Middlesbrough 0 Reading 1: Late and great Harper lifts Reading

Coppell's struggling side snatch a stoppage-time winner against Middlesbrough to collect their first points since Boxing Day
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The Independent Football

According to Steve Coppell, when you lose, you ponder, when you win, you party. Reading have been doing plenty of pondering of late, but, thanks to a late goal from James Harper, last night it was party time.

Bearing in mind their plight, after a performance where they were second best for large chunks of the afternoon, a point would have been welcomed with open arms. So the scenes in front of the travelling supporters when Harper, by far Reading's best performer, steered home an inviting Stephen Hunt cut-back deep into stoppage time, need little description. Should they manage to avoid the drop, this will be seen as a significant turning point in their season.

It was a victory that has been a long time in coming. Coppell's men had last won in the League on 22 December, and had gathered no points in eight games since Boxing Day. "There's a sense of relief in the dressing room," Coppell revealed.

Those damning statistics were put right to breathe fresh impetus into their hopes of avoiding relegation as Harper kept his cool to round off a speedy burst into the area to meet the inviting low cross and beat Mark Schwarzer from a dozen yards, thus denying Middlesbrough a share of the spoils their endeavours merited.

After Reading's first away Premier League victory in nearly 11 months, it was difficult not to feel sympathy for the hosts, who, despite looking drained from their extra-time FA Cup exploits against Sheffield United, did enough not to have succumbed to their first home defeat since New Year's Day.

"We were mindful of their game in midweek and how that could have a bearing on the game in the last 10 minutes," Coppell added.

His opposite number, Gareth Southgate agreed: "It was a sucker punch. Reading play with a lot of energy and we knew we'd be lacking that because of midweek. The whole atmosphere was flat."

A combined tally of eight bookings far outnumbered the attempts on goal in a game which will not live long in the memory. Stewart Downing, the Middlesbrough winger, earned one of those late on for what Howard Webb deemed to be a dive in the penalty area under challenge from Marek Matejovsky. Many referees would have felt obliged to award a penalty, but the well-placed official can be satisfied justice was done with an impeccable decision.

"You look at the referee, he couldn't be in a better position," added Coppell, who carried out his threat to make changes, with three of the four in defence.

Entertainment-starved supporters had to wait until three minutes before the interval before either keeper was truly stretched, Marcus Hahnemann producing an acrobatic save to prevent a 20-yard free-kick from Afonso Alves finding its way into the top corner.

Reading would have been looking at an early deficit had Gary O'Neil's corner fallen to someone with sharper attacking instincts than Emanuel Pogatetz, the unmarked defender opting to head back across the six-yard box when an attempt on goal looked a far better option. Subsequent goal-mouth incidents arrived sporadically as Hahnemann twice saved well from Downing before the England international almost forced Liam Rosenior to inadvertently head into his own net.

Kevin Doyle's close-range first-half effort was rightly ruled out for pushing by Andre Bikey, which proved to be Reading's most threatening moment until Harper took centre stage.

With few results at the bottom conspiring to help his side, true to form, the outwardly taciturn Coppell refused to go overboard on Reading's hopes of securing a third consecutive season of Premier League football. "There are an awful lot of managers near the bottom who are uncomfortable, ourselves included," he said. "That discomfort continues."