“We’re desperately disappointed. It was poor. We lacked energy in the first half and we had to change the system at half-time, because we didn’t start well. We didn’t play well today, that’s for sure.”– Reading Manager Brian McDermott
“The first half was as good as we played in a long time, if not all season. Before the game, I wanted the performance, physically and mentally as if it was the first game of the season and to be organised, disciplined and to keep going and we did.”– PNE Manager Simon Grayson
Reading succumbed to another late defeat at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday as their final home game of the season ended 2-1 to Preston North End. Jermaine Beckford initially put Preston ahead in the second-half before Stephen Quinn levelled the scoreline for the home side just before the ninety minute mark. A stoppage time goal from Daniel Johnson was enough, however, to give the away side a fully deserved victory in what was Reading’s fifth defeat in six games.
Brian McDermott made three changes to the Reading team prior to the game, with Paul McShane and Danny Williams both returning from suspension and Chris Gunter returning from injury. Much has been said about the number of players the Royals had in on loan this season, but the Reading manager opted not to include any of them in the starting eleven on this occasion.
While Reading and their fans will have wanted to win their final home game of the season, Preston were by far the superior side in the first half. The Royals had the opening chances of the game, however, with Deniss Rakels’ shot being blocked by Bailey Wright and a headed effort from Jake Cooper ending up in the net but being disallowed correctly for offside.
From there on in it was all Preston, who will have been disappointed not to be several goals ahead at half-time. Reading Player of the Season Ali Al-Habsi came to the home team’s rescue on a number of occasions, preventing Beckford, Paul Gallagher, Calum Woods and Joe Garner from giving the away side the lead. McShane did well to block Beckford’s shot inside the box, while Al Habsi prevented Gallagher’s long range effort from going in.
The best opportunity of the half fell to Beckford thanks to a miskick then slip from young Reading defender Jake Cooper. Racing through on goal it looked like the Preston striker was bound to give his side the lead, but Al-Habsi got a hand to his weak, chipped effort. Woods was next and after some nifty footwork he could only fire wide. The final Preston chance of the half fell to Johnson, who was stopped only by Al-Habsi diving low to his right to tip the ball wide of the post. Preston should have been out of sight by half-time but thanks to Al-Habsi, Reading were still in the game.
With Reading being second-best by far in the first half, McDermott made a change prior to kick-off in the second. George Evans was replaced by seventeen year old Josh Barrett who made an immediate impact on the game. The midfielder offered a welcome boost to a side that was struggling and even managed to perk up the crowd a bit. Rakels had Barrett to thank when he picked him out but the striker’s effort was stopped by Chris Kirkland in the Preston goal. Up until then, the biggest concern for the Preston goalkeeper was whether or not to wear a cap.
Reading got the home crowd back behind them in the opening spell of the second half, but it was the away side who finally made a breakthrough. While the goal was arguably deserved, the manner in which Reading conceded it epitomised the way their season has gone. Johnson’s header over the top seemed relatively simple to deal with but Reading’s defence all fell asleep. McShane stopped in his tracks thinking that Al-Habsi would come out and claim the ball while the goalkeeper stayed on his line. Beckford, meanwhile, was left to fire home undeterred from close range.
Preston could have been 2-0 up had it not been for Al-Habsi’s heroics once again, this time denying Gallagher before Gunter hoofed the ball out of play. Barrett came close soon after for the home side after being played in by Quinn on the right, but he could only fire inches wide.
Quinn finally gave the home crowd something to cheer about with only a matter of minutes remaining in the game. Barrett was once again the catalyst as he ran inside off the right wing. Passing the ball towards Kermorgant on the edge of the area, his deft flick found Quinn who controlled before firing past Kirkland.
With Reading back in the game, the home support may have felt that they could go on and snatch a victory late on. It was Preston who came up with the winner in extra time, however, with the ever dangerous Johnson coming up with the winner. Following a poor defensive clearance by McShane, Johnson was picked out in the box and had enough time to pick his spot and fire past Al-Habsi.
It was a disappointing way to end a frustrating season; Something that was reflected in the so-called lap of appreciation after the game. The heavens opened as the players walked around the near empty stadium- pathetic fallacy at its finest. For those who stayed behind, it felt as if a number were waving goodbye ahead of this summer’s big clear out.
The overall performance during this game could be analysed to death but it would seem based on the reaction of both the fans and players that everyone is looking forward to putting this season to rest. Everyone knows that this squad of players have underperformed this season and as a result a large number will probably not be around to tell the tale next year.
One positive to come from the game, however, was the introduction of Josh Barrett. When all of the senior players seemed to be losing their heads, Barrett proved what the youngsters can offer next season if given the opportunity. While it is yet to be seen if they can handle an extended run in the first team, there is only one way to find out. Based on the results this season without them, what have they got to lose.
Reading now have only one game of the season left away to Blackburn. It will be another winnable game for the Royals but you have to question whether they have the mental strength to try and finish the season with a win.