The downward route from the Premier League is littered with the names of clubs that thought they could bounce straight back. They thought it would be easy, assuming the clubs below the Premier League to be stuffed full of wheezing pseudo-athletes and watched by philistines who don’t understand the sophisticated ways of the newly-relegated. It is an easy mistake to make, and the meeting of Reading and Middlesbrough brings together two clubs that are at differing stages of a post-Premier League life.
Reading’s stay in the top flight was brief. Their first was a resounding success, seeing them finish in eighth place in the table, and their subsequent relegation was expected to be short-lived. Last season, however, they were outplayed by Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City, and their failure in the play-offs led against Burnley led to the departure of Steve Coppell. Brendan Rogers was drafted in as his replacement, but he has had a difficult start. They are uncomfortably close to the relegation places with almost a quarter of the season, and the lack of any home wins so far this season has further accentuated the sense that the club is in a state of crisis.
In so far as that to expect automatic promotion after relegation from the Premier League is premature, Reading act as something of a cautionary tale to Middlesbrough. Boro spent ten consecutive seasons in the Premier League and their relegation at the end of last season was somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous implosion that was taking place just up the road at Newcastle. There was no panic at the Riverside Stadium over the summer, though. Manager Gareth Southgate kept his job and there was no massive fire sale of players.
They started the season reasonably well, but cracks have recently started to show again in their promotion challenge. Their 5-0 home defeat by West Bromwich Albion two weeks ago was a bolt from the blue, and they haven’t won since. Just over 18,000 turned out on Tuesday night to see them lose 1-0 at home to Leicester City. Reading, meanwhile, won 2-1 at Preston North End, a result that lifted them out of the Championship relegation places. This, therefore is a match that brings together two clubs that are both at a crossroads – it’s just that one is slightly further up the road than the other.
Reading, perhaps understandably considering their home form, start nervously and this nervous start costs them dear. They cede too much possession in the middle third of the pitch, endangering their own goal and after twelve minutes Middlesbrough take the lead. Adam Johnson swings a corner over from the right hand side and, in spite of being surrounded by six or seven home defenders, Sean St Ledger was more or less completely unmarked and ran through the crowd and head downwards and in. Any optimism that Reading may have fostered after their surprise win at Preston during the week evaporates at this point.
One thing is clear. This isn’t the Reading team that finished in eighth place in the Premier League three years ago, or even the one that finished in fourth place in the Championship last season. Although spirited, Middlesbrough continue to look by far the stronger and better organised of the two teams. Not long after the first goal, Leroy Lita – formerly, of course, a Reading player has a half-chance to double their lead only to see his shot go into the ground and slowly Reading start to find their feet. Jem Caracan allows the Middlesbrough goalkeeper Brad Jones a comfortable save and Brian Howard’s header drops inches wide of the post. Half-time comes with Middlesbrough starting to look nervous.
Ten minutes into the second half, Lita, who had received generous applause from the home supporters before the start of the match, pulls off the moment of true class of the afternoon, controlling the ball perfectly near the centre shot, spinning and, with a sudden, explosive turn of pace, leaves the four Reading players that were surrounding him for dead and drives the ball low past Adam Federici to double Middlesbrough’s lead. It’s a glorious moment, a magnificent goal and one of the few demonstrations of Premier League quality of the afternoon. It settles the butterflies in Middlesbrough stomachs, and Reading don’t have much by way of response.
With a comfortable lead, Middlesbrough can afford to take their foot off the pedal somewhat. Jeremie Aliadiere has a shot tipped round the post by Federici (from which the referee incorrectly gives a goal kick rather than a corner) and in the final seconds Reading’s Noel Hunt has a shot saved by Brad Jones in the final minute which would have brought Reading a frankly undeserved consolation goal. Middlesbrough hold on with considerable comfort, and there is more good news for them at the final whistle. They already knew that West Bromwich Albion had been firing blanks and had drawn 0-0 with Preston North End. The news filters through that Newcastle United have also had a bad day at the office with a 0-0 draw at home against Bristol City. They are back into third place in the table. The race is back on.
Reading, however, may face a long and difficult winter. Many of the players from the Premier League team have departed and their replacements have already had their confidence shot. They now sit one place above the relegation places in the Championship and manager Brendan Rogers is fighting for his managerial life after just eleven matches of the new season. Whether he was the right man for the job and whether he will be able to fight off the expanding group that are now calling for his head are questions that are becoming more pressing, though it is worth remembering that the sacking of a manager can turn out to be absolutely pivotal and should be handled with care.