The visitors' manager, Neil Warnock, and his team, of course, accepted defeat stoically as always. Did they heck. At the conclusion of a contest that rarely attained the level expected from what has been ostensibly the Championship's two best teams, but which was liberally laced with controversy, both Warnock, his assistant Stuart McCall, and several players were on the pitch, confronting the referee, Grant Hegley, over a penalty he had failed to award United in the second half with the score at 1-1. In fairness, the United manager was equally critical of the official's interpretation of a first-half incident which should have resulted in the dismissal of his own goalkeeper Kenny for handball outside his area, only for the Republic of Ireland international to escape with a caution.
Events culminated with Warnock and substitute Keith Gillespie, who seemingly had been felled by Reading James Harper in the area in that 80th minute "penalty" incident, being reported to the FA by Mr Hegley. "It's petty, but I'm used to things like that," said Warnock, who also incurred the official's wrath in the first half for disputing a free-kick and was later involved in an exchange of words with Reading's Bobby Convey and Steve Hunt. "But it's other people who should be reported." The official said after the game that he believed that Gillespie's momentum had taken him into Harper.
Warnock was incredulous. "When he sees that, he [Hegley] is going to be quite embarrassed. It's disappointing but that happens when you've got 20,000 on your back. I've told him that if he wants to referee at a higher level one day, in front of 40,000-50,000 people, he's got to make honest decisions and he got that one wrong today."
Oh, and lest anyone thought he would allow Reading to luxuriate in their success, he concluded with the observation: "They got out of prison, really. But good luck to them. I thought we played some great football. I was absolutely delighted with my team, other than the result."
Their hosts' victory was ill-merited but the Blades can only attribute that to their own failings. Having dominated the first half, they failed to capitalise on their possession in a substandard second period, and that ultimately proved costly.
Beforehand, Reading's manager, Steve Coppell, had opined that for anyone to even contemplate promotion yet was "ridiculous". In United's case, you just wonder, though. They still have a healthy points advantage and are a team with much to admire about them.
This collision between the Championship heavyweights had attracted Reading's largest crowd of the season and, it was said, the biggest home media turn-out ever. Many arrived more familiar with the Premiership, but with the received wisdom that this was the League for entertainment. That was not entirely borne out in a combative first half in which skill was at a premium.
Reading's Gunnarsson scored within two minutes, from the second of two corners. Glen Little delivered it low into the area and found the unmarked midfielder who steered the ball home. Thereafter Coppell's team, weakened by the absence of both full-backs, Graeme Murty and Nicky Shorey, midfielder Steve Sidwell and striker Dave Kitson, had lacked invention in midfield and potency around goal, and it was the visitors who seized the initiative.
Warnock's men increasingly looked menacing, and a somewhat beleaguered home defence were finally beaten in the 15th minute when the former Crystal Palace man Steven Kabba headed home from close range.
As a matter of policy, Warnock opts not to include a goalkeeper among his substitutes, although Phil Jagielka is apparently a more than able deputy when required. None the less, that strategy could, and possibly should, have been put to the test 12 minutes before the interval when Reading's American international Bobby Convey had hopefully chased a long clearance. Nick Montgomery attempted to head back to Kenny who had dashed out and handled outside his area. To the relief of the Republic of Ireland goalkeeper, the referee restricted his punishment to a caution, explaining later that he believed defenders were covering. Coppell was rather more restrained than his counterpart. "I just thought he got it wrong," the Reading manager said of the official.
But then he could afford to be philosophical. His team had just closed to three points behind United. While Warnock & Co seethed, the remainder of the Championship's promotion contenders will be been mightily relieved.Reuse content