Having sacrificed the Swansea and Watford games for the death-defying roads of Chios and the sweltering heat of Athens, I was wondering what to expect today, with the Athletico friendly having thrown up more questions than answers and the interim having confirmed the departures of Faye and Thomas, plus the long-term injury to Racon. More than anything else (with the possible exception of a decent seat for the new season ticket) I wanted to see a return of real team spirit. OK, more than anything else I wanted three points, but after that team spirit. After that an indication that we have combinations in key areas that look capable of gelling into a team that can mount a promotion challenge. Then came all the subsidiary desires, such as a referee and assistants capable of making reasonable decisions. In the event we got most of the above.
First off it should be said that referee Mason and his assistants might have got every decision right this afternoon. It may have been correct to award Reading a penalty for a soft challenge in the box; it may have been correct to give us a penalty for the challenge on Varney which could have been outside the box (although having given a penalty for what is deemed a professional foul why no card for the Reading defender, who was clearly beaten for pace? What’s good for Youga .....); there may have been a reason for deciding on two extra minutes at the end of the first half, during which there were no substitutions and no injuries, allowing the time for Reading to pull one back; there may have been a push on the Reading forward for their second penalty; Weaver may have moved to necessitate a retake; and Bouazza may have been onside to volley in our fourth goal. It’s just that each debatable decision mounts up and by the time of the penalty retake we were all prepared to see every decision as wrong. The belated award of a free kick for one of numerous foul challenges on Andy Gray and the sending off of Sonko (when Mason should have allowed play to continue) didn’t really even up the score. But it doesn’t matter ‘cos we won.
The game could easily have turned out differently; indeed, it proved to be a hard one to call all the way through, at least until the last five minutes, with a number of key moments. Reading created enough chances to have scored more, without Mason’s assistance, including a penalty which came crashing back off the bar. But in the end they paid the price for some sloppy defending and a game that was always competitive but played in a good spirit went our way, despite our losing a two-goal lead. What was most important is that the sense of injustice at Reading’s equaliser didn’t result in the players looking for excuses. Too much nonsense is talked about football teams’ character if they come from behind or win through adversity. After all, scoring goals and preventing the opposition from scoring are the point of the game. But the team should feel justifiably proud of itself tonight. It wasn’t perfect, but we know it isn’t going to be. It was more than encouraging.
In the first half for some time it looked a matter of whether Hameur Bouazza’s terrorising of their right-back could compensate for Reading’s Kebe running Basey ragged. Our first came from a long cross from the right which nearly caught out Hahnemann, with the ball going to Bouazza who crossed low to allow the Reading keeper to fumble it into the path of Matty Holland. Reading’s penalty came as Basey cut inside but lost possession and the result was some confusion and a poor challenge in the box allowing the Reading forward to conveniently fall over an outstretched leg. Soft it was, but probably a correct decision. Basey had already been turned inside out by the Reading winger and there was a threat every time the ball went in that area, with Weaver having to make one smart save. To his credit Basey stuck at it and the threat was much less apparent in the second half.
What seemed to be a real turning point came late in the half as a Reading attack was broken up and Lloyd Sam advanced down the right. He moved it on to Varney, in a position which is his strength, running at flat-footed defenders. Having moved past the last one he was taken down and – seemingly with the help of the linesman – Mason pointed to the spot. Andy Gray tucked away the penalty with no fuss. We deserved to be ahead on the balance of play, with Holland and Nicky Bailey working together effectively and John Fortune and Mark Hudson dealing well with Reading’s aerial threat. But instead of getting to the break with a two-goal cushion a Reading corner in mystery ‘additional time’ was cleared but the Charlton players held in the box and only Holland tried to close down the player returning the ball. The result was a decent cross and a header buried into the bottom corner by someone in a Reading shirt (sorry, I just never care who). Weaver had no chance.
The fear was that a lacklustre Reading performance had not been fully punished and that after a Coppell earbashing they would be stronger in the second half. And for a while that looked like being the case. However, they drew level with a near farcical sequence of events. There seemed little danger when a ball was crossed, with Weaver coming out to punch clear. But Mason had obviously seen something and another penalty was given. This time Weaver pulled off a super save, only for it to count for nothing. There wasn’t much chance of Reading failing for a third time on the retake.
At 2-2, the crowd upset and hostile, the Charlton players could have looked for excuses. Instead to their credit they went out and won the game. Absurd howls for a Charlton penalty were followed by a decent ball into the box and Luke Varney displayed a centre-forward’s nous for getting on the end of a cross which I haven’t seen from him before. A glorious header and we were in front again. And not long after Yassin Moutaouakil – who had a splendid game, including a crucial defensive header late on (OK Suzanne, France do have some sportsmen capable of winning) – played in Sam to cross to the left, with Bouazza scoring on the volley with some aplomb. Of course he was onside.
After that it was a case of job pretty much done, as long as Reading didn’t get one back. They nearly did on a few occasions, but their shooting was, well, like ours last season. Long may it continue. Once Sonko had his marching orders it was pretty much game up, with Darren Ambrose coming on for Sam and Jose Semedo replacing Moutaouakil. There was still time for Gray to almost round off a lovely move – and what I think was his best performance to date in a Charlton shirt – with a goal, only to see his header crash back off the bar. The linesman flagged for offside anyway, but in this game that would only have been the starting point for discussions.
What was best? Overall, the team spirit. This bunch looked as though they wanted to play (good luck at Portsmouth, Thomas). In particular the pairing of Holland and Bailey. I know next to nothing about the latter, but the two were talking to each other and seemed to understand their roles and how to play together. It’s just one game, but it was good to see – especially as without Racon and presumably Zheng Zhi we have only Jonjo Shelvey and Semedo as alternatives in central midfield. Also, Gray was excellent. He contested every ball and won a number of them, reading the game well to steal back possession and looking committed to the task. Varney scored an excellent third goal. If they can deliver the goals we are in with a shout.
Weaver: 9/10 (assuming the second penalty was not given for a foul against him). Made smart and important saves, could have been the hero with the ‘penalty’ stop. No chance with the goals.
Moutaouakil: 7/10. Got forward well and covered well in defence. Semedo in my view does a competent job covering at right-back, but Yassin gives us more, as evidenced in his role for the crucial third goal, as long as there are no silly mistakes. He loses a point because it was his challenge for Reading’s first penalty. Otherwise excellent.
Basey: 6/10. Exposed badly a few times in the first half by Reading’s most dangerous player. Could have been expensive. But for whatever reason the threat wasn’t repeated in the second half and he didn’t fall apart after a very difficult early phase of the game.
Fortune: 7/10. Same thinking as Moutaouakil. For most of the game he was excellent, but he gave away the second penalty. It may have been harsh, but don’t give the ref the chance to make a mistake. Otherwise he was committed and effective.
Hudson: 8/10. Same as Fortune except for not having a point deducted for giving away a penalty.
Bouazza: 8/10. Especially in the first half he was the obvious outlet and gave Reading a torrid time. Scored a splendid fourth goal (from a clearly onside position) and looked as though he will give defences at this level a very hard time. Also did good work covering back.
Holland: 8/10. Some players just make a team play better. Matty wrote the script. Seemed to tire late on, but we just have to get used to that.
Bailey: 8/10. Excellent. I must admit coming back I had doubts about another signing from a lower division, but the guy looks to have ability and honesty in his approach. More of the same please.
Sam: 6/10. Had a tough time against an experienced Reading left-back. But played a key role in our second goal and never stopped trying. He will find himself up against weaker opponents in most games, but will we end up opting for Bouazza and Ambrose as the wide pairing?
Varney: 8/10. In my opinion Varney was a major disappointment last season. Today he scored the sort of goal I didn’t think he had in him. Nobody doubts his effort and running. Give us the goals and we’re happy.
Gray: 9/10. Not an obvious man-of-the-match, but I thought he put in an excellent example of how to lead the line against tough and big opponents. I saw it as his best game to date in a Charlton shirt.