Kidderminster Harriers 2-1 Reading: Embarrassing
As I sit down to write this report, a few hours after full time, I’m still not quite sure how to process it properly. This match isn’t really one for objective analysis, picking out nuances or mitigating factors, because at the moment I’m just profoundly f**ked off.
Losing to Kidderminster Harriers at all, let alone in that manner, was absolutely shameful. I feel embarrassed to be a Reading fan right now - I was tempted to take off my blue and white scarf after the game and I’m mentally preparing myself for the horrid feeling I’ll have for the new few days.
Yes, Kidderminster deserve credit. They refused to accept defeat, fought back in the second half after George Puscas’ opener - roared on by a home crowd full of belief - and warranted the result in their own right. But that should never have been on the cards.
Reading are four divisions above Harriers and should have made that difference tell, but you’d have been hard-pressed to work out which team was which for large portions of the game. Even in the more comfortable first half, the Royals’ quality going forwards was conspicuous by its absence. George Puscas’ opening goal, while a great moment for him personally, papered over the cracks. In the second half the hosts found it far too easy to contain Reading, pen them back and score soft goals.
Granted, the Royals played a fair number of younger players who were always going to find a match like this difficult. That was particularly true in the second half when Michael Stickland came on, meaning Reading had a defence of three rookies and a midfielder out of position, in addition to rookies higher up the pitch. But the Royals still had enough individual quality to do the basics - defending properly and building attacks - to both see the game out and extend the one-goal lead.
The fact that we couldn’t do those things against a sixth-tier side was embarrassing. What we saw was a complete absence of ideas and an inability to take responsibility across the entire game, let alone in select moments.
I have more sympathy for some than others. Ethan Bristow and Josh Laurent, to their credit, went over to a hostile away end to thank them for their efforts, George Puscas finally scored this season, and Felipe Araruna endured another horrible twist in his battle with injury, going off straight after being introduced as a second-half substitute. Those who only played in the first half (Tom Holmes, Alen Halilovic) managed to avoid what was to come, while youngsters far more used to under-23 football such as Michael Stickland and Louie Holzman were exposed to a horrible experience I hope they can move on from.
That experience extended to angry booing from the travelling fans. While I hope that wasn’t targeted at the junior members of the side, some of their mistakes late on (inaccurate long balls forward) did seem to be jeered.
The real anger though was saved for Veljko Paunovic, whose stock with the fans has now surely reached rock bottom. He was in a difficult position after the late collapse at home to Derby County on Monday night, but this result and the nature of it should put him on the brink of dismissal. Loud chants of “sacked in the morning” - bellowing around the away end - made it very clear what the away fans thought of him.
I've been patient and sympathetic with Pauno throughout this season: he's faced a litany of challenges outside his control that have collectively put him in a uniquely difficult position. The truth of that hasn't changed; pretending otherwise would be rewriting history.
But they're not excuses for today. Far from it - Reading had enough quality to win this game comfortably. Athough there were some obstacles in that - inexperience for some players, perhaps a lack of sharpness for others - a well-organised and motivated side would have brushed those issues off in this game.
I take no joy whatsoever in the idea of Pauno being relieved of his position. He's a fundamentally good guy who cares about the club and has bought into it. People like that shouldn't be taken for granted.
But this game was surely proof that he's not the right man now. If you can't at least scrape a result against a non-league side, when can you?
How realistically does he repair his status after this? Surely his authority among players, fans and others at the club has been so damaged that a turnaround is unfeasible?
We've seen before how deeply one dreadful clusterf*ck of a game can toxify a manager's standing. Mark Bowen may have limped on after the 3-0 home defeat to Wigan, but he seemed to be a man out of time from that point on.
This may well be the game of no return for Pauno.