Behind Enemy Lines: Reading

MILLWALL face Reading at The Den on Wednesday night aiming to extend their unbeaten run to four games.

The Lions have drawn their last three, though, as they have struggled for goals.

The Royals won seven of their opening eight games to go top of the table, but have lost their last four conceding 13 goals.

Alex Grace spoke to Royals fan Jack Simpson this week.

Twitter: @thesimpsonRFC

Why do you support Reading?

I support Reading because the Royals are my local team and the team that I have grown up supporting since I was a young boy. I could not support another club from outside Reading.

I believe that you get so much more enjoyment from football by supporting your local side, especially when your team achieves something big such as winning a league or cup.

My best memories from watching football have been when I have watched Reading at the Madejski Stadium or away from home in the stands with my mates. I could give you loads of examples from my personal perspective.

You can never beat that buzz at being at a football stadium soaking up the atmosphere and I could never be an armchair person who supports a big club like Liverpool who win every week.

What season did you first start following the Royals?

2005-06, my first game was Reading against Crewe when the Royals won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Ivar Ingimarsson.

What is the most memorable Reading game you’ve seen?

The most memorable Reading game that I have seen first-hand was two seasons ago in March 2019 when we played Wigan at the Madejski Stadium.

For context, Reading were fighting relegation following a poor first half of the season, when we hadn’t won many games and were conceding goals for fun.

Wigan were probably the better team and were on course to win the game 2-1, but an 89th-minute strike from Mo Barrow brought us level. What followed was remarkable as Yakou Meite nodded in the winner from a corner with the last kick of game.

The goal sparked wild scenes across the ground and the win played a huge part in us staying up that season. The win was so special that former manager Jose Gomes and the players did a lap of honour in celebration after the final whistle.

Millwall boss Gary Rowett after the 2-0 win over Reading in January

Can you improve on last season’s 14th place?

Well I think if we are to improve we need to do more defensively and show more consistency.

Last season, the Royals showed some promise under Mark Bowen and going into January we had a decent chance of sneaking into the play-offs. It was great beating a good side like Fulham at Craven Cottage, but results such as a 1-1 draw against Hull meant our play-off charge fell away.

Additionally, the teams that finish in the top six are normally teams that are hard to beat and win points when going behind. Last season there was not enough fight and intensity from the players and it would be very rare that we would gain points from a losing position.

There was evidence that had changed, especially in the first two months of the season when we had the best defence in the EFL and were restricting teams brilliantly. But in recent games that may or may not be the case.

Saturday’s game against Bournemouth – who came from 2-0 down to win 4-2 – was a classic example of the players capitulating and making silly errors and that needs to change starting tonight.

It’s still early days in the Veljko Paunovic era – are you happy with what you’ve seen so far?

I think from what I’ve seen so far there is promise, especially if he is given time and a few seasons to develop how he wants the team to play.

What I saw against Derby on the opening day of the season was spectacular. The speed and the way in which we moved the ball was fantastic. Derby simply couldn’t cope.

What was also more impressive was the way we won the ball back, we looked so much sharper than Derby with our pressing and fight. The 2-0 score-line did not reflect just how dominant we were.

We then went to Watford, who in my opinion are the best team in the league and won 1-0.  We did that without Ovie Ejaira, Lucas Joao, John Swift or Andy Yiadom and we had to play young Tom Holmes out of position at right-back.

However, as mentioned, it’s all good beating sides like Watford. But if you lose four matches on the bounce and concede 13 goals in those games, you are going to fall down the table quite quickly.

Overall, there is promise and I think Reading fans have embraced Paunovic following what was a difficult build-up to the start of the season.

I believe that when Paunovic is able to bring in his own players, then we will be able to consistently challenge for those top six spots.

What was the reaction of the fans when it was announced he was replacing Mark Bowen?

It was toxic. The reason for it being like that was the timing of the decision. I mean, what owner or chairman of a football club decides that it is a good idea to replace the manager one week before the start of the new season?

What was even worse was that the club announced Paunovic as the new Reading manager without putting out a statement to say what was happening with Bowen and thanking him for his efforts.

Paunovic didn’t even get to manage against Colchester in the Carabao Cup first round because he had to self-isolate for 14 days because of the travel restrictions imposed by the UK government.

I think if the decision was made when the season finished then there would have been less anger from the fans.

What didn’t help was that nobody (with the greatest respect) had heard of Paunovic and I’m sure that there would have been hardly any complaints if Eddie Howe had been appointed as Mark Bowen’s replacement.

What’s behind the recent poor form?

In all four games there was a defensive error that led to a goal.

Against Coventry, nobody closed Sam McCallum down and he let fly from 30 yards to make it 3-1.

Tom McIntyre totally misjudged the flight of the ball which allowed Scott Sinclair put Preston ahead.

We now move on to the Stoke game when the Royals lost by the same margin, 3-0. Against Stoke it was three individual errors that cost us, errors that get punished at this level of football.

Saturday’s game at Bournemouth was the same thing again. Silly errors and against a team that have the attacking quality that Bournemouth do, you will get punished and we were.

Jed Wallace would be a target for this Royals fan

What are your aspirations for the season?

I think going into the season there were no aspirations because nobody knew what to expect from Paunovic in terms of his playing style and how the players would perform. I think once we cut the defensive errors out and start getting confident again, there is no reason why they can’t challenge for the play-offs.

However, the least Reading fans should expect is for the team to finish in the top half which would be tremendous progress following numerous relegation battles over the last few seasons.

Gary Rowett was appointed Millwall boss last October – what do you make of the job he’s done so far?

I think Gary Rowett has done a remarkable and tremendous job since taking charge. It was a phenomenal achievement for Millwall to finish just two points outside the play-offs. However, the Lions could have easily finished in the top six. If they had beaten the likes of Swansea at home, Barnsley away and Birmingham at home.

One of Rowett’s strengths is setting up his team well from a defensive point of view. This was evident as Millwall had the sixth best defence in the Championship last season, conceding 51 goals.

Are you happy with Reading’s summer business?

In terms of the financial restraints the club was under during the summer, I don’t think Reading fans would have too many complaints.

The main disappointment was witnessing Rodrigo Riquelme being snatched out of our hands when it looked like he was signing for us. We ended up losing out on him to Bournemouth. It was an area that needed strengthening and we are paying the price for it now.

However, the main positive was seeing Ovie Ejaira sign permanently over the summer.

It looked like the move would not go through thanks to the EFL, but eventually it was completed.

If you could add two Millwall players to the Reading side, who would they be and why?

I think if I was looking at adding two Millwall players they would be Jed Wallace and Jake Cooper.

Wallace is very much a key man to this Millwall side. His record last season spoke for itself: 10 goals and 13 assists.

This season Wallace has already scored four goals in 12 league games so he’s clearly picking up where he left off.

Wallace would definitely sort the issues out wide that the Royals have in terms of the lack of width and I’m sure that being from Reading himself, the former Portsmouth man would relish the opportunity to be able to play for his hometown club.

Turning my attention to Copper, he has come a long way since leaving his former club in the summer of 2017.

The former Royal is now a much better player than what he was while at Reading and was even linked with a move to Southampton in the summer.

Alongside Liam Moore in defence, Cooper would be a fantastic addition at centre-half and would definitely tighten up that Royals’ defence which has conceded so many goals in recent weeks.

I’m sure that Cooper would love the opportunity to return to Reading and play alongside his fellow academy graduates in Michael Olise, Tom McIntyre, Andy Rinomhota and Omar Richards.

Who are Reading’s danger men?

The main danger men for Reading are Ovie Ejaria and Lucas Joao.

I talked about Ejaria earlier and what he offers to the team. His range of passing is something that is key to his game. For example, last season, the 23-year-old had an 84 per cent pass completion rate.

With Ejaria creating an average of three big chances per game, his ability to keep hold of possession is key not only for him, but for the way Reading play.

Last season while on loan, the former Liverpool man scored three goals and got five assists in 36 Championship games. Even if Millwall manage to keep Ejaria quiet, he only needs a few yards of space to pick out a key pass for his team-mates.

The other danger man for Reading is Lucas Joao, a player that has had a fantastic start to the season.

At 27 years old, the former Sheffield Wednesday striker is enjoying his best season in terms of finding the back of net with 10 goals in 12 appearances in all competitions. On his day Joao can cause any problems for any Championship defence. You just have to look at his goal against Cardiff from earlier in the season where he managed to shrug off Sean Morrison (who is a very strong centre-back) with ease.

Joao’s pace can also be a nightmare for teams who play a high defensive line, because if the defenders don’t push up or aren’t in line then one pass could send the centre-forward clean through on goal.

The battle between Joao and Cooper will be a fascinating one and will be key as to who comes out on top on Wednesday night.

Will you be following the game from home?

Yes, on ifollow while drinking a few pints of beer. Can’t wait for fans to return to stadiums next week.

What’s your predicted Reading starting XI and formation?


Rafael; Tomas Esteves, Michael Morrison, Liam Moore, Omar Richards; Josh Laurent, Andy Rinomhota; Ovie Ejaira, Michael Olise, Yakou Meite; Lucas Joao.

And a score prediction?

Millwall 1-1 Reading

Graphic: @ShedCreative