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Reading 1 - 2 Saints
THIS unlikely win at Reading must be seen as the beginning of Saints’ mission, not the conclusion.
The total football experiment has at times floundered in this campaign, not in terms of whether people liked it, because they did, but with results.
However, despite all that, the vast majority of fans who have watched Saints this season have seen a team who they believe are capable of achieving more.
So often we have spoken about the frustrations of seeing a side week after week get so close to results but always to be found wanting at the final hurdle.
That frustration has been shared by Jan Poortvliet, who is acknowledging that even though he wants a young side out there, it has been a bit too young to succeed at times.
But that potential has always been there, at times shining bright, at others a glimmer of light in the background.
It has just needed to come out once and for all.
At Reading it did.
Everything that Saints can do well they did, and they finished it off by taking the three points.
To have reached this stage, to have achieved this performance and result, has naturally produced much joy and back slapping.
Fine, but this cannot be the conclusion, merely proving the experiment can work as more poor results rack up and the critics point fingers.
Instead, this has to be seen as the start.
Saints have laid down a marker now – they proved to us but, perhaps more importantly, to themselves, that they can beat the very best.
But go and fail to take the required points against Plymouth and Charlton this week and it’s been another false dawn.
What you had to love about Saints at Reading was the way they just went for their opponents.
They showed them zero respect, pressed them so high up the pitch, got in their faces, never let them settle on the ball and built from the back.
Reading simply panicked when faced by this. Their normally sublime passing game fell apart and they never really recovered.
Saints, on the other hand, were knocking the ball about for fun and at last had a cutting edge in front of goal.
They looked far more balanced for a slight tactical change as well.
Though the formation was the same as always, David McGoldrick playing in the hole was just a little more advanced, thus getting up alongside Jordan Robertson more often to offer more support.
Add to that the fact that McGoldrick’s first half performance was his best in a Saints shirt and that the defence looked rock solid and you had the key to success.
It may have been very different had Jack Cork not got back on the line to block Kevin Doyle’s shot from going in after just two minutes.
But as it was Saints pulsed. Morgan Schneiderlin’s volley was deflected wide while Bradley Wright-Phillips should have scored when presented with time and space to hit a volley from eight yards out but he missed the target.
He made no mistake on 13 minutes, though, rising highest at the far post to head Lloyd James’ cross from the right back across goal and into the far corner.
Saints never took a step back and had two penalty appeals turned down – the first was for handball which would have been very harsh, the second for a foul on Robertson by Marcus Hahnemann that split opinion.
Wright-Phillips had another chance that was spurned before Hahnemann made a fantastic diving save to keep out Adam Lallana’s diving header four minutes before half time.
The only concern at the break was that Reading would surely not play as badly again in the second half and Saints were only one goal to the good when it should have been more.
Luckily, Reading were as bad and Saints got a second goal just four minutes after the restart.
The ball was worked out to the left and Wright-Phillips took a touch inside to buy himself a yard and simple leathered the ball low and past Hahnemann from 20 yards.
Reading pulled a goal back on 57 minutes when Doyle’s shot was parried by Kelvin Davis and Jimmy Kebe picked up the loose ball and slotted home from an acute angle.
McGoldrick had two chances to seal the points but missed the target with a tricky one and saw Hahnemann save the other.
Doyle had the chance to salvage a point late on but headed over when unmarked eight yards out.
But Saints showed they had learned from previous mistakes and looked impressive in killing off the game.
It was joy unconfined at the final whistle but this must become routine, rather than being like a cup result, if things are to improve.