Just when things seemed to be going wonderfully well for Shane Long, the balloon burst as a second referee of the season flashed a red card in his direction. Having scored four goals in his last three games, Long will now have to wait for another four games to pass until he has the chance to make amends.
Long has been the main focus of the column inches about Reading recently and with good reason. After a depressing first half of the season that saw no goals and a dismissal against Derby, a bright new era for the Irishman appeared to have dawned. One would have hoped that Long would have learned from his rash challenge against the Rams but on this evidence he has not. Despite all the insistences from both the player and the Royals’ coaching staff that the tackle lacked intent and malice, Long must realise that you cannot jump in to challenges and expect to get away with it. The phrase “forward’s challenge” made its customary appearance in various media but sooner or later strikers need to learn to tackle. There was no need for such over the top urgency to be displayed in a lunging challenge on the angle of opposition penalty box and goal line. The consequences could prove steep for Long. Not only does he risk losing the form he was beginning to show – form that could have been the making of him – but also his place in the side. With the team as a whole improving with each game, Long may find that in four games’ time someone else has benefitted and has taken his role up front.
The match itself with West Brom was a proper FA Cup tie, full of end to end excitement and drama. The Baggies may have a promotion chase well underway but they were no less commited to this game than the Royals were. Reading can take a great deal of heart from matching their lofty opponents for 90 minutes, and from coming so close to knocking them out of the cup. West Brom have been in good form of late, starting the day at the top of the Championship having overhauled Newcastle last week. For the majority of the game, the Reading defence contained the best attack in the division, although the Baggies proved ruthless on the couple of occasions that the home side slackened at the back. For the first goal, Robert Koren was allowed to float unguarded to the back post and touch home Chris Brunt’s inswinging cross from the right flank.
The goal could have been avoided had the two central midfielders, Brynjar Gunnarsson and Jem Karacan, not both marked space instead of a man. With Matt Mills and Ivar Ingimarsson picking up one striker between them, neither Karacan nor Gunnarsson tracked the other forward, with the Icelander signalling for right-back Andy Griffin to come inside to cover. With Griffin vacating his role, Koren was left free to ghost in and apply the finishing touch. It was from Griffin’s territory that the second Baggies goal came, although it would be harsh to place the blame on the loanee from Stoke who enjoyed a solid game throughout. Jobi McAnuff was drawn toward the ball in the middle of the pitch without getting involved in the play which left space for Joe Mattock to advance from left-back. Griffin was doing his job tracking Koren in the penalty area and was not able to get across in time to challenge McAnuff’s man who fired home from the angle.
A mention must be made of the two Royals goalscorers. Jimmy Kebe has received his fair share of stick for his woeful inconsistency but he demonstrated an opportunist streak not normally seen by capitalising on Gianni Zuiverloon’s indecision. There was still a lot of work for Kebe to do but he took the goal well and earned his place in the record books with Reading’s fastest ever goal and the second fastest goal in the FA Cup proper, just a second slower than Vic Lambden in 1951 for Bristol Rovers. Simon Church has been lacking the goals to add to his highly impressive pace and movement but got himself back on the scoresheet with what looked to be the winning goal until Mattock struck. It was a sign of the striker’s lack of confidence in front of goal that it took two attempts to find the net when played through on goal but the important thing was that the outcome was a goal. The relief was there to see as Church twice wiped his brow as a visible gesture to his teammates but hopefully he can now step forward with more goals in the absence of Long.