It is hard to know what to make of Reading’s performance against Nottingham Forest. A poor first half was followed by a stronger second half showing, but the chance to ride the crest of the Anfield wave was missed.
Brian McDermott has been quick to rule out fatigue as an excuse or explanation for being so sluggish out of the box and he rightly points to the second wind found after the break as proof. After 120 minutes of action at Anfield, and no doubt a bit of celebrating on the coach back, the Royals showed they still had the legs to keep going until the end. The cause will have been helped by having three pairs of fresh legs, although it could also be argued that the changes might have played a part in the disjointed start. Two of the replacements were obvious choices. Grzegorz Rasiak was one of the few disappointments on the night at the Red side of Stanley Park and so McDermott took the opportunity to blood Gunnar Thorvaldsson who has been waiting in the wings for a game in which he was eligible to feature.
If there was one player for whom the exertions of midweek were likely to be too much for, it was 34-year-old Brynjar Gunnarsson. With Andy Griffin newly brought in on loan, it made sense to play him at right-back. The one change that McDermott would have been keen to avoid was losing Gylfi Sigurdsson to injury. Jay Tabb came in but it was asking a lot for someone who has mostly been deployed at full-back this season to be a replacement for the team’s top scorer. Sigurdsson’s presence would have been most appreciated when ex-Royal Nicky Shorey conceded the penalty that saw him receive his marching orders. After the young Icelander’s cool-as-you-like spot kick at Liverpool, it was a touch disappointing to see the experienced Brian Howard lack that same composure. If the Royals had got a goal back with over 20 minutes to play against 10 men, then they might just have got the point or more they arguably deserved.
Shorey will have been disappointed to see his resumption of relations with Reading end in a red card but there will have been mixed feelings from the away fans. The left-back was a huge part of the success of recent years but his attitude in his final season at the club was somewhat disappointing. After his swashbuckling displays earned him an England call up and caps against Brazil and Germany, his effort levels seemed to drop. To blame him for the club’s relegation would be far too strong, but he was one player who could have contributed a lot more. An assist here or better defensive performance there might have negated the narrow margin that saw the club go down.
Losing at Forest is certainly not a disgrace. This is a team that are unbeaten since September and who had hammered fellow promotion chasers West Brom on their own patch in their last league outing. Billy Davies’ side have a real chance of going up and are playing like genuine contenders. At the same time, Reading had just beaten Liverpool at Anfield. On paper, that will be the biggest game the Royals face all season unless further progress is made in the FA Cup and Chelsea or Arsenal play host to the Berkshire boys. Even if Liverpool are not having the greatest season, they should still be head and shoulders above any side in the Championship and so Forest were definitely scalpable. As evidenced by the Baggies mini revival and Reading’s own second half domination, Forest are not the finished article and are finding it hard to close out games assuredly. With a better first half performance, the Royals could have got something from the game and they will know that. Next week’s league match at Sheffield United demands a display for the whole 90 minutes.
One area that still needs addressing is the lack of a regular goalscorer. The team might have scored in every match since late October but the Royals need to start scoring three and four goals in some matches, not a token one in each game. There are various ingredients among the strikers that can be used to build half a successful partnership. Rasiak has height and aerial prowess, Simon Church has pace and work rate, Shane Long – who will have been disappointed not to start after his matchwinning heroics midweek – has athleticism and a great spring. What none of them have proved to be for Reading is a regular scorer. Thorvaldsson could well be the answer, and Lee Camp had to be sharp to deny him a first Royals goal, but only time will tell what impact he proves to have.