Dean Smith has gone. We are now in the awkward period of caretaker management while we await the appointment of a successor.
Steve Weaver and Alan Russell have had barely two days to work with the squad so the question always was going to be what they could do in such a short space of time.
There was a lot to like about the team selection. It felt like finally the team was picked to give the opposition something to think about, rather than to simply negate them. On paper, it was 4-3-3 but in practice, it was more 4-1-2-3 with Kenny McLean sitting in front of the defence.
The game started at a breathless pace. From the kickoff, Teemu Pukki was chasing a long through ball, winning a corner. Reading left Hoilett up and as the corner was headed clear, they broke quickly. Grant Hanley charged back and made the saving tackle right on the edge of the box, earning a yellow card for his efforts.
Tom Ince struck the free kick well, getting it up and down over the wall but Angus Gunn was there with two strong hands to push the ball over the bar.
Even as early as the 4th minute, the difference in City was evident. Gabriel Sara put Pukki through on goal. His square pass to Adam Idah was a bit under-hit and the defence managed to cut it out.
After the frantic start, the game settled for a while with City having the lion’s share of the ball, but Reading always finding an outlet in Carroll, particularly when he pulled wide to go up against Aarons or McCallum – hardly a fair aerial duel.
On the quarter hour came another direct City move. Hanley played a long ball forward to Idah. His flick put Pukki through. The Finn’s first touch was a little heavy and his shot was blocked. Josh Sargent followed up but hit his shot into the ground before Idah put his follow-up over the bar.
All over the pitch, the players who had looked so limp and lifeless against Luton looked invigorated. The press high up the pitch was more effective and there was a clear desire to get the ball forward quickly.
Reading had a good spell for the next 10 to 15 minutes and always looked threatening down the right. McCallum was doing well, assisted by Sara, showing a side of his game we hadn’t seen before. As the half drew to a close, Pukki chased a lost cause from a Sara long ball, winning a corner, which somehow went straight through the box and missed everyone.
Reading broke back again. Joao and McLean came together on the edge of the box. There was minimal contact but a free kick was given. This time Hoilett struck it but it was always going wide of the post.
Two minutes of added time were signalled, but the referee blew for time early with City having a throw-in by the corner flag.
City continued into the second half in the same manner. Early on Sara won the ball high up the pitch and played Pukki through, who lost the ball and then won it back again. Then another long ball forward found Sargent in space but all he could do was win a throw-in.
The goal, when it came, was well worked. It started on the left with McLean and Sara. Idah ran infield with the ball and played it to Aarons. His cross was initially blocked but Sargent kept it alive, heading it back across the goal. Pukki and Sara swapped headers before Pukki cushioned it to Idah who hit a great shot on the turn.
You could see the confidence in the City players now and they began to take full control of the game. Pukki flicked the ball over a defender and was hauled down by Holmes, who was given a yellow. The free kick was a lovely floated one, won by Hanley who headed over, but play was called back anyway for an infringement of some kind, overlooking the fact that Idah had been flattened.
After a purple patch by City, as the game passed the hour mark Reading forced a succession of corners. Gunn made a great reaction save at close range from a Joao header – another good night for the City keeper.
Once the run of corners was broken, Marcelino Nunez played a lovely ball through to Sargent. Lumley in the Reading goal was quick to get down to smother it. The Chilean was at it again a few moments later in a move started by Idah and ending in a Sargent shot over the bar.
Then another attack – a long ball from Ben Gibson to Sargent this time, Idah having his shot blocked.
On 71 minutes, Nunez went off suffering from cramp, to be replaced by Kieran Dowell. The Chilean had really grown into the game and, although he gave the ball away a couple of times, looked more like the player we saw when he first arrived at times.
Dowell played a great diagonal ball to Onel Hernandez – on for Idah. He cut inside, lost the ball, won it back before Pukki crossed. Sargent sliced it so badly that it came back to Pukki whose cross this time was claimed by the keeper.
City were being forced more and more on the defensive, but were dealing with everything Reading threw at them, but on 80 minutes, Guiness-Walker made a jinking run into the area.
Dowell pulled out of the tackle but the Reading player ran over his leg, falling dramatically. The referee bought it and awarded a penalty which Carroll slammed home. It was cruel on the home side who deserved more for their endeavours.
City pressed for an equalizer but never really fashioned more than a half chance. Only three minutes of time were added. In the second of these, Pukki was clearly pushed to the ground in the penalty area but City’s appeals were unheeded.
So it ended in a draw. After the dreadful performances of late, this was a breath of fresh air. Not perfect by any means, but it showed what can be achieved.
McLean was outstanding, playing just in front of the back four in a ‘quarterback’ role. He mopped up everything and covered every blade of grass on the pitch. Sara too had a good game. Yes, there were one or two misplaced passes but he looked so much more at home in a more positive side.
Likewise, Nunez, as already mentioned.
Pukki had more through balls to run onto in the first half than he has all season. Shock horror, City playing to his strengths. Aarons and McCallum also got forward well, clearly with instructions to deliver early balls into the box.
If they can improve the quality of these then they could be a real menace.
So it wasn’t perfect. But it was better.
For what it’s worth, I was really impressed with the way Alan Russell handled himself throughout. Webber should seriously consider giving him the job, at least until the end of the season.