By Matthew Williams
So it’s finally happened. We all would have preferred it to have happened at Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford in the latter half of 2006, but the unbeatable team have finally been beaten. After the game at Brammall Lane last Tuesday night, where the Royals managed to emerge from the game with the record still intact having faced an onslaught of Sheffield United chances, and having the luxury of missing a penalty, it actually seemed possible that, for this season anyway, the team couldn’t lose.
However that team that played against the Blades looked nothing like the team that took the field at Kenilworth Road three days later. For the first time this season the players looked tired and off the pace. Not once in his eight year spell at Reading have I seen Graeme Murty go on a gallant sprint down the touchline and run out of steam half way, but it happened on Friday. Not once this season have I seen Ibrahima Sonko get caught out at the back post from a set-piece, but again, it occurred on Friday night. The tiredness from the hard fought game on Tuesday hadn’t quite left all the players systems and it showed. Ingimarsson was caught out of position on more occasions by the Luton front two than the rest of the matches this season put together. Doyle and Kitson seemed to have little creativity when the ball finally found its way to them, and Bobby Convey was not only outfought, but also outthought and that is not the Bobby Convey we had seen for the 33 games previous. Nothing really went to plan and the unbeaten run quite rightly came to an end. It was a sour pill to swallow for Reading fans, all that little bit more annoyed knowing that the defeat was partly down to the teams own undoing, losing out because of poor defending rather than exceptional opposition attacking. Nothing should be taken away from Luton though, who played a tactically astute and mentally tough game, and will be pushing for the play offs at the end of the season thanks to flair in midfield and a brilliant young manager, but you can’t help thinking that if Reading played like they have shown they can so many times this season, then I wouldn’t be sitting here writing an article on bouncing back from a defeat.
Before every game I always have a laugh with my friends and family as kick off approaches, I declare that the game we are about to watch is ‘the biggest game of the season’. Working on Steve Coppell’s approach of ‘taking each game as it comes’ this could be seen as a valid statement, and granted, when you’re entranced with what’s happening on the pitch everything else in the world does seem meaningless for those 90 minutes. But depending on the opposition and the circumstances, whether you like it or not, some games are naturally singled out to be more important than others. I’m sure Sheffield United fans see their game against Sheffield Wednesday as a much more important game to get a result in than their match at home to Crewe Alexandra, and you can see why my statement raises a smile with my peers when I declare a 1st Round FA Cup tie at home to Woking as ‘the biggest game of the season’; but it’s a statement that I continue to exclaim, as much as a pre-match ritual as it is a view on proceedings. But when I rub my hands together at the Madejski Stadium with glee at five minutes to three against Preston on Saturday, myself and everyone around me will agree that when I declare this match ‘the biggest game of the season’, I’ll have some substance to my statement.
The unbridled success of the Reading squad this season has been based on the attitude and morale of everyone at the club, from Steve Coppell and John Madejski, to each and every reserve team player, to the tea lady and kit manager. When confidence is high, results are usually good, and confidence has not been higher than this season. Coppell has quite rightly played down the unbeaten run, given the players the right mindset, and the results have kept on coming. So the big test now is how to react to a defeat. That evening after the loss at Luton I quite simply did not know how to react, defeat felt like a new experience for me. Sure, we had lost twice since the opening day in the two cup competitions, but no Royal fan can really say they were too bothered about anything other than the league this season, and so this loss reignited all those emotions that I almost forgot I had, those emotions that each and every true fan goes through after a defeat; anger, denial, worry, sadness, annoyance, and finally an unwilling acceptance. I’m sure I was not alone in my reaction to events, and I know the players will be feeling the same way.
Then came the inevitable press reports, the added speculation of whether the penny has finally dropped on the Royals, and a Sheffield United win that closed the gap to ‘only’ nine points. The fact that most people saw Reading as all but promoted came back to bite the club on the arse, this team was beatable, and they weren’t beaten by Sheffield United or Crystal Palace, a small town near Watford beat them for goodness sake! Of course all Royals fans know better than this, they know that yes we were not on form, everybody has an off day and this was ours, and that we’ve shown more than once (33 times to be precise!) that we can dominate this division, but you couldn’t avoid all the speculation and I’m sure the players know all about it too.
So it’s all eyes on the Madejski Stadium next Saturday for the visit of Preston. Can the speculators – whether it’s nervous Reading fans or hopeful promotion candidates – back up their claims with more evidence, that now the floodgates are open and the team is snatching defeat from the jaws of almost certain victory? This is why I am proclaiming Saturday’s game to be ‘the biggest of the season’. Will the team show a different attitude to the one that has got us so far this season? Will we see despondent, nervous players? Or has in fact the defeat given the players a needed scare and we see a new lease of energy emerge? (If so, be very afraid Preston!) These are the questions that Steve Coppell and the players will have to work on solving this week in training, and then provide the answers come Saturday.
After seeing how the team has been managed this season I am full of positivity that Coppell will know exactly how to get his players to react in the best way. So far this season the management has been absolutely perfect, the players have been majestic, proving that any team in the division can be ripped apart by our rock solid defence, creative midfield and clinical attack. But Preston North End are no pushovers. They themselves are on a fantastic run, a shadow of the team we destroyed in August, chasing a promotion dream of their own. This will only add to the spice of what promises to be a massive game in the clubs history. The team need the fans now more than ever, they have produced wonders on the pitch all season, now is the time for the fans to produce wonders in the stands, showing the players that the defeat on Friday was little more than a way of luring our rivals into a false sense of security. Stay positive, and the team will provide the results. The Premiership is within our grasp, and a win in the biggest game of the season will provide a monumental leap closer to our goal. So make sure the Madejski Stadium is a sea of blue and white on Saturday, and get behind a team that need you now more than ever. Back the boys and make one hell of a noise, COME ON URZ!