Oh crumbs. The club once known as the Biscuitmen after their town’s main industry, are looking increasingly like a gingerbread man whose arms and legs are being bitten off. Another limb disappeared yesterday, gobbled up greedily by a Southampton team suddenly enjoying the taste of Premier League football and now virtually assured of being around for another season of it.
The sub-plot was that Nigel Adkins was taking his first home game for Reading, against the team who sacked him in January. Ungrateful as that dismissal undoubtedly was to the man who had led them to successive promotions, and was on a five-match unbeaten run, the Argentine Mauricio Pochettino has now taken the side to 11th place, their highest position of the season, and safety.
The players appear to appreciate his methods and the visiting supporters were happy to chant his name as well as that of their former manager. “He’s given us that belief, he’s passionate and very good at tactical situations,” said Jay Rodriguez, who scored the first goal, made the second and just edged Rickie Lambert as the game’s outstanding figure.
Those two were excellent as individuals and as a pair, Lambert, the leading English scorer in the League this season, for once playing the provider here and giving a masterclass in intelligent movement as he roamed deep and wide.
Adkins, a modern technocrat and master of football-speak, was never going to talk of anything as crass as revenge and his comments later in the day were predictable. “We are where we are,” and “We’ve got to keep working hard,” are two of his favourites. More telling was the response when invited to make a comparison between the investment of the two clubs last summer after they arrived together as the top two from the Championship. “It shows you’ve got to keep moving forward all the time.”
Southampton did so, spending some £20m on half a dozen players and Adkins seemed just to be reaping the benefit before he was ousted. Reading left their sacking later, and showing the popular Brian McDermott the door now looks even more pointless – pointless from their last seven League games is where they are now and whatever happens between Queen’s Park Rangers and Wigan today, relegation surely beckons.
Last week’s shocking defensive performance in Adkins’s first game, the 4-1 defeat at Arsenal, must have knocked some of the stuffing out of them and yesterday the home supporters, always listed on the team-sheet as Reading’s No 13, did not have much to contribute either. “You’re going down with the [Harry] Redknapp” their visiting counterparts sang.
Pochettino declined to gloat, claiming “maximum respect” for Adkins, although he could not resist a dig at Reading’s perceived direct style, suggesting it was impossible to apply Soutahmpton’s usual pressing game when “facing an opponent that just kicks the ball in the air”. Early on Reading promised more than that, but it turned out that almost all their opportunities were in the first quarter of the game. The exception was when, at two-nil down, Adam le Fondre’s header all but crossed the line before the unpredictable goalkeeper Artur Boruc palmed it out. “Ninety-nine point nine per cent over,” claimed Adkins; which is, of course, not quite enough for a goal to be given.
Earlier one of Danny Guthrie’s free-kicks was headed over the bar by Sean Morrison and another caused rare confusion in the Southampton defence before Le Fondre hooked over the bar from six yards. One strong penalty appeal was rightly turned down and then Adrian Mariappa’s header demanded a good, low save from Boruc.
Mariappa, however, was less impressive closer to his own goal. Just after the half-hour, he allowed Rodriguez to play a neat one-two with Lambert before jabbing the ball through the legs of the home goalkeeper, Adam Federici, who showed none of the striker’s determination to reach it. Next Mariappa was dispossessed and Rodriguez, played in by Lambert again, hit the crossbar. Finally the hapless defender let Rodriguez in once more, Federici saved and Gaston Ramirez clipped the rebound carelessly wide of an open goal.
Reading had to replace the injured Hope Akpan at half-time and were soon on the back foot again; this time there would be no famous late rally such as often saved them earlier in the season.
In the 73rd minute Rodriguez played a perfect through pass for the substitute Adam Lallana to score, and in added time it was Southampton who should have claimed a third; the right-back Nathaniel Clyne raced to the byline and set up Guly do Prado, whose shot was high over the bar.
“Maybe the best thing to do is not even to look at the League table,” Adkins said. It does not make pretty reading for Reading this morning.
Reading (4-2-3-1): Federici; Gunter, Morrison, Mariappa, Kelly; Karacan, Akpan (Leigertwood, 46); Robson-Kanu (Hunt, 74), Guthrie (McCleary, 62), McAnuff; Le Fondre.
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Boruc; Clyne, Yoshida, Hooiveld, Shaw; Cork, Schneiderlin; Ramirez (Lallana, 63), Davis (Guly, 88), Rodriguez; Lambert.
Referee: Mike Jones (Cheshire).
Man of the match: Rodriguez (Southampton)
Match rating: 6/10