Reading comeback kings no more
Not since Richard III was found buried beneath a Leicester car park 528 years after his death have any Royals had so much late drama. Yet even as Reading scored in the closing minutes for the fifth successive league game, their regal run of form came to an end.
It was a contentious conclusion. With 93 minutes on the clock, Adam Le Fondre, the usual catalyst for a comeback, fell to the ground as Ryan Shotton challenged him. Reading appealed for a spot kick and, in all probability, a draw. Referee Michael Oliver ignored these particular Royals; the thoroughly and proudly working-class Stoke celebrated as their barren run came to an end.
Brian McDermott was frustrated. "He caught him and it was a stonewall penalty," the Reading manager said. Initially, Tony Pulis thought the same. But then the Stoke manager was informed that replays offered a different view. "The lad isn't caught, he just arches his back and falls over," he said. That was Oliver's opinion, and the correct one. In the process, what was shaping up to be a winter of content for Reading became bleaker.
Yet lightning had struck for a fifth consecutive time. As they had against West Brom and Newcastle, Chelsea and Sunderland, Reading finished with a flourish. They were 2-0 down and seemingly defeated when Cameron Jerome, Stoke's favoured impact player, assumed Le Fondre's regular role of the super-sub and powered a shot in.
Instead, back came Reading. Their four previous fightbacks had produced ten points; this threatened to add another to edge them closer to safety. Adrian Mariappa, culpable for Stoke's second goal, scored his first for Reading, heading in Ian Harte's corner. The City defence, untroubled for 80 minutes, were under pressure for the remaining ten.
The final whistle brought a sigh of relief. "It's been a long time," said Pulis, whose previous league win was the Boxing Day demolition of Liverpool. "I thought we deserved to win and I would have been absolutely devastated if we didn't."
If, with Reading in outstanding form and Stoke in their poorest spell of the season, it was a clash of opposites, there were also distinct similarities. Each are set-piece specialists who scored from a corner - Robert Huth heading Stoke into the lead and Mariappa halving the deficit - and each has unglamorous but effective striking substitutes.
Le Fondre's 18-month journey from Rotherham to the top flight was capped when he was named January's Premier League player of the month, despite not starting a game in the whole month. McDermott, who normally goes from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2 when bringing him on, made his signature substitution earlier than usual, with 33 minutes remaining. While Le Fondre, equally as adept a finisher in lower leagues and Premier League, had the ball in the net, Oliver's whistle had long gone for a handball by Pavel Pogrebnyak.
Meanwhile, Pulis had overloaded his bench with attackers. Of his three forward replacements, he ignored Michael Owen and sent for Kenwyne Jones and Jerome. "The two subs made a great difference," he said. "Cameron Jerome is a great impact player." So he showed, latching onto Mariappa's misplaced header, showing the strength to hold off Alex Pearce and firing a shot home.
And then, belatedly, the Britannia Stadium's most distinguished visitor had a reason for his trip south, besides scouting Reading who are due at Old Trafford next Monday. If Sir Alex Ferguson came to watch Asmir Begovic, the Stoke goalkeeper, like the Manchester United manager, was a spectator for much of the match. The Bosnian held a tame, bobbling effort from Hope Akpan but, while Massimo Taibi once conceded a similar shot, it was scarcely an indication of his ability. Nor did Mariappa's header, for which Begovic should not be blamed, prove especially illuminating. "Up until that goal I don't think Asmir has had a shot to save," Pulis added.
And, with Oliver's decision to deny Reading a spot kick, his prowess against penalties was not tested. "Once we got to 2-1, I honestly thought we would get something," McDermott added. "We have done it so many times over the years." And, indeed, so many times over the last few weeks.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Robert Huth - A team who are rarely prolific need goals from their central defenders and, for the first time this season, Huth obliged. He also excelled at the day job, defending well.
STOKE VERDICT: Ruts rarely last that long for Pulis and, after six league games without a win, it was an overdue victory. The manager merits some credit, too. Michael Kightly was a rare lively player in a non-event of a first half but he was one of the men withdrawn in a double change. The effect of Jones and Jerome justified the decision. Peter Crouch was also hauled off and his tally now stands at a solitary goal in 20 games. Another concern for Stoke, previously so frugal, is that clean sheets continue to elude them. They have now conceded 17 goals in their last seven league games.
READING VERDICT: The late rally was a sign of their spirit but also deceptive. For much of the match, they posed no threat whatsoever and Stoke were deserving winners. Nick Blackman made his first start out of position on the left wing, without making much of an impact. Keeper Adam Federici had a fine game, preserving parity with an excellent save from Crouch and standing no chance with either goal.