Let me preface this article with a note: I love football for the emotion - the excitement and ultimately the joy. Naturally, these are the things I enjoy writing about most.

But I also know my job is to focus on problems when and where they exist. Unfortunately, that’s meant much of my writing this season has been of a rather negative tone.

I have and will continue to try and share how special Reading Football Club is but I believe it’s fair to demand a certain standard. This is the 20th consecutive season since Reading were last in the third division of the English football pyramid and a demand for Championship status at minimum is fair - even if it's becoming increasingly tenuous.

So alas, this will be another relatively ‘negative’ article. I will always aim to support my points effectively but you’ve been warned: feel free to stop here if that’s not to your liking.

Reading's 2-2 draw with Derby County on Monday afternoon marked the third time this season that Veljko Paunovic's side have dropped points from a position of major dominance, armed with a two-goal lead. 

Against QPR in September, Reading went ahead 3-1 after 77 minutes through a John Swift hat-trick, while they raced into an early 2-0 advantage when Blackpool visited the SCL stadium the following month.

Both times they failed to hold on. Andre Gray and Stefan Johansen struck in the final minutes to earn QPR a point while it was a brace from Jerry Yates following an Owen Dale goal to turn 2-0 into a 3-2 Blackpool victory.

Reading Chronicle: Tom Holmes holds his head in his hands after QPR equalise late against Reading. Image by: JasonPIXTom Holmes holds his head in his hands after QPR equalise late against Reading. Image by: JasonPIX

To make matters that much more frustrating, in both these cases, Reading got close to taking more, only to surrender late and damning goals. Johansen smashed his equaliser into the bottom corner in the 91st minute while Yates’ winning penalty came with five minutes left on the clock.

Yet somehow, Monday was perhaps the worst of the lot.

After three weeks of enforced break due to multiple waves of positive Covid tests in the Reading camp, Paunovic’s team finally returned to action for the first match of 2022. New year, but the sense of deja-vu was palpable long before a ball was kicked.

Hopes that the absent festive period would allow for the recovery of players from injury and Covid isolation proved relatively fruitless as the team released an hour before kick-off showcased much of the same weaknesses seen over the last few months.

John Swift returned from a hamstring injury but there was still no Danny Drinkwater while 17-year-old Tyrell Ashcroft was thrust into his second consecutive start as Andy Yiadom remained sidelined.

Yet, despite Derby arriving in Berkshire with the momentum of three straight wins, it was the hosts who started on top playing with real energy in the opening quarter of an hour.

Derby worked their way back into the contest and just as the Rams were starting to take control, Reading grabbed the lead in spectacular fashion. A long ball from Luke Southwood was flicked on by Andy Carroll and when Swift touched it into the path of Junior Hoilett, the Canadian did the rest.

Starting for the first time in three months, Hoilett cut inside before unleashing a beautiful curling effort into the top corner. 

Reading Chronicle: Junior Hoilett celebrates scoring his brilliant opener against Derby. Image by: JasonPIXJunior Hoilett celebrates scoring his brilliant opener against Derby. Image by: JasonPIX

After scoring eight minutes before the break, Hoilett doubled the advantage 11 minutes past the restart. This time the winger latched onto Tom Holmes’ header back across goal, took it down on his chest and fired low into the net with a touch off Derby goalkeeper Ryan Allsop.

Seemingly destined for a hugely critical victory in the relegation battle, Reading waited until the 85th minute before embarking on their most dramatic and gutting collapse of the season so far.

Derby had been piling on the pressure but Reading were keeping them at bay until a looping cross fell through the arms of Southwood, allowing Colin Kazim-Richards to prod over the line. From that point, all composure was lost as Derby chased the almost-inevitable equaliser. It duly arrived in the first minute of stoppage time, Curtis Davies rising above the Reading defence to head home and snatch a point for Wayne Rooney’s side.

At full-time, boos rained down on the SCL pitch as those who stayed till the bitter end made their displeasure heard. As an isolated event, it could be forgiven. But as part of a trend, it’s becoming hard to accept.

Not only are these capitulations repeating, but they’re repeating in exasperatingly similar fashion. Each of these three occasions involved late concessions while perhaps even more alarming is the trend of what is happening after Reading concede the first goal in these opposition fightbacks.

QPR’s two goals to chase down Reading’s 3-1 advantage came in the 79th and 91st minutes. Blackpool’s triple-response occurred in the 69th, 73rd, and 85th minutes. Meanwhile, Derby’s goals came in a six-minute span between the 85th and 91st.

Reading Chronicle: Jerry Yates makes it 3-2 Blackpool from the spot. Image by: JasonPIXJerry Yates makes it 3-2 Blackpool from the spot. Image by: JasonPIX

As soon as Kazim-Richards muscled the ball over the line before picking it up and racing back to the centre circle, the outcome seemed predetermined. Reading could have held on, of course, they could have. But they never looked like doing so.

Reading are not only conceding late, but they are constantly failing to withstand pressure, the floodgates opening as soon as their opponents sniff blood.

The seven goals conceded to counter Reading's two-goal cushions in these three home collapses have come at an average of a goal every 4.7 minutes following the opposition’s first. QPR grabbed two in a 12-minute spell, Blackpool three in 16 minutes, and Derby scored twice in six. One goal normally leads to more.

It’s important to point out that at Swansea, they did manage to hold on, but largely, Reading are crumbling in the face of pressure.

The Royals have now dropped 14 points from winning positions this season while only gaining seven when losing (one of those coming against QPR when they technically ‘fought back’ to claim a point from 1-0 down).

The momentum of the game after Reading’s goals on Monday tells you exactly why this is happening. Up until Hoilett’s brilliant opener, the Royals had matched Derby with four shots to four. At the time of the winger’s second, the shot count was six for Reading and eight for Derby.

Reading Chronicle: Junior Hoilett celebrates his second goal against Derby. Image by: JasonPIXJunior Hoilett celebrates his second goal against Derby. Image by: JasonPIX

But in the final 30 minutes? Derby created eight efforts to Reading’s three while holding 77% of the ball.

Meanwhile, QPR out-shot Reading 7-2 after Swift made it 3-1 and Blackpool managed 15 shots to Reading’s one after the Royals’ early 2-0 lead.

Derby played like a team with absolutely nothing to lose, relinquishing any and all fear to come at Reading in waves of bravery. Meanwhile, Paunovic’s side played like a team with everything to lose, desperately clinging to their advantage but never appearing confident it would actually hold.

As the pressure mounted with the winter sky turning dark, Reading looked more and more vulnerable, crumbling dramatically just when they needed to stand tall.

Would I be writing this if Reading had held on against Derby? Ultimately, it’s impossible to know. But the same issues would still have been there, just hidden slightly better.  

Speaking after the match, Paunovic levied the blame for his side’s capitulation on a lack of fitness as they continue to deal with their injury crisis and the effects of the recent Covid outbreaks.

“We had a fantastic first 60 minutes and we executed our gameplan very well,” the manager said. “It was probably the best start we've had.

“In the first 15 minutes of the second half and the second goal was well executed but then we started to lose our fitness and game readiness because of obvious circumstances.

“We had certain players back from injury, others still dealing with symptoms and consequences of Covid...it was just too much for us to cope with.

Reading Chronicle: Veljko Paunovic watches on against Derby. Image by: JasonPIXVeljko Paunovic watches on against Derby. Image by: JasonPIX

“Until the first goal we did struggle fitness-wise but we managed it well. The first goal by Derby hit us hard and we couldn't re-compose. It's not good to see that on your team but it is also comprehensible given the circumstances.

“I contribute it to fitness levels. We couldn't cope with the last minutes of the game.”

There is no denying that Reading are in a tough situation. From the injuries to the points deduction to the multiple Covid outbreaks, almost everything has gone against Paunovic and his players this season.

But Reading fans need to see a team who can stand up and fight in the face of adversity. Attendances at the Select Car Leasing Stadium are on a steady decline and supporter apathy is understandable. The long-term future of the club is uncertain while in the short-term, Reading are seemingly drifting in space, waiting for the return of players from injury while letting the now slip.

For the 12,000 or so Reading fans who dared to buy a ticket for Monday afternoon, they were in fact treated to a team, who in the face of everything going against them, did stand up and fight. Unfortunately, that team was Derby.

Nearly dead and buried with two deductions totalling 21 total points lost, Derby are making their presence felt this Championship season. A team made up of veterans on minimum contracts and academy graduates is refusing to let their limitations define them.

Meanwhile, Reading are a picture of their limitations.

At 2-0 on Monday, Reading were the team who looked tepid and scared while Derby attacked with confidence and excitement.

Speaking on BBC Radio Berkshire, Reading legend Ady Williams said he would have felt “embarrassed” had he been on the pitch against Derby. Coming from a player who exemplified the passion and heart required, it’s a damning indictment.

Everyone knows that the circumstances of this season have gone horribly against Reading. But what fans are seeing now isn’t good enough. Supporters should, and do, demand a team that refuses to accept their dire situation and fights back. A team that stands tall in the face of pressure, not crumbles at the first sign of it. 

Reading fans deserve a team they can feel proud of. And right now, this team isn’t it.