Reading 3 Middlesbrough 2: Lita completes a startling comeback

Coppell shows rare animation as Reading make an extraordinary start in the top division
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The Independent Football

As a crescendo of sound enveloped the referee, Mark Halsey, imploring him to signal Reading's first Premiership triumph, even Steve Coppell, a man who traditionally adopts what one might term a monastic pose, was whistling and gesticulating frantically at his men. Victory was not to be denied his team now, not after yielding two early goals to a Middlesbrough side who gratefully accepted them and might have proceeded to inflict a mortal wound on the newcomers.

As Sir Alex Ferguson once said: "With promoted clubs, it's always the same. If you don't start well, you're dead." After 20 minutes, there was just that prospect; of the worst start imaginable for Coppell's men. They were tentative, marking poorly and out-thought, seemingly out of their depth.

Then, as if struck by a blinding light, belief suddenly began to pulse through Coppell's men. In midfield Steven Sidwell started to assert himself while Seol Ki-Hyeon showed the poise which had persuaded Reading to make him their record signing, at £1.5 million from Wolves.

Goals from Dave Kitson and Sidwell brought Reading back into contention within a frantic five minutes before the break. Boro were on the ropes and Gareth Southgate could only look on helplessly when, after the interval, the substitute Leroy Lita produced the winner.

As Coppell put it: "This was a special game and we were very nervous and anxious, but our body language didn't let us down when their second goal went in. We thought 'sod it' and went after it. We didn't want to whimper out of our first Premiership game."

Such a response from the Royals, after Boro had struck so emphatically, was just what the rookie manager Southgate did not require. It has been a quiet summer at the Riverside. Boro have lost Franck Queudrue and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and have so far brought in only Julio Arca from Sunderland and Herold Goulon from Lyon.

During the match, there were no great exhibitions of passion from Southgate. Afterwards his demeanour had not altered. "Nothing in life comes easily, as I know only too well," he said. "This was a great opportunity to get a win, and we didn't take it. We stopped doing the things that got us the lead, and we'll learn from that."

For the moment his counterpart Coppell has added only Seol and Sam Sodje, from Brentford, to the team who secured the Championship with a record points tally last season. The chairman, John Madejski, who says he would like to find a new owner, deems the lack of signings as "building sensibly for the long-term". For a time yesterday, that sounded hollow.

Initially, there was some inventive passing by the home side, but no execution. That was the crucial difference between the sides in the first 20 minutes, during which Boro hunted voraciously. Stewart Downing, said to be a target for Spurs, Mark Viduka and Aiyegbeni Yakubu all troubled the home defence.

After 11 minutes that pressure told when Yakubu's cross was met by an unmarked Downing, who steered the ball across goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann. Ten minutes later, Fabio Rochemback's low free-kick speared the wall. Hahnemann saved, but could only spill the ball to Yakubu who turned it home.

The Royals' response was remarkable. The impressive Kevin Doyle, Sidwell and Graeme Murty were all denied by Mark Schwarzer, before Kitson capitalised when the visitorsfailed to clear a low centre from Seol.

A minute later, Reading were level, deservedly so when Sidwell beat Schwarzer with a beautifully precise effort, before being cautioned for his celebrations. Chris Riggott received a similar punishment seconds later when he flew in to a challenge on Kitson, which resulted in the striker's substitution by Lita at half-time. The culprit might easily have received a red.

Reading were relentless. After 10 minutes of the half, Seol was again the provider with a delicate low pass into the goalmouth. Schwarzer and his defenders failed to clear under pressure from Doyle, and Lita drove home from close range.

It provoked surprisingly little reaction from Boro until Gaizka Mendieta was introduced and brought some impetus to the dispirited visitors. The Spain international forced a fine save from Hahnemann, who then denied Viduka. The Australia forward finally had the ball in the net, but was flagged offside.

Reading held on for a famous victory. The prelude to something special? Certainly, if Coppell has any say in the matter.