For the third time this season Reading won away at Championship opposition to secure their passage into the next round of the FA Cup. This time it was high-flying Derby who were dispatched thanks to a late goal from deadline day signing Yakubu.
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Before this FA Cup fifth round tie at Pride Park (whatever the sponsors call it this season, it’ll always be Pride Park!) the air was full of contrasts. Notable amongst these were the relative league positions of the two teams, with Derby competing in the top three and Reading flirting slightly too close to the relegation zone for it not to be a lingering worry. There was also a contrast between the two teams’ fortunes in their two previous meetings this season, with a 5-0 aggregate to Derby. Perhaps that’s why there wasn’t a contrast in the collective views of the world of football pundits – the few who bothered to mention Reading at all did it with a cursory sneer implying that the Royals would be swept aside with barely a murmur.
There was also a contrast in the pre-match fortunes of travelling Reading fans. Those who travelled by train or from the North had a relatively trouble-free journey, whilst those who came by road from the South endured a nightmare of traffic which can’t be adequately described without Chris Rea’s “Road to Hell” playing in the background. Maximum kudos to everyone who did stick it out and get there in the end – although it was a close call for some I don’t think too many Loyal Royals actually missed the start in the end.
And when that start came, the contrasts continued, as the difference in form and attitude between the two teams was massive. Derby, despite making numerous changes and starting without Chris Martin (insert your favourite Coldplay-related pun here…) played with the sort of slick confidence that comes with their league form. Reading however, with Steve Clarke reverting to largely the team that beat Wolves a week ago, were much more tentative and short of confidence – much more in line with their league form also, and the “work in progress” very much showing.
Right from the start Derby came at Reading, and might have scored in the first few minutes after a very neat interplay allowed them a shot from inside the Reading area, but Federici wasn’t seriously troubled by this. Reading were having their own fair share of attacks, though, although these tended to be more tentative and less fluent than Derby’s. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and at the end of the game it’s goals that count, not style or confidence.
In fact, Derby’s flair and confidence was often misplaced as they tried to be a little too clever, and with Danny Williams and Nathanial Chalobah pressing with energy and aggression Reading had a lot more of the ball in midfield than they might have expected. But although they had a lot of the ball in and around the Derby area and provoked a few scrambles there, they were unable to seriously trouble the home keeper until the 19th minute. Hal Robson-Kanu was first to the ball as it broke free just outside the Derby box, and Derby debutant Stephen Warnock was late diving in to try and win it, earning himself a yellow card, but when the free kick was taken a clever, clearly-rehearsed routine saw Simon Cox free on the right corner of the six-yard box, but his shot hit the wrong side of the post for a goal kick.
I have to say that Clarke got the tactics spot-on for playing a team like Derby
The game was an open and entertaining one, with both sides out to win it. Reading were playing mainly on the break and Derby continued to have the bulk of the attacks, although they were mostly restricted to efforts from outside the box – including an attempt to lob Federici from over 40 yards out that was as poorly executed as it was audacious. Pavel Pogrebnyak was looking as mobile and eager as I’ve seen him and combining well with his teammates, and on several occasions promising Reading breaks came close.
I have to say that Clarke got the tactics spot-on for playing a team like Derby, with fast counter-attacking based on a philosophy of getting the ball out to the wings quickly. At times it even looked Coppellesque, if I might say so…
The downside, though, was that most of Derby’s attacking came down the wings, as the Reading wide players often gave their opposite numbers too much space and were too slow too to close them down.
In the 39th minute, though, came a moment of match-changing drama. Close to the touchline in front of the Reading supporters Mackie was caught late by Warnock, who was quickly shown as second yellow card and departed the game. Amazingly, though, there seems to be some debate about whether this was justified – let me assure any doubters that it was about as justified as you’ll ever see, not just a yellow card but a YELLOW CARD. Warnock wasn’t just a little bit late, not even a lot late – he was an eternity late.
Now, I know football fans are meant to be one-eyed, and in my experience Derby fans tend to be more one-eyed than many, but it was amusing to see the righteous indignation of the home crowd at this point. However, this clearly got to the referee, who responded to their apoplectic fury by obligingly booking Obita for — well, to be honest I don’t know what it was for, it was one of those bookings given on crowd reaction and not on what happened on the pitch. The ref was in real danger of losing things, and just a minute later was landed with a big decision to make, which he bottled entirely.
As Derby struggled to adjust, Reading were rampant and the ball fell to Williams just outside the Derby box. His shot was good and on target, but was sent wide by the arm of Richard Keogh as he threw himself its path in a full-length dive, Superman style. As clear a penalty as you’ll see, but not given – the only possible reason I can think for this was to not inflame the baying home crowd even more.
So, goalless at half-time, but only due to a superbly timed saving tackle from Hector with the last kick of the half, and the second half initially followed the pattern of the first, with Derby attacking and Reading looking to hit them on the break.
It was noticeable that Derby’s superior movement and their way of making the pitch look really wide actually made it look like they had more players than Reading, but on one of the rare occasions Reading did use their numerical advantage they made it count. Seven minutes into the half Steven Kelly joined the attack, in space on the right, and Cox cleverly pulled the ball back to Hal Robson-Kanu. He scored a top-class goal, taking enough time to place the ball into the far corner – always lovely when a shot is so well-placed the ‘keeper doesn’t even move – as the Royals fans went mad.
Reading thereafter proceeded to play a more sensible passing game to try to control the game and calm it down, but that’s just not their game, and eight minutes later Derby were level. Darren Bent was in the right place to convert a low cross from the right from close range, and Reading had it all to do again.
Reading’s grit and passion overcame Derby’s flair and confidence – and gave a great big “Up yours, don’t write us off so quickly” to all the pundits.
But they huffed and puffed and started to make the extra man count, and after 66 minutes Cox shot just wide, and after 70 minutes Mackie missed a decent chance after a Pog header from a superb Obita cross was saved.
That, incidentally was the first time I noticed Mackie in the second half, but the Reading manager’s substitutions were sensible and understandable (how nice is it to be able to say that?). Clarke replaced Pogrebnyak and Mackie with Yakubu and Nick Blackman, and eight minutes from the end all those who’d predicted a Yak winner were proved right.
Williams did well to win the ball in midfield, and slipped it to Robson-Kanu who played a delightful ball in front of Yakubu haring towards the box. From there it was a combination of strength, experience and a striker’s experience as he scored with a perfect strike.
Again, the away fans went wild, and this time there was no way back for Derby. Despite a slightly nervous five minutes of time added on, with slightly more shenanigans by the corner flag than I like to see, Federici wasn’t troubled again and Reading were into the FA Cup Quarter-finals for only the fifth time ever.
All in all, a massively enjoyable game, where Reading’s grit and passion overcame Derby’s flair and confidence – and gave a great big “Up yours, don’t write us off so quickly” to all the pundits.
Now for the draw on Monday.