(Apologies for delay – I wrote a report in full, tried to copy it and deleted it in error. It was a belter too – but you’ll have to make do with this second effort!)
The feeling that David Wagner’s transformation of Huddersfield Town continues apace can’t be extinguished by a game determined by some outlandish officiating by a referee and assistant who should (but won’t) be hauled over hot coals for staggering incompetence.
While having to replay a game which should have been won comfortably is disappointing and threatens to elongate Town’s terrible record in the cup, most supporters will be more than assuaged by a performance of verve and energy which built upon the massive improvements Wagner has instilled over a few short months.
If last year’s tie against the same opponents was symptomatic of Chris Powell’s sclerotic management, a feisty and always intriguing game further burnished the credentials of a coach with dynamic ideas and the ability to coerce previously seemingly rather limited players to implement them.
It took less than 3 minutes for last year’s shots on target to be matched, though Wells’ effort was tame and easily gathered by Al Habsi. Though Lolley was to stretch the Omani a little more later in the half, much of Town’s inventive and often intricate play rather floundered once the goal was in sight – one particularly thrilling move which culminated in a drag back and back heel to free Wells was rewarded with a weak finish.
Despite being dominated for long periods – and, you suspect, forced in to playing an unnatural game by Town pressing like opponents before them – Reading created the best chance of the game when the impressive McCleary fed Vydra in the box. The Czech, on loan from Watford for an outrageous fee, tried to feed Robson-Kanu but Davidson cleared from near the line.
The visitors – garishly outfitted in a kit which may have seemed a good idea on a designer’s drawing board in Summer but entirely inappropriate to a dank and grey West Yorkshire winter – were unable to build on that one attack of note and became increasingly starved of possession as Town grew in to the game.
For all their superiority, Town’s possession never carried genuine threat to the Reading goal, though the visitors will have been relieved to go in to the break level having been pegged back for long periods.
Town upped the intensity in the second half, and for 20 minutes were nigh on irresistible with Lolley – revelling in the freedom Wagner has given him – tearing at an increasingly frustrated opposition who began to resort to hacking at the burgeoning talent. Paterson buzzed around the play, linking the midfield with the lively Wells and it was only a matter of time before the Berkshire outfit crumbled.
Davidson, largely impressive in the rather thankless role of replacing Chilwell, received a magnificent cross field ball from Lolley, took one touch and delivered a great cross with pace which Paterson only had to meet with his head to redirect the power past the rooted Al Habsi.
A thoroughly deserved lead was followed by a period of complete dominance as Town outplayed the visitors with purposeful possession, aggression and movement. This should have been rewarded by a penalty when Wells took the ball round the keeper after Lolley’s inch perfect pass and was felled.
As the referee was positioned blind side of the contact, he stared intently for help from his assistant and got nothing. Using this as evidence, Wells was indicted for a dive and out came the yellow card. Even if Al Habsi had got to the ball first – and few in the ground thought he had – his attempt would also have brought Wells down; neither scenario could be construed as simulation and the injustice was needlessly compounded.
It should perhaps have been no surprise that the assistant palpably failed to assist. In the first half, a Reading player pushed his hands in to the face of Davidson and while the Aussie’s reaction was theatrical, the act was a sending off offence. The assistant clearly didn’t think so and, astonishingly, the referee not only failed to book him, he lectured Davidson as well!
Minutes after denying Wells a penalty, the same pair managed to change the course of the game when a clear foul on Wells on the halfway line was waived away and the breaking ball was played up to Vydra. With a clever control, Hudson was left grounded and the on loan striker turned Dempsey in the box before a slight deflection off the full back looped over Murphy.
With an improbable, ill deserved and fortuitous equaliser – well taken but play should have been called back – Reading smelled blood.
Town’s previous composure at the back began to unfold and though Wells had a header tipped over from another excellent Davidson cross, it was the visitors who began to look the more likely to force their way in to the 4th round.
As the clock ticked down, Piazon and McCleary combined down the right and a weary attempt at a tackle from the otherwise excellent Lynch allowed the substitute to feed Robson-Kanu to bury what looked like being the winner.
Minutes before, the hapless referee had denied Reading a clear penalty when Vydra was bundled over in the box – whether this was an evening up or more incompetence only the referee can answer, but the former is the most likely explanation.
With 5 minutes injury time about to be added, Wagner turned to Miller, perhaps in desperation, and redemption seemed highly unlikely.
It was the substitute who fed Harry Bunn for one final, weaving run at defenders. With 4 around him, Bunn could have tried to feed the ball in to the area but, instead, he turned and ran at them. Beating one man, he turned inside and on to a rash challenge from Norwood, just inside the area.
Though there must have been some doubt, in real time, that the offence was in the area, the referee pointed to the spot at last. Wells stepped up and fired low and hard beneath Al Habsi to gain a little revenge. The penalty wasn’t the best – a little too close to the keeper for comfort – but Wells good display was rewarded and the team were delivered of a little justice.
Events had conspired against a sparkling home performance, slightly marred by a negative if forgivable reaction to setbacks beyond their control, but the growing confidence in putting their boss’s inspired game plans in to effect augurs very well for the future.
The replay will be tough – Reading have some good quality up front as witnessed intermittently in this game – and Monday’s draw will determine just how tantalising the reward for success may be.
Before then, there is a real possibility that a team is going to be completely dismantled.