Ken Dodd’s “Happiness” played over the Tannoy on the final whistle after Stoke City had earned their first League win since Boxing Day, yet for long stretches of a drab fixture on a cold, damp day that particular emotion felt thin on the ground.
It did not feel like the greatest league in the world as we saw yet another hopeful high ball aimed towards the head of Peter Crouch and Asmir Begovic looked on untroubled in the home goal. But eventually, thankfully, a watchable contest broke out.
It ended with Stoke victorious thanks to a Robert Huth header and a spectacular strike by substitute Cameron Jerome, though only after the home side had withstood the threat of another Reading fightback once defender Adrian Mariappa had narrowed the deficit with seven minutes left.
“Once we got back to 2-1, I honestly thought we would get something from the game,” said Brian McDermott, the Reading manager, whose team have developed a handy knack of stealing points at the death. They had arrived here on the back of a run of four wins in six which brought McDermott the Manager of the Month award and lifted his team out of the bottom three – though they will drop back into it if Aston Villa win today.
McDermott praised his side’s “resilience” in handling Stoke’s aerial threat, though they offered little going forward and required more than an hour to bring a save out of Begovic. Sir Alex Ferguson was in the crowd to watch Reading, Manchester United’s opponents in the FA Cup fifth round on Monday week, but if he was also checking out Begovic – a rumoured transfer target – it was certainly not the day to gauge the Bosnia international’s ability.
A Stoke side featuring a tactical switch – Jonathan Walters joining Crouch in a two-man attack – and showcasing the midfield class of Stephen Nzonzi, had the better of a disappointing first half. They took their time to ask any questions of Adam Federici, the Reading goalkeeper, but when they did, he was equal to it.
After he had palmed behind a hooked Ryan Shawcross effort, Federici made an excellent stop to thwart Crouch’s spectacular half-volley after a jinking run and cross from Michael Kightly. From the ensuing corner Huth drove in a shot that Stephen Kelly deflected behind.
Eleven minutes into the second half Reading supersub Adam Le Fondre – who achieved the feat of becoming January’s Premier League player of the month despite not starting a single game – replaced debutant Nick Blackman, but it was another substitute, Stoke’s Jerome, who would make the bigger impact. Two minutes after his introduction alongside Kenwyne Jones, Huth broke the deadlock when he climbed above Kelly at the far post and powered a header in off the underside of the crossbar from Glenn Whelan’s corner.
Reading then wasted a precious opportunity on the counter when, attacking three on one, Jimmy Kebe chose the wrong option and played an under-hit pass to Pavel Pogrebnyak.
That looked even more costly in the 81st minute as Jerome struck. Mariappa was guilty of heading a long Stoke punt upfield back towards his own goal and Jerome took full advantage as he unleashed a powerful half-volley that flew across Federici and inside the post.
“Cameron is a great impact player and he scored a great goal,” said Stoke manager Tony Pulis, who felt his side deserved their first victory in seven League outings. “We just picked the pace up. The two substitutes made a great difference.” Mariappa made amends for his mistake when he rose at the near post to meet Harte’s inswinging corner and fire in a bullet header that Begovic could only help on its way into the net.
Suddenly the visitors entertained hopes of another late show and afterwards McDermott argued they were denied a “stonewall” penalty in added time when Le Fondre tumbled in the box under a challenge from Ryan Shotton. It did not look so clear on the TV replay and Pulis was uncertain. “I haven’t seen it on the television,” he said. “At first I was told it was a pen and then I was told it wasn’t. If it was a penalty I have to say thank goodness we’ve had a break because we deserved one.”
Stoke City (4-4-2): Begovic; Shotton, Shawcross, Huth, Wilkinson (Cameron, 85 ); Kightly (Jerome, 65), Whelan, Nzonzi, Etherington; Walters, Crouch (Jones, 65)
Reading (4-5-1): Federici; Kelly, Pearce, Mariappa, Harte; Kebe, Akpan, Leigertwood, McAnuff (McCleary, 74), Blackman (Le Fondre, 57); Pogrebnyak (Hunt, 80).
Referee: Michael Oliver.
Man of the match: Nzonzi (Stoke)
Match rating: 5/10