Reading's sight of a play-off place to bring them the prize of Premiership football for which their infrastructure is designed returned at the Madejski Stadium yesterday. At the same time, they brought back the shadows of self doubt that Sheffield United thought had just been assuaged. But neither side, in all seriousness, can look back on this game and believe the quality justified positive thoughts of mixing it with the best.
Having finally put the lid on four successive League defeats with an away win at Crewe, United were looking fairly secure in the play-off places but that's a comparative statement since, directly or indirectly, almost half the clubs in First Division remain in contention for promotion.
They seemed to add to their confidence early in yesterday's game with a fine debut goal from Andy Gray, whom they bought from cash-strapped Bradford City for £100,000 on Friday. A tenth- minute long throw from Robert Kozluk found Gray with his back to goal in the penalty area but he controlled the ball on his chest, swivelled and impressively beat Marcus Hahnemann with a shot on the turn.
Reading reacted in less than convincing fashion and hardly had a serious look at United's goal until the 25th minute when James Harper was bundled down just outside the penalty area and Nicky Shorey unleashed a bending free kick that squeezed inside the near post.
Surprisingly, United then added to the change of events when after 33 minutes Carl Robinson and Mike Whitlow took primitive action to stop Harper, who was making a dangerous diagonal run into the area. He was felled by Robinson and Shaun Goater comfortably succeeded with the penalty.
Reading had been attacking well on the break, especially down the flanks, but almost from the start of the second half, they failed to build on that tactic or their advantage. Sheffield United firmed up in midfield and brought more support to Ashley Ward and Gray. Equally, their determination to be first to the ball improved greatly but chances for Andy Parkinson, Montgomery and most of all Ward, whose header hit the post, were lost as United's manager, Neil Warnock, admitted: "We're snatching at them and conceding silly goals."
In an attempt to add some ingenuity to the attack he brought on Paul Peschisolido, but Reading were packing back and space was getting increasingly difficult to find.
Over the final 15 minutes, Reading rarely got into United's half, though that was as much by choice as imposition. Finally, with three minutes remaining, substitute Dave Kitson made a strong run into the United penalty area but when trying to angle the ball past Paddy Kenny drove it at him.
Clearly, United will need to make greater capital out of games they dominate over the remainder of the season if they are to remain in pursuit of promotion, not to speak of the need to do better in next weekend's FA Cup match against Sunderland.
Shorey 25, Goater pen 34
Sheffield United 1
Half-time: 2-1 Attendance: 15,545
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