As Town’s young, much changed team finally succumbed to Reading’s incessant probing, conceding a second equaliser with just six minutes to go, the verve and control so in evidence in an excellent first half display had long gone.
Visibly exhausted, Town clung on, deservedly overall, to a valuable point against opponents easy on the eye but prone to over complicating their attacking play and thankfully profligate once they became sharper and more dangerous in a one sided 2nd half.
Missing Whitehead, replaced by Billing, the team which finished so well against Burnley took the field and continued where they left off at Turf Moor with an excellent start as Wells played a one two with a Reading defender before feeding Paterson to finish smartly.
The Forest loanee – who has added flair to a team that can be moribund for extended periods – also brought a good save from Al Habsi following an incisive run by Bunn which was halted in the area by a tackle which created the chance.
Over elaborate hosts rather played in to Town’s hands for much of the half and the midfield trio of Huws, Billing and Dempsey were comfortable in possession and solid defensively while Wells, finally playing a striking role rather than one mixed with midfield duties, linked effectively with Bunn and Paterson – though high balls to him were sometimes inevitable, they weren’t dominant and there were spells of attractive passing from the visitors which must have confused anyone who had been on a scouting mission for Reading.
It was a disappointing shock, then, when a free kick out on the right was mishit by Norwood and caught out Steer at his near post. The mixture of error and fortune was more than Reading deserved and the Northern Irishman’s gesture towards a meagre away support – largely comprising southern exiles and people who had judiciously arranged business trips (!) – was unnecessary.
Rather than spur the home team, the leveller seemed to inspire the visitors who regained midfield dominance and easily quelled any attacking threat from their hosts.
On 25 minutes, the lead was restored when a flick from Paterson to Bunn in to space allowed him to put a lovely ball through to Wells who finished excellently.
The goal epitomised Town’s first half – fluent and incisive – and the home crowd were as frustrated as their team as the whistle blew.
Defensively solid apart from one goalkeeping lapse (Steer has been excellent during his loan period, so can be forgiven one ricket), comfortable in possession and occasionally dangerous, Town looked a different proposition to the stiff, unenterprising and, frankly, dull outfit in evidence too much this season.
As the teams returned, Paterson wasn’t amongst them and an enforced reshuffle brought Lolley on to the right wing. The absence of Paterson’s finally recognised talent was a blow and it showed in a torrid second half for the Yorkshire outfit.
From the off, Reading bombarded their opponents with increased pace and purpose.
Hudson looked to get away with a tackle from behind in the box which fell to Blackman, whose shot was deflected on to the post by Steer and crashed over the bar by Sa.
The escape from an immediate second half equaliser was welcome but portentous – Reading spent the rest of the game creating danger and repeatedly pressurised a Town team which couldn’t gain any possession or respite for long, nervous spells.
With Norwood pulling the strings with his range of passing (the home fans should savour his ability while the weather remains unseasonably good; he isn’t one for challenging conditions, Oliver) the visitors were frequently stretched yet largely resolute.
Inevitably, Town began to look for breathers and their time wasting irritated the home fans on several occasions – as we looked on through our fingers, it wasn’t hard to sympathise but it was the only way the visitors could gain any respite.
Rare forays up field usually involved Lolley whose judgement didn’t match his ball holding ability – particularly on one occasion when Cranie was completely free on the right and in a great position to deliver a cross.
But the turning point of the game wasn’t any of the several dangerous efforts on goal, blocks and Steer saves; it was a miss by Hudson who blazed over from 6 yards after Lynch had challenged Reading’s keeper in the air following a Bunn cross which had looped off a defender’s foot.
We will never know if the referee would have blown for a foul on the keeper, but a goal at that stage would have deflated resurgent Reading and sealed 3 points.
As it was, the inevitable equaliser came when Cranie and Lolley didn’t react quickly enough when the ball found its way to Ola John on the left. The substitute turned smartly and fired in from a quite acute angle, perhaps raising a further question of Steer.
Reading deserved their goal, and perhaps more, for an excellent second half display of far greater fluency and incisiveness than they showed in the first period, but Town’s dogged resistance, coupled with their first half enterprise also deserved reward.
While our inability to stem the home side’s dominance of the second half was worrying, it should be said that this was a very young team missing Whitehead’s experience and the rearguard action, while somewhat on the edge, was exhausting but largely successful.
All in all, the team and manager can take pride in the display.