Jason Pearce sealed a gigantic performance on his Latics debut with a goal as Malky Mackay’s battlers sealed a superb win at the Madejski Stadium – the third victory on the trot here.
What a performance it was as Latics were unrecognisable from the side who went down at Forest last week; there was a spirit, togetherness and solidity which must augur well for the battles coming up.
Reading bombarded Ali Al Habsi’s goal at times but Latics’ new look rear guard were solid and determined, while there was genuine pace in attack and enough opportunities to suggest the recent goal drought will soon be a thing of the past.
Latics even had to survive almost twelve minutes of time added on at the end of the match after an injury to Chris Herd had seen the Australian international stretchered off early in the second half. He was down for some time, but it seemed a huge amount to add on, despite another couple of stoppages and a flurry of second half substitutions.
When the final whistle finally came, it was greeted with huge celebrations from both the bench and the away end; and deservedly so.
Mackay was forced into reshaping his back four, bringing in Harry Maguire and Pearce for their debuts in a new look centre half partnership following the departure of Liam Ridgewell and the injury to Leon Barnett.
There was also a first start in Latics colours for Liverpool loanee Sheyi Ojo while the other change was a return for Marc-Antoine Fortune, to partner Leon Clarke up front. Kim Bo Kyung dropped to the bench, while Don Cowie missed out through injury. On the bench, there was a first appearance for striker Louis Robles, on the back of 22 goals scored for Latics’ Under 18s this season, and another place for Wigan-born winger Jordan Flores.
Reading tested Ali Al Habsi early on through Hal Robson-Kanu’s angled drive from inside the area after four minutes, before Garath McCleary looped one towards the far post, which was scooped away on the line by Fortune.
But Latics then got in their stride, Fortune immediately forcing two quick corners, the first after a surging run, the second when a drive was diverted away for a corner. James McClean then rifled a free-kick over from an angle after Ojo was felled near the corner flag.
And Latics’ positivity paid dividends after a quarter of an hour. Clarke appeared to be wrestled off the ball by Reading keeper Adam Federici having dispossessed him, but the referee signalled a corner as the Latics striker claimed a penalty. McClean fired it in from the right, Clarke’s header on the penalty spot was brilliantly saved by Federici on his line and as the ball bounced over Ojo in front of him, Pearce was there to smash it in through a sea of legs from the edge of the six yard line. What a start to his Latics career.
Latics had to defend as Reading came back at them, coming closest when Nathaniel Chalobah diverted McCleary’s drive just over the bar but with McClean and Ojo’s pace in particular, offered a real threat on the break. A superb passing move came to nothing when Fortune’s shot was wide but it was a sign of Latics’ growing confidence.
Nevertheless, Al Habsi had to be at his brilliant best to keep the scores level. He first had to come out of his box to clear a long punt from his opposite number Federici, calmly controlling the ball as Simon Cox bore down on him. He then had palmed away a real fizzer from Robson-Kanu at his near post, and did even better from the resultant corner, spectacularly palming away Chalobah’s bullet of a header from eight yards for another corner.
And just when you needed a safe pair of hands to ease the pressure, he collected the ball in a crowded area as Reading pumped it forwards; the booing of the home fans as the teams walked off for the break illustrating how well Latics had done in the opening 45 minutes.
The home side predictably came out of the blocks with purpose for the second half and immediately threatened when Cox headed Oliver Norwood’s corner wide. But from a second corner, Latics were forced into an early change as Chris Herd was stretchered off with what looked like a leg injury after a collision in a crowded area - Kim Bo-Kyung replacing him.
Reading continued to press but without carving a really serious opening and it was Latics who instead regained some momentum, a good move down the right seeing Ojo set up James Perch but he slipped as he was about to pull the trigger. Kim then tried his luck, but his effort from distance alas only troubled the ball boy in the stands.
Reading made a double substitution after 65 minutes, Nick Blackburn and Yakubu replacing Cox and Robson Kanu, and the pendulum immediately swung back in their favour, Pavel Progrebnyak claiming Pearce held his shirt as a long ball was launched into the area. Ojo was booked for pulling back Jordan Obita on the edge of the box. Al Habsi had to beat away Norwood’s vicious free-kick as Latics threw bodies on the line. Martyn Waghorn replaced Ojo after 73 minutes as Latics in turn tried to seize back the initiative but Perch was forced into a superb tackle to deny Obita in the area.
Latics did cause panic in the Reading area from Waghorn’s corner and the substitute then saw a 20 yard drive whistle narrowly wide of Federici’s upright. Billy Mckay was Malky Mackay’s final throw of the dice, replacing Fortune with 10 minutes to go – could he also find the net for the first time in Latics colours?
As Reading pressed in search of the equaliser, Latics cleared the ball long, Mckay held it up, spun and sent McClean racing clear down the left, Obita forcing Alex Pearce to clear off his line from the cross. So close to a second.
When the 4th official indicated ELEVEN minutes of injury time there was disbelief on the Latics bench. The injury to Herd did swallow up some time and there six substitutions, but one of those was a double substitution – that seemed an incredible amount of time.
The home crowd was understandably lifted but the Latics players just had to keep their concentration. Mckay saw his shot shave Federici’s crossbar with three of the eleven minutes gone. As the time slowly ticked away, Reading pumped balls upfield but Latics stood strong.
What a performance, the 200 Latics fans saluted the players at the end in what was an incredible victory in the circumstances.