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Title READING became the first visiting team to score at Derby in nearly four months - but their attempt at a winning Ram-raid narrowly failed. After taking the lead early on and looking in fine shape, the Royals conceded either side of half-time and again near the end before pulling one back to set up a grandstand finish which had Derby packing their defence to park the bus round their goal. In the end it all went pear-shaped. Not only did Reading not manage an equaliser, but they had Jordan Obita sent off for a second yellow card. On the plus side, newcomer Tiago Ilori had a satisfactory debut and Yakou Meite scored his first senior goal for the club.
It all started so well for the Royals. After snuffing out a couple of early Derby forays Jaap Stam’s men took the lead after 16 minutes. Liam Kelly, looking more mature with every game, made a surging run down the right wing and crossed low for John Swift to tap in (RFC pic, right). It was a decent reward for Reading’s early flair. It could have been two almost immediately, but Scott Carson was well positioned to keep out Danny Williams’ shot. Towards the middle of the half Derby came much more into the game, and after 36 minutes they equalised. Richard Keogh, having broken free on the right, drilled the ball across goal veteran Darren Bent was there to finish it - it hit him more than he hit it, but they all count.
So all-square at the break, and as so often, the next goal was going to have a big influence on the game. And as so often, it was Royals who conceded. The half had started well enough, Yann Kermorgant forcing a diving fingertip save from Carson. The Derby keeper then found himself in the right place to field Liam Moore’s header from a corner. But almost immediately Derby were in front, and it was a double tragedy for Moore. His poor pass out was intercepted by Will Hughes, and then Moore, rushing out, completely missed his tackle. The ball ran loose to Craig Bryson, whose through ball found Tom Ince with all the space he needed to put the home side in front. Before Royals could gather their thoughts it was 3-1. Will Hughes got a lucky bounce inside the area after Paul McShane made a good block, and he had too much time to plant the ball in the corner. Royals had already paid a price for being too adventurous - but typically boss Stam played an even bolder game, replacing defender Moore with an extra attacker in Meite and bringing on Dom Samuel in place of Swift. So now it was a big three-man attack - and it paid off on 80 minutes when Meite headed in Kelly’s pinpoint cross from a corner. Kelly is a dead-ball specialist so it was a surprise earlier in the half when Swift took a free kick from the edge of the area - where Kelly has scored many goals for the Academy teams.
With time running out, Derby played the time-wasting subs game, bringing on an extra defender in Cyrus Christie and a breakaway attacker in ex-Royal Matej Vydra. Kelly had a decent effort blocked and Obita missed a good shooting chance as Royals went after the equaliser. Wily old Rams boss Steve McClaren used up another 30 seconds and bolstered his defence still further with Jason Shackell coming on. In the end his plan worked and his side moved up in the race for a top six place - but not before a last-seconds scare when Reading won a free kick wide out and packed the box, even with keeper Ali Al-Habsi joining in. So now it’s back home for a Tuesday date with Fulham - which takes on something of a must-win complexion. Obita got his second yellow for a fairly innocuous tug on Hughes' sleeve, the Derby player, of course, going down pole-axed in the way so many players do nowadays! MANAGER'S COMMENTS. Attendance: 28,383 (838 Royals).
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GOOD NEWS WEEK AT THE MAD STAD ROYALS fans breathed a collective sigh of relief this week with two pieces of news which indicate there really is ambition on the field at the Mad Stad as well as off it. On Tuesday Garath McCleary, the club’s stand-out player this season, signed a contract extension, then 24 hours later came final confirmation that Liverpool’s Portuguese defender Tiago Ilori actually had signed for the club (RFC pic, right) - eight days after media in the Liverpool area announced the “signing”. The fear was that the protracted takeover bid by a Chinese consortium - still not confirmed by the EFL or Premier League - meant there would be no investment in the transfer window, either for contract extensions such as McCleary’s or new signings, including Ilori. But whether from the present owners, or the proposed new ones, the purse strings appear to have been loosened this week, which is good news, because it would indicate the club is now serious about helping Jaap Stam get his surprisingly successful team a place at least in the top six this season.
The signing of Ilori, however, looks at first sight to be a gamble. The Liverpool end suggests the fee was what would be a club record £3.75million. Whispers from the Reading end suggest it was nearer £2million with a few success-related add-ons. Either way, it’s an astonishing amount of money for a player who has yet to prove himself anywhere at senior level. Ilori joined Liverpool from Sporting Lisbon for a reputed £4million in September 2013 - although Liverpool are now claiming to have made a small profit on the player. He was one of 31 Anfield signings by former Royals boss Brendan Rodgers. Ilori was actually born in London, with a Nigerian father and Portuguese mother, but he grew up in Albufeira, Portugal. After playing locally at junior level he joined the youth ranks of Sporting Lisbon in 2006 and made his debut for the first team in November 2011. In the following two years he played mainly for Sporting B before Liverpool took the gamble on his potential.
Ilori has played for Portugal’s age group teams at every level, from U18 to U23 but has never broken through at any club. Liverpool loaned him out to Granada in 2014, then to Bordeaux, and last season to Aston Villa, although he didn’t make a first team appearance for them. This season he has been playing for Liverpool Under-23s, but a move to Reading will be seen as make-or-break for his career. Certainly the Royals have been weak in the centre of defence this season. Skipper Paul McShane is a terrific battler, but occasionally shows his age in a foot race. Liam Moore is solid, if unspectacular, and Tyler Blackett has yet to convince the fans that he was worth bringing in from Manchester United in the summer - although he has been playing more, and often uncomfortably, at left-back. Young Jake Cooper has never really fulfilled his terrific early promise, and Joey van den Berg is happier in midfield. It all adds up to a very definite need for an addition of class and athleticism at the back. Whether Tiago Ilori is the answer remains to be seen, but Jaap Stam speaks very highly of him as a player who can fit Reading’s new system. He will certainly be in the squad, if not the starting eleven, at Derby on Saturday.