It was a Reading performance that was at times unrecognisable, and certainly unexpected. Derby were firm favourites going into the game, with a play-off place on the line and with Reading form being underwhelming at best. The Royals were to prove everyone wrong, however, with goals from Kwesi Appiah, Michael Hector and Garath McCleary ending the season on a high. It was Reading’s first victory since their 2-1 win against Brighton back in March, having gone nine games without a win. It was also the first game since November 2014 where Reading scored three goals in a single game. After a poor season in the Championship, it was a much needed victory to boost spirits in the Reading camp.
Steve Clarke made five changes to the starting lineup following the defeat to Rotherham last time out. “Player of the Season” Adam Federici returned in goal, while Alex Pearce came back into the central-defence alongside Michael Hector. Garath McCleary and Jack Stacey were brought in on the wings, and Kwesi Appiah played as the sole striker up top. Playing with a single striker is a tactic that has not often worked for Clarke, but this time out it was to work perfectly.
Reading got off to a perfect start at the iPro Stadium, with Appiah scoring his first, and potentially only, goal for the Royals. The Crystal Palace loanee pounced on a poor pass from Will Hughes, before launching a counter-attack. Richard Keogh made a last ditch attempt to win the ball in the box, but the Reading man turned nicely before slotting the ball past Derby keeper Lee Grant. It was certainly unexpected, but enthusiastically welcomed by the away fans. The home fans were understandably nervous, and it was a tension that was filtering down to the Derby players.
Reading continued to dominate the game, playing with an intensity and enthusiasm that has often been lacking. Jem Karacan, playing in an advanced position, had the best opportunity to make it 2-0 early on with his half-volley ending up behind the goal. Derby were to come back into the game, however, after the twenty minute mark.
Darren Bent’s curling shot was saved by Federici, as well as Ryan Shotton’s attempt from the resulting corner, while McCleary was on hand to clear Keogh’s header off the line. Johnny Russell was to have a further attempt, but his shot was hit wide. Reading’s only other real chance of the first-half came about when Oliver Norwood tested the keeper from a free-kick, which he pushed past the post.
“I’m really annoyed, angry, and frustrated about the last two months and am really determined to do something about it.”– Derby Manager Steve McClaren
As the half came to a close, Derby had a great chance to level the game. As Russell broke into the box Jordan Obita hauled him down, conceding the blatant penalty. Bent stepped up to take it, but Federici saved his powerful but poorly placed effort well. Reading went into half-time 1-0, with the only negative being the early injury to Stacey.
The Royals started the second-half with the same tenacity as the first, with Stacey’s replacement Tarique Fosu testing Grant within the first few minutes. Fosu was to have another opportunity when he was played in by Chalobah, but he pulled his effort wide. For the first time in a while, Reading were looking threatening on the break with the pace of Fosu, Appiah and McCleary.
Reading were to eventually double their lead following a corner. Stagnant defending from the Derby players allowed Hector the space to get a shot away and give Reading the two goal lead. Despite changing their formation, Derby struggled to create any real opportunities. When the second goal was conceded, you could sense that their play-off hopes were shattered.
Five minutes from time, the game was definitely over when Karacan was tripped in the box by Grant. McCleary stepped up to take the kick and rolled home his first Championship goal of the season. The Royals scored three goals, and won all three points. Having ended Derby’s FA Cup run in the season, Reading had now ended Derby’s hopes of promotion from the Championship.
“The players were stuck in a little bit of a rut and had forgotten how to win a game and today they managed to remember so I’ve told them when they go away for the summer, don’t forget what it’s like to win a game. So this is a good way for us to finish.”– Reading Manager Steve Clarke
After witnessing so many positive performances which ended in defeat for the Royals, it made a great change to see Reading coming away with a comfortable victory. Federici once again impressed, with his vital penalty save keeping Reading in front and retaining momentum for the away side. Hector was one of the other key figures once again, while Karacan put in a performance worthy of a new contract at the club.
One player that deserves a mention is the debutant Fosu, who may not have even made an appearance had it not been for the injury to Stacey. The winger, who has impressed at U-21 level, created several chances for himself and tested the keeper on many occasions. There were moments where he could have made better decisions, but he is a promising talent who could be given further opportunities to impress next season.
With a summer of change ahead for the Royals, it was a great way to end the season. Many players will have made an impression on the manager with their performance this time out, and there will be many that fans will now be keen to hold onto. Fans will be somewhat bemused, however, as to why Reading have been unable to perform at that level throughout the season, but it does provide some optimism about what the side are capable of. Whether it will be this side that fans see next season is debatable, and somewhat unlikely but only time will tell.