Once club football resumes after a fortnight’s break and the domestic season enters the final few furlongs, Reading will just be desperate to win any old way and even Manchester United will sacrifice style for the last few points they need to secure a 20th league championship. That was the message that came out of the teams’ third meeting of the season, which, like the previous two, ended in a single-goal victory for United.
The upshot is that it seems increasingly unlikely that there will be a league match between them next season, Reading having slipped to seven points from safety with this fourth successive defeat.
“Realistically, we expected that,” said the caretaker manager Eamonn Dolan, who spent yesterday in his more accustomed role as academy manager, watching the Royals’ under-age teams. Dolan, once an Irish youth international at West Ham and later in charge at Exeter City, comes across as a down-to-earth character; he sailed close to the disciplinary wind in what is likely to be his only game in charge of a Premier League club with his comments about Lee Mason, the replacement referee, who refused Reading a penalty for Nemanja Vidic’s push on Adrian Mariappa.
“Vidic looks at him and pushes him. It’s a clear penalty but it’s Man United away so you don’t get it,” Dolan said, adding a caustic line about the referee thinking he must have been on work experience. Which in a sense he was, of course. Dolan has also said he does not want the job on a permanent basis, out of loyalty to his friend Brian McDermott, and Reading’s ambitious owner Anton Zingarevich will be looking for bigger fish to interview this week.
The former England manager Glenn Hoddle would be keen; Gus Poyet at Brighton will wonder whether he would only end up back in the Championship next season; and Phil Parkinson, an old local hero, must convince the board he could succeed where he failed at Charlton Athletic.
It is 27 long years since Manchester United had to worry about such matters. Manchester City and Everton had already played their part in effectively sending the trophy back to Old Trafford for the 13th time under Sir Alex Ferguson before Wayne Rooney’s deflected goal decided one of the stadium’s more forgettable games.
As Chris Smalling, brought into the side at right-back as one of eight changes, put it: “It wasn’t a great game, it got pretty ugly. But I think we are just happy with the three points because that is what we needed and we got a clean sheet as well. The manager said that at this time of year there can be a lot of 1-0 wins which can be ugly and you just need to get the points. So it is just a case of moving on from this. It wasn’t great but we need to come back from internationals ready for some big games.”
When they do, talk will soon shift to a possible Double, Chelsea in the FA Cup quarter-final replay and City as potential semi-final opponents both having their own reasons to deny United that.