I’ve seen the future of football, and I have to say I don’t care for it much. If I could sum up this trip to the Madejski Stadium in two words then they would be corporate and controlled. I know folk in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and so I acknowledge that Doncaster have an out of town concrete, metal and plastic box of their own, but ours at least seems much more homely. Reading’s ground is the modern football ground personified, from its adjoining hotel and conference centre to its car targetted location and hefty entrance prices.
I had done a full lap of the ground (and the hotel) to get to the away turnstiles and so was surprised to see more than a dozen stewards and security staff manning these gates, where than had been one or none on the home fan entrances. I allowed a steward to search my bag and was then told I was not allowed to come in as at the bottom of my bag was a camera. ‘Copyright’ was the reason I was given, although as extensive as these copyright rules are surely they don’t extend to the inside of my bag. So I had to undertake another lap to leave my camera at a main reception staffed seemingly by air hostesses and I should point out a very friendly head mistress at the main desk who herself admitted to not knowing why I was not allowed in with the camera. Back to the away end then, and after another search I wa finally in and so I savoured the moment by taking a photograph with my camera phone.
Enough of my whining, there’s a game to be reported on. Well, of sorts. The anti-climactic nature of this event had been set before kick-off. The two talking points amongst Rovers fans had been the arrival of Billy Sharp and the renewed acquaintance with Matt Mills. The latter had not been passed over by the home team either with Mills in Reading shirt on the cover of a matchday programme which also contained an, admittedly picture heavy, eight page feature on the centre half. Neither Mills nor Sharp were to be involved from the start though, meaning any festering vitriol or acclaim would have to be subdued as Sharp and Mills took up starting positions in adjacent dugouts.
From the start of the game it was clear that Reading had addressed a way to prevent Rovers from playing football. whenever Rovers had the ball the home side were quick to put players under pressure and seemed to have targeted Adam Lockwood in particular as they sprinted to close down the centre half whenever he was in possession. With Reading working to cement this tactic and shut down Rovers and Doncaster struggling to move the ball around freely as a result the game was off to a disjointed start. In fact, but for a Jem Kracan corner the entire opening ten minutes seemed to be spent in the central third.
On ten minutes came Rovers first chance as they worked the ball forwards and Martin Woods made enough space for a low shot from around twenty-five yards which drifted wide of the far post. Just as Rovers began to settle and play the ball around Reading had a good chance of their own as Neil Sullivan dived to save well from Alex Pearce after Rovers had struggled to clear a corner from the left. Indeed Reading’s attacking focus seemed to be on getting the ball into Rovers’ box from wide positions, but Lockwood and Jason Shackell were equal to whatever came their way with some timely clearances.
With both sides employing five players in and around midfield the play was often becoming congested with some fierce challenges flying in also. So given the commitment in some of the more dubious tackles it was a significant surprise when the match’s first caution went to Martin Woods for taking a free-kick too quickly, particularly when the official went on to allow much quicker and ill-positioned free-kicks later in the game. Still, from his second attempt at the dead-ball on the right flank almost came a Rovers goal as Adam Federici was called on to turn the ball behind and prevent an own goal from Shaun Cummings.
Rovers were enjoying a significant bit of pressure late in the half with John Spicer shooting over and James Hayter having a near post header blocked from a Woods cross, although these two efforts did bookend a booking for Brian Stock, this one much more deserved than Woods’ earlier card. Reading had a couple of chances of their own though before the first half ended; Brian Howard clipping the top of the crossbar with a chipped effort from distance which Sullivan had confidently left, whilst the Rovers keeper had to be more involved to save a header from a Gylfi Sigurdsson corner low to his right. A fairly even first half in which, as evident by the two teams’ haste to take on water during an injury stoppage, the heat was certainly a contributing factor.
The opening ten minutes of the second half was another particularly bright spell for the Rovers as they looked to take their passing play further up the field. However, Donny were still struggling to create genuine chances and a blocked effort from Jamie Coppinger, a wayward effort from Woods and a comfortable save for Federici from a long range Stock drive were all they managed to muster. At the end of this spell Reading manager Brendan Rogers elected to make a change and Gzegorz Rasiak and Marek Matejovsky came on in a double substitution engineered to make the home side more of an attacking threat.
That seemed to come to fruition instantly as play resumed with a corner from which Darren O’Dea got in a header which was well saved by Sullivan. Five minutes later and another good chance for the home side as they finally found space in and around Rovers defence and Rasiak saw his shot across goal brilliantly turned away by the outstretched arm of Sullivan. Sean O’Driscoll had been preparing Billy Sharp for an introduction up to this point but elected instead to counteract Reading’s change, introducing Sam Hird for John Spicer. Sharp eventually made his debut with fifteen minutes to go to much acclaim from the away end as he and Lewis Guy came on for Coppinger and James Hayter as Rovers’ finished with two up front.
Subsequently the final ten minutes was a little more frantic but remained devoid of genuine chances, at one end Neil Sullivan was being tested by a succession of crosses and corners but being caught out by none of them, whilst Rovers’ added pace and fresh legs up front had Reading ruffled but not panicked. Indeed the best chance for Rovers came as Sharp managed to deliver a low cross from the right and Guy was just unable to beat Federici to it. The game, perhaps unsurprisingly ended goalless, and though it took a couple of excellent Sullivan saves to keep it that way it was probably a fair result. A defeat would certainly have been hard on Rovers for their desire to play the ball around and their resolute defending, whilst a win for Rovers would have been unjust in face of Reading’s industriousness in midfield and the way they tested Sullivan.
So time to head home, only as I turned to head back to reception my path was blocked by a line of stewards who would not let me the short way to the Main Reception as they did not want fans mingling. So instead of passing one stand of home fans I had to traipse past three stands and a hotel’s worth to reach the reception where the friendly receptionist, flanked by her silent harem of air hostesses, informed me that my camera had been deemed ‘too professional’. If that is the case, then may need to amend their stadium signs. So, a hassled away day which ensured I will be in no hurry to return to the Madejski Stadium again, be it for football, conference, or weekend break.
Man of the Match: Although not our choice, credit where its due to Jason Shackell for another excellent performance in the centre of defence and despite the talk of Rovers’ need for a goalscorer I would argue that it is getting this man signed up in January which should be the club’s transfer priority. However, man of the match for this week is the man now officially awarded the prefix ‘the veteran’, Neil Sullivan. A couple of key excellent saves helped ensure Rovers returned with a point.
Reading line-up (4-5-1):Adam Federici; Shaun Cummings, Ryan Bertrand, Darren O’Dea, Alex Pearce; Jimmy Kebe, Brynjar Gunnarsson (Kalifa Cisse), Brian Howard, Jem Karacan (Grzegorz Rasiak), Gylfi Sigurdsson (Marek Matejovsky); Noel Hunt
subs not used: Ben Hamer, Matt Mills, Jay Tabb, Simon Church
Doncaster Rovers line-up (4-3-2-1);Neil Sullivan; James Chambers, Adam Lockwood, Jason Shackell, Gareth Roberts; John Oster, Brian Stock, Martin Woods; John Spicer (Sam Hird), Jamie Coppinger (Lewis Guy); James Hayter (Billy Sharp)
subs not used:Ben Smith, Mark Wilson, Quinton Fortune, Dean Shiels
booked: Martin Woods (taking a free-kick too quickly), Brian Stock (obstruction/trip on Brian Howard), James Chambers (dubious foul on edge of the box)