Football supporters, when gathered together, are not easily fooled.
Charlatans, cheats and the disingenuous are betrayed in front of our eyes on a depressingly regular basis and it is rarely a lack of talent which turns crowds against players, managers and owners; lack of effort, succumbing to easy excuses and taking reward without striving for achievement does.
1,300 Huddersfield Town supporters stayed to acclaim their defeated side at Madjeski stadium, having witnessed a courageous pursuit of at least a point against a talented but rattled Reading team, who held on to a precarious win knowing that an officious referee – the very type that feeds the view that the ambition to become one should preclude it – had given them a huge advantage.
Not that Reading had courted such advantage – they look a very different proposition to last season under Jaap Stam; defensively more robust, fast on the break and containing more convincing potential match winners. The last half hour, however, put question marks over their fitness as their opponents threatened to overrun them despite having had to work hard to contain their hosts while outnumbered.
A quiet start to the game, with both teams probing with decent possession, had seen a long range effort by Smith – released by Kachunga with a delightful nutmeg – easily gathered by Al-Habsi, and a couple of dangerous looking crosses from the home side coming to nought.
Neither side could turn their passing and movement in to genuine chances and a tight contest seemed inevitable. Wagner had reversed his, arguably, over defensive approach adopted against Brighton by keeping the same first eleven of last week, but the vibrancy so evident against QPR was more subdued against far superior opposition.
As the game settled, Reading’s wingers were getting a little too much joy – particularly down their right – but Ward remained untroubled. Town’s decision making in the final third was similarly profligate, though the game wasn’t failing to entertain as two sides determined to play progressive, possession based football retained its intrigue.
After 23 minutes, a seemingly innocuous tussle between Van La Parra and Reading’s full back saw the Dutchman appear to win the ball, yet he was not only penalised but also booked. From a distance, the decision looked very odd – VLP had definitely got to the ball – and it began a simmering within the player which was soon to erupt in to a ridiculous and ill disciplined display of petulance resulting in game changing red card.
Extricating himself from a tight spot in the corner, Van La Parra was brought down by a regulation foul challenge which seems to have grown in his outraged mind in to an assault given his reaction. A volley of abuse in the heat of the moment may have been forgiven, but requests by the referee for a word went unheeded in a shoulder shrugging huff and Town were down to 10.
The situation got to the referee. Smith’s questioning of the decision, which looked to be no more than a mild enquiry was met by a flourished and reactive yellow card – the impression being that the referee had lost his cool as well as the man he had despatched. His performance from then on was overbearingly officious and his card waving ludicrous.
Town endured a torrid time until the break. Substituting the talent of Palmer for the toil of Bunn in the immediate aftermath of the setback was a logical decision given that it added defensive strength and more experience, but it may have transmitted the wrong message to the team who rather retreated too far and succumbed to desperation too easily with long balls to Wells which offered little counter threat.
Shortly after the dismissal, Swift struck a post with an excellent long range effort and the fragility of the visitors became too apparent to the buoyed hosts who dominated possession knowing that loss of it would only be temporary.
McShane also flashed a long range effort wide with Ward grasping, and it seemed we were in store for a very long day.
A regulation Ward stop and some good defensive blocking kept the Royals out without blunting the sense of foreboding and a home side lead seemed inevitable.
Despite shoring up Loewe’s vulnerable wing with the introduction of Bunn, the substitute was too easily beaten by Harriot, whose cross eluded defenders and strikers only for it to fall at the feet of Beerens to fire in a Smith deflected shot past a despairing Ward.
With yet more fortune deserting them, Town finished the half in a confusion of uncertainty had been unable to escape prolonged bouts of pressure, though a rare foray produced a late corner which resulted in a half decent chance for Hudson who headed over at the far post.
Few in the crowd could have predicted the events of the second half, but most would not know that the current Huddersfield Town manager can perform miracles (like transforming Hudson in to a defensive rock and Smith in to an accomplished full back).
A cagey opening 15 minutes allowed Reading plenty of possession but, in contrast to the first half when a man down, it was met by an assured shape and greater discipline. The numerical disadvantage appeared to have been accepted and embraced, with attacks repelled with more authority and limited possession used far more wisely.
On the hour, Wells turned Gunther just inside Reading’s half and was hauled down with a clear run at goal in front of him. The referee enraged the visitors and their supporters with a yellow card, though the distance between Wells and the goal probably persuaded him that a red would have been too harsh a punishment. While his interpretation had some merit, his leniency contrasted starkly with the yellow card he gave Smith and was to give Loewe and Kachunga later.
Instilled by a sense of further injustice, Town took over the game at this point with Hogg and Mooy completely dominating the centre of the park, allowing them to overturn Reading’s previous possession advantage and set their team mates on the way to a brave though ultimately fruitless performance in the last half hour.
While Ward had to make a sharp save from Quinn and Beerens could only fire in to the side netting having been put through but forced wide, Town’s probing became increasingly intense as they searched for the equaliser their relentless endeavour deserved.
Hogg, man of the match by a distance, began to find the marauding Smith at will and the full back’s dangerous deliveries in to the box deserved better than marginally eluding his colleagues in the box.
With Crainie brought on to release Hudson to add height up front with Loewe sacrificed and Hefele replacing replacement Bunn, Town piled on the pressure in the final 15 minutes of normal and injury time.
With the home side wilting, Wells hit a good effort just over the bar, a magnificent ball in by Kachunga was missed at the far post by Hefele and Wells when only a touch was needed and Kachunga was unable to get enough power on a header which came partially off his shoulder.
For the last half hour, it was difficult to tell who was a man down and the home crowd were distinctly nervous at the fragility of their lead – Town were at full throttle and yet again demonstrated their supreme fitness with a display which was exhausting to watch, never mind defend against.
Ultimately, the assault was unsuccessful, but the team’s ability to overcome adversity with a performance of power and creativity was hugely encouraging in the circumstances.
As players slumped to the floor in disappointment at the final whistle, the acclaim from the visiting fans brought a lump to the throat – they had seen the gladiatorial spirit and recognised the supreme efforts of the team and instinctively wanted to lift them and let them know.
Long after the woeful referee’s name has slipped in to history, the spirit and endeavour of this current incarnation of Huddersfield Town will live on. They had taken the game to a very good Reading side with 10 men and indomitable spirit – the lost points seemed to matter less than the growing promise of a squad lead so admirably by Wagner and his staff and good times seem inevitable.
Rotherham may well be in for a backlash on Tuesday, even with a depleted team now that Hudson and Loewe will join a hopefully chastened Van La Parra in suspension.
This was one of those rare occasions when defeat was accompanied by increased optimism – this squad can achieve great things. And the supporters know it.