It is not often that a team blows a two-goal lead live on national television and exits the FA Cup with their heads held high but Reading achieved that particular feat against Aston Villa at the Madejski Stadium on Sunday.
After a gutting 2009, the exciting run in the FA Cup has galvanised the Royals squad and instilled a sense of fearlessness that has been evident in recent performances. Even so, few would have expected Brian McDermott’s team to dominate the first half in quite the way they did; Reading were rampant against a Villa side that failed to get in to gear and the half time whistle was music to only one set of ears. McDermott had opted to recall Shane Long after his enforced four-match absence, with Grzegorz Rasiak making way despite netting a brace against Sheffield Wednesday in the last game. It would have been a tough call for McDermott given the embryonic nature of Long’s previous upturn in form; Long had only just found his shooting boots over a period of time barely longer than he was subsequently banned for. The Royals boss was taking a gamble in dropping someone who had been a big part of a thumping victory a week earlier but there was wisdom in the decision. Rasiak is hardly the most mobile of strikers, lacking the pace and energy to cause problems against a Premier League defence used to playing at a high tempo week in, week out. With Villa wanting to take the initiative as the more established side, there was likely to be space for Reading to exploit with fast breaks and Long was the obvious choice for this tactic.
Ironically, the opening goal for the hosts came from a set piece, a situation where Rasiak would have been a danger with his aerial prowess. The outstanding Matt Mills attacked the ball against three Villa centre-backs – at least one of whom should have been marking Long – and the Irishman was alert enough to steer home a header from close range. The second goal was more akin to what McDermott would have expected, with a fast break started by Gylfi Sigurdsson’s peach of a through ball. Jimmy Kebe – who was devastating when Reading were on top and the biggest disappointment of the second half – accelerated through the inside-right channel and laid the ball on a sixpence for Long, who had kept pace with his lightning colleague. It was dreamland for the fans on three sides of a packed Mad Stad and a remarkable trip to Wembley looked to be on the cards, and deservedly so. Martin O’Neill’s side may have been below par and perhaps suffering a hangover from their Carling Cup final defeat, but chiefly it was Reading’s endeavour and dominance that prevented the Villans from playing to their usual high standards.
O’Neill had 15 minutes at the break to turn things around, and although he claims to have not needed to say much to his team, the testimonies of his players suggest those words he chose were strong enough to make his point very clearly. It took less time than the Ulsterman spent ranting at his players – even allowing for their early reappearance to the pitch – for the game to have been turned completely on its head. Whilst Reading have every right to feel proud of their performance over the rest of the 90 minutes, the first quarter of an hour of the second half was littered with inept defending that was not reflective of the otherwise exceptional back four. Villa were too hot to handle and deserve credit for coming out with such determination to make up for their off-key showing, but the Royals will be disappointed to have succumbed quite so easily to the visitor’s barrage.
The late penalty, whilst correct in its award, put a harsh spin on the scoreline as Reading did not deserve to lose by two goals. After a short spell of shellshock at seeing their lead reversed, the Royals put on a hearty showing for the remainder of the match, and were unlucky not to level on multiple occasions. The introduction of Rasiak offered a different dimension to the attack, with Reading having less opportunity to get behind the Villa defence and needing more aerial threat. The equaliser never came, but after 83 years without even getting this far in the competition, the mass of Berkshire natives went home with their heads held high. The vast majority of the crowd stayed behind to applaud their fallen heroes off the pitch, and everyone connected to the club can feel immensely proud, even in defeat.