Half a season gone, with the Royals in ninth place, and the chairman, John Madejski, is talking breezily of a "comfortable mid-table position". His manager, Steve Coppell, who, despite two manager-of-the-month awards already this season, possesses a post-graduate degree in circumspection, is too cute for that. Having referred to yesterday's visitors beforehand as "battle-hardened veterans" of the Premiership, he evidently still prefers to regard his men as little more than virgin soldiers.
After a contest in which Reading's rearguard laid down their arms far too readily, in the face of Everton's two goalscorers, the impressive Andrew Johnson and James McFadden, that was how they looked: uncertain whether to move forward or look over their shoulders in this clearing of uncertainty that they find themselves. Coppell no doubt prefers to regard his side as being no more than five victories away from Premiership survival. "Cream rises," he said, with a caustic nod towards certain lines of questioning when his men had embarked on a sequence of victories last month. "I don't see too many people now asking me about Europe..."
Suddenly that £2.7 million which Coppell has spent on reinforcements this year looks modest indeed; and certainly compared with Everton's £14.2m of purchases. More than half of that was expended on Johnson, and here, with the first goal and an assist for McFadden's second, the England forward demonstrated his value.
Johnson, having enjoyed that rarest of experiences this week, an apology from Jose Mourinho, after the Chelsea manager had accused him of a dive during last Sunday's contest, started the day with another argument to settle - with those who questioned his striking prowess. Everton's £8.6m purchase had failed to score in 12 games for club and country. That record changed in the 14th minute. A fine right-side run by Mikel Arteta ended with the Spaniard cutting the ball back for Johnson, who, offered space and time, brought the ball under control before unleashing his drive into the far corner, with the aid of a deflection by Ibrahima Sonko.
"He was the difference, as far as I was concerned," insisted Coppell. "He's so quick-footed. Otherwise there wasn't a great deal of daylight between the teams." Johnson's manager, David Moyes, added: "He's gone a few games without a goal, but it was never a case of 'would he?' but 'when?'. He was a threat all day and a catalyst for the win."
Everton's triumph was all the more meritorious, given that they are notoriously poor travellers and that they lost two players before the start; the teenage striker Victor Anichebe after feeling sick and the defender Alan Stubbs, who jarred his knee in the pre-match warm-up."
McFadden and Gary Naysmith replaced the pair, and the transition was seamless. In a first half in which Everton's swift-passing, incisive football, too often exposed the home team's frailties, Johnson's long-awaited goal was scant reward for Everton's efforts. Before half-time, Marcus Hahnemann denied McFadden, and then Leon Osman shot high and wide after working himself into a wonderful position. Meanwhile Everton's resolute defence, with Joleon Lescott a powerful influence, dealt capably with Reading's top scorer Kevin Doyle. Everton were in imperious mood and were frustratingly close to going further ahead. A McFadden run, and Johnson lay-off, culminated with a thunderous effort from Osman which beat the Reading goalkeeper, but bounced down off the crossbar on to the line.
Just before the interval, Everton enjoyed their own fortune when Naysmith felled the Reading striker Seol Ki-Hyeon on the edge of the area. The referee waved away Reading penalty appeals though it was a clear foul. The only debate was whether the offence was inside or outside the area. That was to prove a crucial decision. Within two minutes of the restart, Everton had added a second. Ivar Ingimarsson yielded possession to Johnson on the Everton right and the England man's ball into the area was cleverly steered home by McFadden after he had eluded the Reading captain, Graeme Murty.
The hosts improved significantly after Coppell threw on Leroy Lita for Seol, and the striker finally brought Tim Howard into action. It was also Lita who headed back Glen Little's deep cross for a perfectly positioned James Harper only a few yards from goal. Reading knew it was not to be their day when the midfielder volleyed over. The keeper also thwarted Doyle and Steve Sidwell.
Next up Stamford Bridge for Reading. "Chelsea is not just a game," Coppell said, with the injuries to Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini in the corresponding home fixture in mind. "It's a bit more than that. It will be played as much off the pitch as on it." This was by no means the ideal manner to prepare for it.Reuse content