As the betting on the Premier League sack race hotted up last week, Brian McDermott clenched his teeth and got on with business.
The Reading manager was up among the leading contenders for the chop and even had to shrug off reports that Dick Advocaat, the vastly experienced PSV Eindhoven boss, was ready to replace him.
Fear no more, Brian. Well, not for a while. Reading secured their first Premier League win yesterday - at the 11th attempt - with a battle-from-behind display that had highly touted Everton floundering amid a brace of second-half goals from Adam Le Fondre. The wait for three points, at last, was over.
Moving out of the bottom three was nice, too. “You can’t talk about that win now,” McDermott joked. “We’ve got it. Obviously, it’s a relief, but it’s been coming for some time and I’m just so pleased for the players. We were too respectful to Everton in the first half but we played with real tempo in the second.
“In any sport, you just need to stay in the game, and that’s what we did. I had a meeting with the four strikers and told them that’s it about the group and how I wanted them to be a team within our team. Adam took his goals well. I just had a gut feeling to play him today.”
Everton had started at pace. Adam Federici, the home goalkeeper, had to make a smart save from Phil Jagielka’s close-range effort, with Nikica Jelavic volleying over as the ball ran loose. The pressure mounted and, with Reading committing defensive suicide in their own area, the dam broke easily. Time and again defenders had the opportunity to clear to safety; time and again they squandered the chance. Marouane Fellaini’s huge presence caused further problems and Steven Naismith tucked away the loose ball via Federici’s diving body.
Straightaway Reading could have been level. Le Fondre chased on to a hopeful punt forward and beat the onrushing Tim Howard to it comfortably. However, presented with an empty net, albeit from an unfavourable angle, he chipped his shot high and wide of Howard but high and wide of the goal, too.
Normal service quickly resumed, with Everton’s authority growing by the minute. Federici did well to punch away a dipping 20-yarder from Thomas Hitzlsperger, Sean Morrison was fortunate to escape a penalty for handball when he inadvertantly blocked Jelavic’s volley and Jay Tabb had to nod off the goalline from Jagielka’s header.
“I’m probably as pissed off as I’ve ever been,” David Moyes, the Everton manager, said. “We were outstanding in the first half and we should have scored more but we just didn’t put the game to bed. It’s up to us to do that but we didn’t punish Reading, we just gave them every encouragement and always left the door slightly ajar.”
Moyes’ worst half-time fears were realised. Everton would regret not taking advantage of their overwhelming superiority. Reading reappeared reenergised after the interval, with a refreshingly different and more positive mindset. Instead of sitting back, they had a go - harassing and hassling their opponents at every opportunity. And Everton didn’t like it.
They liked it even less when Reading equalised six minutes into the second half. And if Reading’s defence had been culpable for the opening goal, Everton’s was just as poor for the leveller. Nicky Shorey curled over an inswinging free kick from the right and Le Fondre, without a challenger in sight, was allowed to nod past Howard.
Suddenly, Everton were a pale shadow of the side that had lost only once in their past 20 league matches, stretching back to last season. Reading’s will to win - at long last - was clearly the stronger and they reaped their reward with 12 minutes remaining, when Seamus Coleman rashly bundled Le Fondre over in the area as he waited to receive Chris Gunter’s cross.
Le Fondre showed no nerves from the spot, sending Howard emphatically the wrong way. And to emphasise how Reading’s luck had apparently changed, they survived a scare when Fellaini’s header from a Baines centre struck an upright ... and bounced straight into Federici’s grateful arms.
At the end, many in the record Madejski Stadium crowd, of 24,184, chanted McDermott’s name. Sack race? What sack race?
Reading (4-4-2): Federici; Gunter, Morrison, Gorkss, Shorey; Mcanuff, Leigertwood, Tabb, Robson-Kanu; Le Fondre (Hunt, 80), Roberts.
Everton (4-3-1-2): Howard; Coleman, Jagielka, Heitinga, Baines; Osman, Hitzlsperger (Vellios, 81), Pienaar; Fellaini; Naismith (Oviedo, 78), Jelavic.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Man of the match: Morrison (Reading)
Match rating: 7/10