Latics 1-0 Reading
Saturday 26th August 2006

The game that football forgot or just a symptom of second season ennui? Latics against Reading wasn’t ever going to be the biggest draw of the weekend but the match was far more interesting than the sub 15,000 crowd and overall lack of media interest would lead you to believe. For a kick off it was the clash of the Premier League’s babies, the first time that two clubs have met in that division after first meeting in the other three. On top of that there is the back story, how for the best part of the last 10 years the two clubs have jockeyed and jostled to be top dog in the nouveaux riche gatecrashers’ club.

I’m not sure why, but many Latics’ fans seem to have a problem with Reading. It could just be down to Alan Pardew, or the play-off defeat, but I think it’s deeper than that. At least a part of it is because they remind us too much of ourselves.

After all the physical similarities are all there (rich chairman, too many managers, new ground, overpaid players, Second Division mediocrity and so on) but they’re from an area that lends itself better to ‘new’ football, where loyalties are there to be won or lost and where £35 might be easy on the wallet. Sort of like twins, separated at birth and reunited after 40 years, we look the same, but speak with different accents.

So Saturday’s game was a little more than just playtime at the Barclays pre-school, it was the recommencement of a more longstanding battle, ok it’s more of a niggle when it comes down to it, but that doesn’t sound as good in writing.

For the record Latics came out on top. Jewell won the tactical battle, whilst the players have just that bit more strength, skill and wit on the afternoon. Camara looked in for a man of the match performance before a thigh strain saw him leave the pitch after 20 minutes. His strike partner then took up the show.

Heskey showed his strengths and weaknesses all afternoon, strong in the air causing problems for defenders and getting into positions where he could (should?) have done better, he finished McCulloch’s flick on coolly, but his header against the bar and lob onto the top of the net could (should?) have killed the game off.

One goal out of three chances is a good return for any striker, but it wasn’t the real impressive aspect of the number 9’s afternoon. It wasn’t all down to Heskey, but he was central to the one touch play in the middle of the park, bringing the midfield and his strike partners into the play.

Elsewhere, the pick of the players had to be Valencia, he may have needed a translator on the touchline, but (insert own cliche here). The simple way of putting it is that the lad looks a good player, if he picks up a bit of pace with his match fitness then we might well be in for a treat.

To some extent it’s a little disappointing that Latics didn’t dominate this game more. Barring Lita’s late chance there was little in it for Reading, but I suppose these are still early days. As the players continue to gel that will come, but it’s not just the players that need to get used to each other.

On this showing, the fans will have to get used to a different way of playing. Whilst Bullard may have had his limitations, he guaranteed energy in the middle of the park, Landzaat is a different prospect, more measured, but cleverer. The general pace of play seems to be slower, but the ball gets to where it needs to be more quickly. Only time will tell if that makes the team more effective.

The back four sorely missed the pace and character of our other right back. Boyce may be fairly solid but seems a defender first and a full back second. Fitz Hall was rarely troubled, but on the day that was probably not a great achievement. Baines managed to keep the visitors’ most dangerous player, Seoul, quiet, if not quite in his pocket.

All in all it was a job done; it’s too early in the season to worry too much about whether we should have done more. Talk to me again in a month or so. By then we’ll have seen our second home league game and know who our last minute panic buys were. Will we have a better idea of the team’s chances? I suppose not, but at least we won’t be guessing.

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