Town’s 6 game undefeated home run was ended by a Reading side with too much quality for a mentally fatigued, again unchanged, first eleven with little backing them up as the structural deficiencies of an injury hit squad and lack of depth finally caught up.
This is a mid table outfit, even with its full complement, which is a considerable improvement from the relegation strugglers we assumed as the season got off to a poor start.
Far from being a disastrous defeat, the performance had some redeeming features but lacked the necessary intensity, fluency and attention to detail necessary when facing a play off contender recovering from an injury crisis which had spoked their wheels after a rip roaring start to the season.
An increasingly unconvincing lead established after 5 minutes with the first attack, as Mbenza produced an excellent cross for Campbell to power in, never looked like being built upon and the visitors controlled most of the opening half and would have gone in level but for another outstanding stop by Schofield.
Perhaps the very early lead mitigated against the Terriers. Far too passive in possession, the dynamism of previous home games was largely absent and the opportunity to capitalise on Reading’s shock at going behind was missed. The slow pace made for a dull first half, enlivened by the visitors in injury time as they sought a deserved equaliser.
Having survived one excellent delivery in to the box with Pipa slicing an attempted clearance in to Schofield’s hands, the next one from the excellent Swift reached its target and forced yet another close range stop from the young keeper and the lead was preserved. Precariously.
The Royals took a grip of the game from the start of the second half and looked much the more comfortable and confident side. Town’s control, which was reasonable for a period after the opening goal, had eroded markedly as the visitors’ quality established a dominance which always felt ominous for a squad creaking under the weight of its limitations, not least those sat on the bench which included 3 full backs; possibly our least worrisome positions.
The best chance, however, was created by a trademark O’Brien surge which almost found Mbenza in the six yard box. Perhaps a shot was the better choice for the midfielder but the let off for the visitors proved the turning point.
The equaliser, and the nature of it, came as little surprise as Joao took advantage of Edmonds-Green’s hesitancy in dealing with a ball behind him as the youngster hoped, with little apparent basis for optimism, that Schofield was going to deal with the threat. The keeper was equally convinced, and rightly, that this was a situation entirely the responsibility of the centre back, and the impressive Portuguese took full advantage of the naivety.
It was an error which smacked both of inexperience and hesitancy born of mental fatigue. Edmonds-Green has been, and will continue to be, one of the successes of the season, stepping in to a central defence crisis with a poise and elegance which outstripped the injured alternatives and is surely allowed lapses, particularly at the end of a gruelling schedule.
The leveller spurred the home side a little but only served to make them look even more vulnerable to the counter and a Pipa block was needed to thwart Joao before a strong claim for a handball in the area blocking a Hogg effort was waved away by a referee who had a poor game, though probably right to be unmoved by these appeals.
Less forgivably, the official played an inadvertent but vital part in the lead up to the winning goal, blocking Hogg’s path to an interception of a poor ball. This is not to take away from Joao’s excellent strike; a thunderous shot after making space with a lovely turn. Subsequent criticism of Town defenders’ inability to block the shot rather ignores the skill employed to open up the space with a subtle and decisive feint. If you are going to lose, be beaten by quality.
Town had chances to equalise as Reading failed to press home their advantage despite looking clearly the better of the two sides. Mbenza brought a very good save from Reading’s Brazilian keeper following a good lay off by Campbell and had an even better chance late on when the much improved Bacuna shredded Reading’s back line with an incisive ball. The Belgian tried to manoeuvre the ball on to his right foot rather than taking the chance more quickly with his left, however, and he was forced to stab at the chance and saw his effort go narrowly wide.
Always a threat on the break, the Berkshire outfit hit the bar late on and saw out a deserved victory for their overall superiority.
Corberán’s refusal to blame the defeat on fatigue was admirable though a little credulous. It is not just the mental and physical tiredness which afflicts a team with the same line up for 5 straight matches (and there is an argument that the continuity is beneficial), but also the ability to change things which is severely impacted.
The paucity of resources, screaming out from the state of the substitutes’ bench, is now well beyond stating the bleeding obvious territory, but capable of at least some rectification before the next league game. When Reading replaced the always excellent Swift – against us, at least – with possibly the best prospect in the Championship, Olise, you could have forgiven Corberán a head in hands moment.
However, and despite being below par for much of the game, Town competed and even had chances to grab an undeserved point. They were a little unfortunate to be playing Reading as they return to strength, though having taken 3 points from a Watford side at probably it’s lowest ebb, these things tend to even out.
Progression from solid mid table will take more time, and the dial is unlikely to be moved this season. This final game of yet another brutal run was one too far, but the effort of the eleven stalwarts couldn’t be faulted and the future is still hopeful.