Back to the Amex, off the back of what felt a HUGE win in a tricky fixture at Barnsley – an unchanged Albion ran out to a boisterous crowd, lubricated by the early evening kick-off, and buoyed by the afternoon’s Championship results – both Newcastle and Huddersfield dropping points – the Toon, in what looked a home banker.
For Albion fans of anything but the newest vintage, the Royal’s style of play was immediately familiar – a carbon copy of Gus Poyet’s Albion on a poor away day – lengthy spells of harmless deep possession – outrageous but pointless passing stats for the centre backs and holding midfielder. This is not to denigrate what Jaap Stam has achieved in quick time – the Reading fans, like many of our own did, will take time to acquire the necessary patience for this game-plan, but they shouldn’t lose sight of the massive improvement the Dutchman has overseen.
They were dreadful last season, and sit fourth in the current table – given backing in a couple more transfer windows to mould the squad better for the style, and he’ll have them challenging very hard indeed. A glaring example of this, is the keeper – I’ve loads of time for Ali Al-Habsi – but he’s not the man for Stam’s (or Poyet’s) football – decent shot stopper but lacks the composure or ability with his feet to reliably pass short around the back. Chris Hughton, if he hadn’t highlighted this in advance of the game (he probably had) then he’d certainly identified it after ten minutes.
Reading played out from the back. The Albion employed a mixed plan – sometimes letting them get on with safe passes 20 yards from their own goal, and crowding out their midfielders – sometimes pressing hard as a front four, to harry and force mistakes. Stam – again like Gus – is not a man to compromise – his charges stuck to their plan, even once it became clear that they were tactically disadvantaged, and the Albion took full advantage.
Chance were at a premium in the first half hour – Anthony Knockaert showing flashes of menace, once he’d shaken off a first minute ‘reducer’ from Tyler Blackett – a challenge that surely only avoided a card due to the timing of it. Albion’s French talisman combined beautifully with Bruno, before firing across the six yard box, inches in front of the rampaging skipper’s lunge.
Then suddenly the game burst into life, with two big chances apiece in space of a couple of minutes – first Baldock striking the far post, with a 25 yard curler, before Williams aimed a free header into the grateful arms of David Stockdale, then Knockaert cutting inside and shooting tamely at Al Habsi, before Beerens’ close range angled effort was repelled by Stockdale’s feet.
As both sets of fans regained breath from the near-misses, the Albion made one count, through the on-fire Sam Baldock – bringing the ball down over his shoulder from Bruno’s delicate chip, before holding off Paul McShane, and crashing the ball into the roof of the net. Another high-quality goal, alongside the likes of the sublime shimmy and strike v QPR, and the belting volley last week – ‘Super Sam’ is quietly putting together his very own goal of the season compilation.
This latest one takes the number 9 to ten league goals for the season, incredibly the fourth Albion player to get to get there, after Murray (16), Knockaert (11) and Hemed (10). To put that in context, only one other club even has TWO players into double figures, and they are 23rd in the league. Albion players currently occupy four of the top fourteen places in the Championship top scorer charts… http://www.bbc.com/sport/football/ch...ip/top-scorers
For further context, it is 38 years since the Albion last had four players in double-digits, and this vintage have done it with almost a third of a season to spare. The lads have properly gone goal-mental!
The sides left the field, with the sombre, appreciative applause for former Seagulls skipper Paul McCarthy ringing in their ears. Young Albion supporters really are spoiled these days – not just with the surroundings and quality of football, but by having a squad rammed with great players, visibly giving their all for the cause. It hasn’t always been like that, but McCarthy was one of the best, in a tough time for the club. Fearless and solid as a rock, and able to play a bit, too – a rarity for a lower-league centre half, especially back then. Signed at just 18, Paul was, I think, the first Albion player younger (by six months) than myself that I saw play for the first team. As such, I’ve somehow always thought him a youngster – even once he had racked up hundreds of Albion and Wycombe appearances – so to hear of his tragic sudden passing, has been pretty sobering.
Tributes paid, the crowd returned to their seats, and the players to their changing rooms, for instruction. For Hughton one of his more comfortable ones – it’s a truism that it is much easier to control a game when you’re winning it. A goal behind, you get nothing for your back-line possession stats, so Stam would have to open up. Back out you go lads, soak it up, press them when they reach half-way, hit them on the break. Like taking candy from a (six foot four, bald, scary) baby.
A scare soon after the restart – Bruno caught in the chest by Beeren’s studs – dramatic collapse – collective anxious holding of breath – then up he springs like nothing had happened. Odd.
A scare of another kind, moments later – Williams rising to head the ball goal-bound – Stockdale well beaten – but Shane Duffy acrobatically volleying clear, off the line. On an evening that the Amex paid tribute to one Irish centre back, another was earning tributes of his own. The forward players were, to a man, excellent today, but Duffy was comfortably my pick for man of the match. Won everything in the air, bullied the always physical Kermogant, shrugged off another facial whack, threw himself in front of shots, and capped it with a goal-saving clearance. Imperious.
Big moments like that define games. 1-0, so nearly 1-1, was immediately 2-0 – Duffy himself heading away the subsequent cross, to launch a lightning counter-attack. Knockaert carried the ball to halfway, with two Royals snapping at his heels (unfathomable why neither took a tactical yellow for the team), to feed Stephens, whose sublimely weighted first time pass through the eye of the Reading needle, set Jamie Murphy clear on goal. A wonderful assist from Stephens, though he has to share it with Andy Naylor. Just two minutes after Andy tweeted this…
Murphy did this…
With the celebrations for that one still in throats, two more chances to completely kill the game – Knockaert wasteful into the side netting from close range, then Glenn Murray gobbling up an inviting Bruno centre, but caught a foot offside. Those let-offs might have led to real nerves, had Reading not then wasted two big chances of their own – newly introduced Swift and permanent irritant Kermogant sharing free-kick duties, but each firing straight at the wall from 20 yards.
Ten minutes left on the clock, all lingering nerves evaporate, as Reading turn over the ball yet again - a surging carry from Murphy to the edge of the box, lay off to Knockaert, one touch, and crashed into the net across the keeper. Tidy finish. Excellent all-round performance.
“We’re brightnovealyun, we’re top o the league”. Super.
Little matter of Newcastle next then. Massive, massive game. Can’t wait.