaten very often so this was a remarkable development in itself. More remarkable still was that as Convey's run approached its next adversary, it turned out to be Doyley again, he having recovered and regained his position. ig was later to compare the fullback to cartoon character Droopy, and certainly Convey will have tired of his opponent's tendency to reappear from nowhere just when he seemed beaten. Ultimately, having already beaten Doyley twice, Convey's run met a sorry end in the penalty area when, on being presented with Doyley for a third time, the American slipped the ball through the disappearing gap between Lloydy and Spring and went down. His well-judged decision not to appeal for a penalty limited the scorn from the away end to brief and fairly tame catcalls.
It was now the Hornets who were doing a better job of turning possession into (half) chances... Doris' far-post header to Young's corner was allowed to cross the box before being cleared for a throw; Marcus Hahnemann narrowly beat King to Doyley's delivery. The decision to rest Marlon appeared to have been well-founded, as he was a shadow of the fearsome striker who has destroyed so many defences this season... another Henderson flick found him shortly afterwards, but he shot well over under pressure. Spring found space on the right to surge into before feeding Eagles, whose neat turn and shot was comfortably fielded.
John Oster, who one imagines won't be high on many Fantasy Football Managers' lists next season, wandered into space before clouting well over and departing shortly afterwards to be replaced by Steve Hunt. Meanwhile, in the away end, news reached us that Norwich had overturned Leeds' lead at Elland Road. If there's any disappointment to be taken from this game, it's that some brief sabre-rattling in the away end wasn't replicated on the pitch; that said, the decision not to commit forward when level at the division's leading scorers doesn't take much defending.
Instead, it was Reading who turned the screw as the game drew to a close, leaving hopes of a sneaky win gradually becoming the realisation that hanging on for a point would really be a damn fine result in the circumstances. Al Bangura came on for Ashley Young, largely anonymous in the second half, to block up the middle of the park with Spring moving wide. The eighteen year old drew a yellow card off a hack from Boris Gunnarsson, who was otherwise magnificent in the Reading midfield. Whilst conceding that our midfield is clearly better balanced with Matt Spring alongside Gavin Mahon, Betty's quizzing of our mourning the departure of a player who'd finished eighteenth at the start of the season was here confirmed to be just as silly as it seemed at the time.
Despite Bangura's typically stout resistance, Reading had the late pressure. Jay Demerit had reacted bullishly throughout to his being dropped for the Derby game and had a fabulous last ten minutes, getting his head to any number of high balls, culminating in a quite awesome tackle on Kitson as the Reading forward prepared to pull the trigger in the penalty area. His sort of game, definitely, but there's no disputing our first-choice central defence at the moment.
Kevin Doyle broke through on the left to briefly raise pulses throughout the stadium, but his cross didn't find a target, the resulting corner was cleared and that was that.
A fine, fine result; only a point, but a much more impressive achievement than the victories over Brighton and Cardiff, Chris Eagles' ridiculous goal and Marlon's late alertness notwithstanding. Let any remaining doubts be quelled. Yes, we're doing much better than most of us dared to hope from this season but this performance and this result, combined with ongoing developments elsewhere, should leave none in any doubt. We are more than capable of doing this, and it will be no smash 'n' grab sneak into the Premiership (not Premier, not a ship) if we do so, however unexpectedly. We are more than capable of achieving, and deserving, promotion.
Bring it on.